Gitit, West Bank - Government ministers and Knesset members from the Land of Israel lobby descended on this small, far flung settlement in the Jordan Valley Thursday to pour cement into the foundations of a new neighborhood and send what they called a message to Washington and Ramallah: Israel is here to stay.
“The dedication of this neighborhood is happening at the right time at the right place,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin, hours before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Israel to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss a framework agreement with the Palestinians. “You will stay here forever, and there will always be Israeli sovereignty in the Jordan Valley,” he told the residents, some 70 families.
Quoting a statement of Abba Eban, who was foreign minister after the Six-Day War, Elkin said “The 1967 borders are Auschwitz borders.” He added that a peace agreement along those lines, giving up control over the Jordan Valley, “will put Kfar Sava and Netanya in the same situation as Sderot.”
Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, the member of Netanyahu’s cabinet credited by the Land of Israel lobby with pushing the coalition to pass a bill Sunday to annex the settlements in the Jordan Valley and apply Israeli law to them, told reporters that Thursday’s cement pour and tour of the region had “no connection” to Kerry’s visit, and that there was no reason to postpone it. The visit did make a statement, however.
“There is a message we’re sending, and it’s that there is a consensus among the Israeli public that our presence here in the Jordan Valley is not a temporary one,” Sa’ar said. “The development of this area over two generations has enjoyed support by governments led by both Likud and Labor."
“Our statement is clear. The Jordan Valley is Israeli and the Jordan Valley will stay Israeli. Our eastern border must be the Jordan River,” Sa’ar went on, adding that if Israel didn’t keep control of the area, he added, the Jewish state will lack 'strategic depth' necessary for its survival."
The proliferation of settlers and the agriculture, he said, would ensure Israel maintains control of the area. “Wherever there aren't settlements the IDF will not be,” Sa’ar added. “These settlements are in Israel's best interest and we must strengthen them.”
Israeli calls to maintain a permanent presence in the Jordan Valley are nothing new, dating to the days of the then Minister of Labor Yigal Allon, who drafted a plan that carried his name shortly after the Six-Day War. But the future of Israel’s control over the Jordan Valley and the 6,000 Jewish settlers living there came into the international limelight earlier this week with the passage of the annexation bill by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, 8 to 3. In protest, the Palestinian Authority held a cabinet meeting in the Jordan Valley village of Ein al-Beida on Tuesday, and announced it would invest 15 million shekels ($4.32 million) in infrastructure and agricultural projects in the area. Mounting expectations that Kerry’s draft agreement will including turning the Jordan Valley over to Palestinian control has prompted right-wing politicians to rally around a campaign to preempt any move by Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni, who heads Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinians, to agree to a territorial compromise here.
Miri Regev (Likud) publicly patted Sa’ar on the back for saying “yes to the annexation bill, and chided Livni, saying “she is always a crybaby.” Also speaking at the dedication ceremony were Habayit Hayehudi MKs Orit Strock, Ayelet Shaked, Eli Ben Dahan, Likud MKs Tzipi Hotovely and Yariv Levin, as well as several current and former leaders of the Yesha Council, the settlement lobby.
Avi Ro’eh, the head of the Yesha Council, said that the Jordan Valley must not be turned over to Palestinians, whom he called “killers of children and old women.”
Residents of Gitit, who set out warm drinks and fat Medjool dates grown in the settlement’s orchards, said they welcomed the sudden attention to their community and its desire to expand. They greeted the Knesset delegation with a contingent of nursery school children dressed up for the start of the new Jewish month and the upcoming holiday of Tu B’Shvat, a kind of Jewish Arbor Day.
“It’s moving to see all of these people here, and we welcome more people to come,” said Natalie Loewenberg, who watched as politicians were photographed shoveling cement into the foundation of what would be her future home. She, her husband and their three small children have been living in a caravan – a small mobile home – for the past five years. “If it influences things to have everyone see that we’re living and building here, all the better.”