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Disguised as tourists, Israelis lay claim to the Jordan Valley

Skull and crossbones emblems mark out the minefields, razor-wire glints in the sunshine, a tank rolls slowly through the parched empty landscape, hazy in the heat.

Skull and crossbones emblems mark out the minefields, razor-wire glints in the sunshine, a tank rolls slowly through the parched empty landscape, hazy in the heat.

“Welcome to the Baptism site,” says a military officer to the 200 Israeli day-trippers as they unload from the tour buses.

Lathering on sun cream and snapping Shabbat holiday photos, many sporting “I love Israel” caps, they are incongruous in this inhospitable scene.

Under the tourist trappings, there is a thinly veiled agenda behind these trips to extend Israel’s claim over a swath of the West Bank. If that is successful, say senior Palestinian Authority officials, it would make a future Palestinian state all but impossible.

The Israeli-controlled side of the Baptism Site on the River Jordan, where Christian scripture says Jesus was baptised, has for years been a closed military zone. But now it is proving to be the latest weapon in Israel’s arsenal in the fight to own the Jordan Valley. The land makes up 28.5 per cent of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

This is the third day trip to bring Israeli citizens to the area. The second tour brought seven coach loads, and the first brought four.

The visits are the brainchild of Uzi Dayan, a nephew of the 1950s military leader, politician and extremist symbol of the new state of Israel, Moshe Dayan. Today’s Mr Dayan is a Likud party member and the founder of the right-leaning political party Tafnit, or “Change”, which has yet to be represented in the Knesset.

The tours are marketed as academic briefings on security concerns that Israel faces in the Jordan Valley and trips are jointly run with the conservative think-tank the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs (JCPA).

On the bus, Adam Shay from the JCPA speaks into a microphone to the passengers: “If Israel withdrew to the green line, it would lose its ability to defend its eastern border. In one spot, it gives Israel a width of 15 kilometres exposing the country’s narrow backbone to attack.” Scenarios of differing forms of warfare, “conventional” and “terrorist”, are posed, and the requirements for “defensible borders” listed.

In reality the trips are a concerted effort by the Israeli government to steer public opinion in a direction that would make it impossible for Israel ever to concede the Jordan Valley. The trips are sponsored by the Israeli Security Council, and their intention advertised on a Likud party website. The plan is to use tourism to inspire the sense of ownership among Israelis to the territory, said Eitan Behar, an adviser to Mr Dayan.

This visit quickly starts to feel like a nationalist pilgrimage: participants wave the Israeli flag, make impassioned speeches about Israel and chant “the Jordan River is ours”. The tour guide, Politi Aviram, pounds home the point: “This site is also the first crossing point of the Israelites into the promised land.”

“The idea is for it to become a consensus,” said Mr Behar. “[We need] to show people how dangerous it is to pull out of here and we need to understand what it means for us. It is religiously and historically important.”

For the tourists, the message resonates. “I just came for the view,” says Ariel, who served here with Israel’s army. “It is a nice thing to do on Shabbat, and it only cost 20 shekels [Dh20.4]. I can’t imagine the Israeli population would agree to give it up.”

If enough citizens feel passionately about keeping the Jordan Valley, it will become too politically costly for Israel to give it away in peace negotiations. Public opinion is the very insurance policy the government wants.

Using civilians to shape government objectives in the Jordan Valley is nothing new. Mr Shay speaks of the Ayalon Plan of 1967, which proposed annexing the valley from the West Bank and depended on the government-backed settlement policy.

“Settlements in the Jordan Valley were set up to a defensive logic,” Mr Shay said.

Alongside the settlements, “there have been many unique efforts to retain a presence in the Jordan Valley,” he added. For example, long-term efforts focused on developing date production in the region, which is typically inhospitable to agriculture.

“Sixteen thousand dunams of dates are produced in the area, making up 60 per cent of Israel’s date production,” said David ElHayani, the head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council. In addition, 5,000 dunams (500 hectares) of poppies and grapes, and 7,500 dunams of fresh herbs are also produced. This, said Mr ElHayani, is a defensive tactic.

These actions in the Jordan Valley could be crippling if the currently stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians get underway again. Israel’s attempts to entrench their presence through settlements, agriculture and tourism is an example of “the biggest colonial regime there is”, said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator. It threatens the two-state solution that would offer Palestinians an independent state. “I don’t think we can speak of a Palestinian state without the Jordan Valley,” said Mr Erekat. In terms of population growth, security and agriculture, the area is crucial.

The Baptism Site is also an enormous source of potential revenue. Across the narrow river, the Jordanian side is abuzz with visitors. Pilgrims (who are paying visitors) bow to the water’s edge, anointing their hands and faces in the holy river. To the right of the lush green complex, lies a castle in construction – a Russian pilgrim guesthouse paid for by the Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin.

“The Baptism site on the Israeli side has a potential of 800,000 pilgrims per year,” said Mr Dayan. “It is the third most important Christian place in Israel.”

Israel says it needs the Jordan Valley for security purposes. But if it is serious about peace, it cannot continue to try to convince its citizens of the contrary. The policies on the ground in the Jordan Valley starkly contradict the official government line.

Ruth Sherlock is an editor with the independent wire service based in the West Bank

Published: December 16, 2010 04:00 AM


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