Jordan Valley land that a Palestinian farmer is leasing back from settlers.
Jordan Valley land that a Palestinian farmer is leasing back from settlers. Photo by Alex Levac
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Settlers in the Jordan Valley are leasing some of their land to local Palestinians and to Israeli citizens, but both sides prefer to keep the matter a secret. Official Israeli sources say they know nothing about the matter, and in any case it is not common and there are only a few marginal cases involved.

The Palestinians are forced to lease the land from the settlers because of a shortage of land and water, which Israeli policy in the Jordan Valley has brought on, and because of limitations placed on the marketing of their produce. The Israelis are leasing land from the settlers because their small numbers do not match the huge area of land the state has allocated to the settlements since the occupation of the West Bank in 1967.

This leasing is against the rules of the Jordan Valley Regional Council and the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Department, which in practice holds the majority of the agricultural land ior the state in the Jordan Valley. The council’s regulations ban the leasing of land to non-citizens. Nonetheless, such leasing is embarrassing for the Palestinians since the farmed land is land Israel confiscated through various means from Palestinian communities and residents, then allocated it to settlers in the Jordan Valley.

Haaretz spoke with some 10 Palestinians in various spots in the Jordan Valley who lease land from the residents of a number of settlements. A few of them at first hid the fact that they are leasing, saying that they were employees of the Israeli who holds the land. A number of them said the practice has existed since at least the middle of the 1990s, when Israel started the regime of travel permits that limited their movement, but that it grew in the 2000s alongside the closing of the Israeli labor market for most West Bank residents. The size of the plots the Palestinians are leasing vary from a few dunams per person to hundreds of dunams.

A number of the lessees are Israeli citizens, Jews and Arabs, who hire Palestinian workers from the Jordan Valley. In a number of cases, the Israeli lessee only signs the documents and in practice the employers are his relatives, Palestinians who live in the Jordan Valley. In some cases, especially when the leased plot is not large, the deal is done without signing any documents at all. There are also a very few cases of partnerships between Jews and Palestinians from the Jordan Valley.

Dror Etkes, who investigates Israel’s policy of taking control of the land in the West Bank, is now finishing a project of mapping and analysis of Israeli agriculture in the West Bank. He says he has managed to map some 6,000 dunams (about 1,500 acres) in the Jordan Valley that Israelis have leased to Palestinians - or their representatives. Etkes estimates there is more.

The IDF’s Civil Administration in the territories said it did not know about the matter.

Settler leader: ‘Don’t know of such cases’

The chairman of the agricultural committee of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, Zvi Avner, told Haaretz that he personally does not know of any such cases of settlers leasing land to Palestinians. “It may be that it happens here or there at the margins,” he said. But this could not be a widespread occurrence, he emphasized. Avner claimed that the lands of the settlements in the Jordan Valley are state land. In a few cases the lessees are residents of a community far from the farm land and they sleep in the fields during the week. In many cases, the leased land is far from the settlements themselves, and Etkes says this is an incentive in its own right for the settlers to lease the land to Palestinians.

All the lessees told Haaretz that their produce is labeled as “Israeli” and therefore they are not required to transport it to Israel through far-off crossings, as they are required to do with “Palestinian” produce. For them, this is a significant cost saving. But the lessees complain that in most cases they make very little profit, or even lose money, because of the fierce competition with Israeli farmers who have subsidies and advanced mechanization.

The lessees told Etkes and Haaretz they pay from NIS 40 to NIS 300 per dunam per year in areas where there is an infrastructure for water. The payment for water is separate and the Palestinians pay the Israelis about NIS 3 per cubic meter of water. This price guarantees a profit for the lessor since the price he pays for the water he supposedly uses is lower.

Avner, who has headed the agricultural committee for the past 17 years, told Haaretz that Israeli farmers in the Jordan Valley pay on average NIS 2.10 per cubic meter for water. The quota for water for Israeli farmers in the Jordan Valley is 42,000 cubic meters for each plot of 35 dunams, and the price has three levels, starting at NIS 1.90 for about 50 percent of the water.

Over the years, Israel has taken control of some 77 percent of the land in the Jordan Valley - some 1.25 million dunams out of 1.612 million. These are the natural land reserves of the Palestinian communities there, whether for grazing or farming.

Rich in water

The Jordan Valley is especially rich in natural water sources. The Palestinian Authority sees the area as the future grain basket for the Palestinian state and an area where they can settle and develop, similar to what has happened on the Jordanian side of the border. But under the temporary Oslo Accords, Israel still controls the water resources of the West Bank and sets the water quotas for the Palestinians through its veto on all new water drilling for Palestinians, and its refusal to approve the reconstruction of wells that have been ruined.

Most of Israel’s water drilling in the West Bank, some 69 percent, is in the Jordan Valley. The water produced from these wells is given to the settlements in the Jordan Valley, except for a few Palestinian villages in the north and central Jordan Valley, whose wells were dried out by the Israeli drilling and which now get from the Mekorot national water company a water quota that is decreasing every year.