Settlers in the Jordan Valley are farming more than 5,000 dunams (1,250 acres) of private Palestinian land located between the border fence and the actual border with Jordan. They received the land from the World Zionist Organization in the 1980s.
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The original owners, some of whom fled in 1967 and returned to the West Bank after the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords and the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan, are still not allowed to access the land because of a military order preventing them from entering the border area.
After the Israel Defense Forces entered the West Bank in 1967, it issued Order 151, which defined the area near the Jordanian border as a closed military area. Later the border fence was erected, which in some places is up to two kilometers from the Jordan River, the natural border of the Jordanian kingdom.
Until 1994, the area was completely abandoned, including the ancient churches in the area, because of a large number of minefields in the region. At the beginning of the 1980s, the government decided to encourage farmers to work the fields in the area to create a buffer zone along the border and prevent infiltration from Jordan. The WZO was given the private Palestinian land and leased it to the settlers.
In July 1987 then-general in charge of Central Command, Amram Mitzna, instructed the brigade commander in the sector to prevent Palestinians from entering the area. A document from then that Haaretz has obtained states: "There is no doubt that from a security standpoint, it is unthinkable to let someone who is not part of the security forces or an armed veteran enter the area."
The situation was never reexamined or changed, even after Oslo and the peace treaty with Jordan, said IDF sources. Today, Thai workers from the Israeli settlements are allowed across the border fence into the area, while the Palestinians are not. The IDF spokesman also refused to let Haaretz reporters tour the area.
The amount of land farmed has increased 110 percent in recent years. Based on aerial photographs from the IDF, the amount of land farmed in 1997 was 2,380 dunams, while in 2012 this reached 5,064 dunams. Most of the land is planted with date orchards, a particularly profitable business.
The WZO said that only state land or that defined as "absentee property" is being farmed. Absentee property is the legal term for land belonging to Palestinians who fled the region in 1967 and did not return. A source in the IDF Central Command told Haaretz that much of the land being farmed is privately owned by Palestinians. While many Palestinians returned to the region after 1994, the WZO and IDF have made no efforts to determine if any of the absentee property owners are among those who returned, and there are no maps showing which land in the area belongs to whom.
Settlement researcher and left-wing activist Dror Etkes said it was clear that the land was being used under the auspices of the IDF.
"Once again we face an Israeli policy that takes advantage of every opportunity and every pseudo-security excuse to continue exploiting and banishing Palestinian residents of the West Bank from their lands, in order to transfer [those lands] to the settlers," he said.
"It is important to remember that this is not a case of pogroms by wild settlers, and not of private piracy by the army," added Etkes. "It is an intentional grab policy, with significant amounts of state funds being funneled in for that, though done so clandestinely and behind the border fence, and the people who live in the community don't have access to the lands on the other side."
The IDF spokesman said the matter would be checked. The head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, David Alhayani, said all the land was being farmed with the permission of the WZO.