Israel 'chokes' Jordan Valley

Plan for settlement housing runs counter to Israel's commitment under the Quartet roadmap plan for peace.

Jasser Said Daragmeih, 34. Farmer, Al Farisiya village. Jordan Valley. Alexei Kidel for The National *** Local Caption ***  Maskiot_settlement7.jpg
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AL FARISIYA, JORDAN VALLEY // Jasser Said Daragmeh is an obstacle. The ramshackle hut that houses the 34-year-old farmer, his wife and six children on land his family has been cultivating for generations, lies in the middle of a cluster of small Jewish settlements on surrounding hilltops in the northern Jordan Valley.

As he prepares to fight a demolition order issued by the Israeli army, Mr Daragmeh can only shake his head at the news that one of those nearby settlements, Maskiyot, not a kilometre up the road, is about to be granted permission to build housing for another 20 families, who had left settlements in the Gaza Strip. "They are choking us," said Mr Daragmeh. "Every year my land is getting smaller. I used to play in the hills as a boy, but my children are not allowed to go near them now."

Last week, an Israeli ministerial committee approved plans for the construction of 20 new houses in Maskiyot, sparking an argument between the Israeli government and Israeli human rights organisations. Peace Now, an Israeli group, said the construction, if approved by Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, as seems likely, would signal the construction of the first new settlement in more than a decade.

The government is likely to argue that the caravans already in place are a recognised settlement and thus the new construction would constitute an expansion rather than a new development. Either way, it is hard to see how the construction could be justified in view of Israel's commitment under the Quartet roadmap plan for peace. That agreement, which forms the basis for the current round of negotiations started last November in Annapolis, in the US state of Maryland, calls for a freeze on all settlement construction.

Palestinian negotiators have warned that the new construction jeopardises negotiations, but have not yet threatened to walk out. Israel has argued that the accelerated number of tenders issued in existing settlements in East Jerusalem since Annapolis are in line with government policy of natural growth and that in any case, East Jerusalem, which Israel unilaterally annexed after 1967, is a special case. Under international law, all settlements in occupied territory are illegal.

"To make place for another 20 families is really not such a big deal," said Yisrael Harel, an Israeli columnist and the former head of the Yesha Council, the umbrella organisation for Jewish settlements in the West Bank. "All the settlements in the Jordan Valley are very small. This expansion has no meaning." Mr Harel rejected suggestions that the construction would be an obstacle to the Annapolis process, saying a much greater obstacle was "Palestinian terrorism". He also considered Maskiyot an established settlement.

Whether new or not, Palestinian observers see the potential construction in Maskiyot as just a small part of a much larger plan for the Jordan Valley. "Israel has no intention of relinquishing its hold over the Jordan Valley," said Fathy Khdariat, a Jordan Valley expert with the Ma'an Development Centre, a Palestinian non-governmental organisation that focuses on Palestinian capacity building. Mr Khdariat, a former head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, said the valley's strategic and economic import to Israel was too great for the country to want to give it up under any agreement with the Palestinians; citing its prime agricultural land, unique ecology and location between a possible future Palestinian state and the Arab world.

"No one talks about the Jordan Valley," he said. "But the Jordan Valley constitutes 19 per cent of West Bank land and is fertile and scarcely populated. Without it, a Palestinian state will have nowhere to expand and no independent access to the rest of the region." Mr Harel agreed that the Jordan Valley was too important for Israel to give up, at least in any immediate agreement. "The Jordan Valley is Israel's eastern front," he said. "It will not relinquish its military control there."

But Mr Khdariat pointed to dwindling population figures and expanding settlements as proof that Israel is engaged in a gradual process of ridding the Valley of Palestinians while populating it with Israelis. "It's a clear and conscious [Israeli] policy of ethnic cleansing," said Tawfiq Jabareen, a lawyer who has been hired to rescue Mr Daragmeh's home from demolition. The Israeli army issued the demolition order in April arguing that Mr Daragmeh's house was built without a permit.

But that is an empty argument, Mr Jabareen said, as Palestinians are not issued permits to build housing in the Jordan Valley, 90 per cent of which comes under the so-called area C designation, as per the Oslo Accords, which places it under full Israeli military and civilian control pending final agreement. Mr Jabareen, a Palestinian Israeli, has been involved in hundreds of similar cases. In most, he said, the Israeli High Court will issue an injunction against the demolition of houses after which the Israeli army and lawyers for the afflicted families will reach an out-of-court settlement that effectively freezes demolitions until further notice.

That, however, does not mean houses do not get demolished at some point, he said, and never has the high court ruled demolition unlawful. Meanwhile, unable to obtain building licences and prevented from access to either water or electricity networks, the indigenous Palestinian population is being forced to move elsewhere. According to B'tselem, an Israeli human rights group, "the injury to the Palestinian population caused by the settlements in [the Jordan Valley] relates mainly to the restriction of possibilities for economic development in general, and agriculture in particular, resulting from the denial of the two resources required for this purpose: land and water".

According to Mr Khdariat, a Jordan Valley population that numbered over 200,000 before the 1967 war is now down to 52,000. In the area of al Farisiya, Mr Daragmeh's is one of only 22 families left, and the only settled farmer. The remaining families are Bedouin. "They want to connect the settlements here to make one big settlement," said Mr Khdariat. The Maskiyot construction was simply a part of that plan, he said and, "Jasser and his family are an obstacle to these plans".

For his part, Mr Harel saw no reason why former Gaza settlers should not move to the Jordan Valley. "If there are a few families that want to move to Maskiyot, why make a big fuss about it?