Agricultural land in an area leased to Israel by Jordan for the past quarter-century was returned on Thursday, after King Abdullah II refused to renew a deal allowing Israeli farmers to work the land put in place as part of the 1994 peace accord between the two countries.
Under the 1994 Jordan-Israel peace treaty, two territories, Tzofar and Naharayim, which straddle the border between the two countries, were recognized as falling under Jordanian sovereignty but with special provisions allowing Israeli farmers to work the land without visas.
In 2018, in a sign that relations between the neighbors were experiencing a significant chill, Jordan's king announced that he would not renew the lease agreements. Naharayim was returned to Jordan in November 2019, when it was agreed that the handing over of Tzofar would be delayed for a few months to allow farmers to harvest their crops and move their equipment into Israel.
Most of the agricultural land, around 1,100 dunams (271 acres) of the total 4,500 dunams, was dedicated to pepper farming, with only one of the 35 exploitations dedicated to flowers.
In January, after diplomatic efforts to prevent the transfer of Tzofar back to Jordan failed, the Israeli government earmarked money for the farmers' relocation, but replacement land is not expected to be ready until next year. Due to political instability in Israel, farmers have also not managed to appeal to the government to receive compensation for the expected financial loss until the replacement area is established.
"There are not many jobs in the Arava region," says pepper farmer Erez Gibori. "I still do not know what I will do this year." Until now, Tzofar's farmers had kept a low profile, in the hope the diplomatic process would yield results and the Jordanian government would reverse their decision. But at a small farewell ceremony organized in Tzofar on Thursday, many did not hide their disappointment.
"Our life's work has gone down the drain," Gibori said. "It's hard to clear and destroy the land we have invested so much in for so many years."