King Abdullah II’s announcement on Sunday that Jordan would be terminating its lease to Israel of two small areas along the countries’ shared border surprised farmers from Moshav Zofar in the southern Arava region.
On Sunday afternoon, after the announcement, children from the area were selling cold lemonade for two shekels (50 cents) outside the local library. One of their mothers suggested sarcastically that they raise their price, saying “they’re taking away our agriculture and we won’t have money left.”
Officials at the Central Arava Regional Council and the farmers who work in the enclave near the moshav say they had no idea that the move by Jordan was in the offing, though the treaty gives Jordan the right to exercise the option of terminating the lease of the land every 25 years.
“It’s a death sentence for the 35 farmers who work the land there,” said Eitan Lifshitz, manager of Moshav Zofar. “At a later stage, this will be a death sentence for the entire moshav.”
“We have a year,” Lifshitz said, who did express the hope that a work plan can be developed within two months to reflect issues, such as “where we’re going; what will we get from the state to give up the enclave.”
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“We need to know what happens if the king doesn’t change his mind,” he added.
The territories in question are known in Arabic as al-Baqura and al-Ghamar, and the Naharayim and Zofar in Hebrew. Jordan decided Sunday to pull out of these two annexes, located in the northern and southern regions along the border, from the 1994 peace treaty that allowed Israel to lease the areas.
Even though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the issue would be subject to negotiations with Jordan, Lifshitz is not optimistic that an agreement could be reached to extend the lease of the land in the enclave. “I believe King Abdullah,” Lifshitz said. “I don’t think he’s just talking and don’t think it’s subject to negotiation.”
Thirty-five farmers from Zofar work the land in the enclave, which is comprised of 1,100 dunams (275 acres). The Jordanian-Israeli treaty states that the land is under Jordanian sovereignty although it was farmed by Israelis for many years prior to the treaty’s signing.
The enclave east of Zofar is more fertile than the land on the moshav itself, Lifshitz explained, because it is at a higher elevation and has better quality water supplies. The farmers are not required to pay any fee for the use of the leased land, but Lifshitz said that is not a major concession to Israel because land in the area doesn’t have high value in any event.
One possibility for the farmers is to relocate their farms from the enclave into Israeli territory. Moshav Zofar has alternative land that was cleared of land mines in recent years, but still requires infrastructure and leveling of the fields for agriculture.
For his part, Lifshitz said it would involve an investment of tens of millions of shekels. “Clearly these are amounts that the farmers can’t afford to pay, and I very much hope the state will dip into its own pocket. There are no alternatives here in the Arava area other than agricultural work.”
Most of the farmers working land in the enclave grow peppers, but one plot is also being used to grow flowers. The size of the plots varies, and according to Lifshitz, of the 35 farmers there, about 20 work land of at least 20 dunams (5 acres), and it’s those farmers who would suffer the biggest blow with the loss of the land.
Erez Gibori, 36, moved to Zofar after finishing the army, where he was a deputy artillery company commander. He has lived in Zofar for the past 11 years with his wife and three children.
“When I moved here, I wanted to be a farmer,” he said. “After two years, I got my plot, about 80 dunams, all of which is in the enclave.”
Like many of his counterparts, Gibori grows peppers, and like Lifshitz, Gibori believes that Jordan’s decision is final and that he will have to leave his plot.
Despite his skepticism, however, he still believes Israel should pursue negotiations with Jordan. “It’s in the prime minister’s hands,” he said.
“I also don’t think we can transfer the farming here into Israel,” he added. “If the enclave is closed off to us, it doesn’t appear economically realistic to me to reestablish the farm.” If he is forced to relocate his farming into Israel, he may forgo growing peppers, which are expensive to grow, he said, and shift to some other crop, perhaps dates.
“The harm to my family will be very severe if we have to move,” he said. “Those not engaged in farming don’t have many job prospects in the area. I am terribly afraid that we will have to leave because we will have no other choice. This is an event that is beyond me to cope with, and I still can’t imagine it.”
Another pepper farmer, Eitan Guedj, who has a 30-dunam plot in the enclave, expressed doubt that the government would recognize the magnitude of the issue and provide funding of its own. “We farmers here know the government,” he said. “Even during election season, politicians don’t come here. We don’t really interest anyone.”