Someone who apparently had an especially sarcastic sense of humor decided to officially name the Jordan Valley Road, Route 90, the "Gandhi Road." The reference is not to Mahatma Gandhi, but to Rehavam Ze'evi, who advocated "transfer" - the expulsion of the Palestinians from their land. Perhaps he understood that this was indeed the appropriate name for the eastern road. For not only on this road, but throughout the enormous and beautiful expanse of the Jordan Valley and the eastern slopes of the hills, there is an oppressive sense of absence, loss, and emptiness.
The Palestinians have disappeared from the valley, aside from a few thousand who live there plus some to whom Israel agrees to give daily entrance permits for various reasons. It is not even possible to include the approximately 35,000 residents of Jericho among those remaining, because the Israel Defense Forces forbids them to travel northward of Area A, where they live.
Thousands of residents of the neighboring towns and villages in the northern West Bank, which are sometimes only a few kilometers away, are absent from the valley, even though they have relatives and friends, privately owned land, houses, commercial ties and jobs there. Also missing are the Palestinian cars that in the not so distant past used to transport these absentees. Missing as well are the thousands of potential travelers to Jordan, the vacationing families and school students. These potential customers are absent from the colorful stalls at the crossroads.
Israeli soldiers control this absence via four principal checkpoints that divide the valley from the rest of the West Bank. They obey the orders of their commanders: It is forbidden for any Palestinian - in other words, some two million people (the 1.4 million residents of Gaza are already forbidden to come to the West Bank in any case) - to enter the valley, except for those whose official address, in their ID, is the Jordan Valley.
Some will say that these are security measures, whether legitimate or excessive, citing the attacks on settlers in the region over the last five years. But primarily, this is a direct continuation of a long-standing Israeli policy that intensified during the Oslo period. This policy has turned the Palestinian Jordan Valley, about one-third of the West Bank, into a story of lost opportunities from the point of view of its Palestinian potential: a potential for agricultural development and tourism, for improving and expanding existing communities or building new ones, for enabling a variety of lifestyles - urban, rural and semi-nomadic, modern and ancient, almost biblical.
The Israeli Oslo architects were careful to ensure that the Palestinian Authority would not be able to develop the valley during those fateful years when many believed that rehabilitating the economy was the proper basis both for a peaceful solution and for increasing support for such a solution.
The Oslo architects designated most of the eastern West Bank as Area C (full Israeli control), which is off-limits to Palestinian development. Only the settlements were allowed to develop, thanks primarily to the theft and exploitation of Palestinian water sources. A military training zone, where the IDF has conducted exercises ever since it conquered the West Bank, occupies 475 square kilometers of the valley and impairs the traditional lifestyle of thousands of semi-nomadic or Bedouin shepherds in the area. These shepherds are frequently turned out of their tents or forbidden to graze their sheep on these expanses or to raise a little wheat and produce for food.
At one time the explanation was that this is a firing range; once it was an issue of illegal construction. Just last Thursday, civil administration personnel demolished the tents, tin huts and sheepfolds of some 20 agricultural families in five different places in the valley. It is clear what scares the Israeli planners: A significant portion of the Palestinian communities in the valley turned from seasonal extensions of villages in the northern West Bank into permanent communities in the middle of the last century. Jews are encouraged to settle in the valley, but every conceivable method is used to deter Palestinians from doing so.
Preventing development and halting a long-standing natural process of construction and population expansion is a form of emptying out. But over the last few months, this effort expanded to include active measures: From time to time, soldiers come during the night and remove to the other side of the checkpoint those who live or work in the valley but whose official address is elsewhere. In the morning, these people return via the hills, evading the soldiers, taking the risk of stepping on a dud artillery shell.
And in October, people were given another reason to become fed up with life in the valley: Palestinian farmers were prevented from selling their produce to Israeli farmers at the nearest border crossing between the valley and Israel. Instead of traveling five kilometers, they were forced to travel 50, to a distant cargo terminal (Jalameh), and to wait endlessly at the internal checkpoints, knowing that a large portion of their vegetables would be spoiled by the sun and the bumping around. Knowing that there would be no reward for their labor.
The army swears that these prohibitions bear no relation to the politicians' declarations that the valley will remain in Israel's hands forever. But in practice, they are helping to empty it of Palestinians, in preparation for its official annexation to Israel.
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