The commercial center in Ma’aleh Efraim at the western edge of the Jordan Valley could be the perfect backdrop for a 1970s romantic comedy. There’s a small post office at the entrance, and an old tiled path leads to a plaza with concrete benches. Surrounding them is a barbershop, a used clothing store, a minimarket, an HMO clinic and a sign for a lawyer’s office in the back. The few old-timers who remain remember that until the mid-1990s there was a large Bank Hapoalim branch; that’s closed now. Once there was also a pub that would attract young people from the valley’s moshavim.
Ma’aleh Efraim was built in the late 1970s as a city that would provide basic urban services to the Jordan Valley’s rural communities. But once the bank closed, it was the residents of Ma’aleh Efraim who had to drive 10 minutes to Fatsa’el to take out cash. Now there’s an ATM in town, but there’s a 6-shekel fee to use it.
Other than schools, Ma’aleh Efraim no longer provides any special services to the surrounding communities. Even the area’s largest supermarket is at the Fatsa’el junction. Many Jordan Valley residents prefer to go to Beit She’an or Jerusalem for their errands, leaving Ma’aleh Efraim as just another settlement on the hill.
In recent years it has attracted young religious couples who can’t afford the high price of real estate in the more established West Bank settlements, and who purchased their homes from secular residents who left. All the homes in Ma’aleh Efraim are one- or two-family structures. And while it’s not “five minutes from Kfar Sava,” when the roads are clear, you can get to Tel Aviv in an hour and to Jerusalem in 50 minutes.
“Every time they start talking about annexation, the fabric of life here gets shaken up,” says Eli Yedid, the deputy local council chairman. “The roads become problematic, there are more instances of rock throwing and tire burning that never get reported in the media. In recent years they’ve been talking about the valley during every election campaign. ‘We’ll annex it,’ ‘This is the eastern border,’ that type of thing. They give you the feeling that it’s going to happen tomorrow. Nobody needs these remarks. We know that we’re the eastern border.”
Yedid was once a Likud member, but says he left the party 15 years ago when Benjamin Netanyahu, as the finance minister, refused to approve a five-year plan to bolster the valley. “Ma’aleh Efraim was supposed to be the district seat for the entire Jordan Valley. Instead of being a city of 40,000 residents, there have been 400 families here for many years,” Yedid says. “All the governments since the 1980s and ’90s simply forgot Ma’aleh Efraim.”
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Ma’aleh Efraim is indeed one of Israel’s smallest local councils. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, it has only 1,241 residents. Some 10% of those employed work in the local council, and many others work at the Allenby Bridge crossing.
The neglect described by Yedid is visible in the Ma’aleh Efraim industrial zone, located a kilometer from the settlement. The area could be a set for dystopian films about places that deteriorated for unknown reasons, leaving huge abandoned structures with rusted parts and huge plastic containers. That’s how at least half of the factories at the site look.
Archives from financial papers from the late 1990s and early 2000s show that the state once gave industrialists incentives to move their plants there, but not enough companies took the bait and those that did eventually left. A few small factories remain. One of them recycles chicken waste, the smell of which permeates the entire industrial area and sometimes reaches the residents’ homes.
The reason for the zone’s failure is indicative of Israeli governments’ true relationship with the Jordan Valley, the younger and less interesting sister of the West Bank settlements. At the same time as it was giving benefits to Ma’aleh Efraim, the state also offered benefits to other industrial areas – Sha’ar Binyamin, Ariel, Barkan and Elkana. But because they are closer to the country’s center, they flourished while Ma’aleh Efraim languished.
Next month, according to the coalition agreement between Likud and Kahol Lavan, the government can start taking steps toward annexing the Jordan Valley, subject to the agreement of the United States, with no need for approval from any other international players, including the Palestinian Authority. The assumption is that the annexation will be based on the Trump peace plan, which allows Israeli to annex 30% of the West Bank. However, no one knows which territories, if any, Israel will choose to annex.
Some 13,000 Jews live in the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea areas, organized under three primary local authorities: Ma’aleh Efraim; the Jordan Plains Regional Council, which includes 21 farming communities; and the Megilot Regional Council, which abuts the Dead Sea and includes six rural communities. No government official has spoken with the residents about annexation possibilities, and they get all their information from the news.
What is clear is that if it happens, annexation will not be felt solely by the Jordan Valley residents, but by all Israeli citizens. A hint of this was given last month when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced the end of security cooperation with Israel on the West Bank, which could lead to increased security tensions. According to a report by Army Radio last week, the coordinator of government activity in the territories, Maj. Gen. Kamil Abu Rokon, has warned the defense minister and chief of general staff that annexation could lead to a wave of terror attacks.
But even leaving that aside, annexation will cost money. According to a study by the group Commanders for Israel’s Security, the cost of giving residency status to 66,000 Palestinians would be 1.3 billion shekels ($371.2 million) annually. If the Jericho area remains a Palestinian enclave with 43,000 Palestinian residents, then the cost will be less.
According to estimates, annexing the Jordan Valley will mean that between 10,000 and 20,000 Palestinians become Israeli residents. According to calculations by the commanders’ group, the cost for civilian services to these Palestinians will be between 200 million and 400 million shekels a year. This would include health and educational services and National Insurance benefits they will be entitled to, similar to Palestinians living in East Jerusalem neighborhoods annexed to Israel after the Six-Day War.
If Israel were to grant residency rights to all 300,000 Palestinians who live in Area C (a number that includes residents of villages that expanded from areas A and B into Area C), the cost of providing them services will skyrocket to 5.7 billion shekels annually, and that’s without taking into account the security costs associated with annexation.
According to the study, whose economic section included input from economists Prof. Avi Ben Bassat and Yoram Ariav, if Israel were to annex the entire West Bank, the annual cost would be more than 52 billion shekels a year.
Israel hasn’t invested much money or attention in the Jordan Valley for years. This is particularly evident with tourism: The center of the valley, an area with a lot of tourism potential, has are almost no tzimmerim, or bed-and-breakfasts. The few that do exist mainly house the 700 Israelis working at the Allenby Bridge crossing. Kibbutz Gilgal, one of the first settlements established in the Jordan Valley, hosts lots of these security guards, who are general recently released soldiers.
“There’s no tourism, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be developed,” says Rani Sela, a kibbutz member and manager of the chicken coop. “Everyone understands that you need initiative and budgets for this. The Jordan Valley is an attractive place to visit in the winter.”
According to Gadi Katz, a farmer on Moshav Mas’ua who has lived in the valley since 1983, annexation isn’t meant to add economic investment. “I don’t see any connection right now between annexation and investment,” he says. “It could be that they would approve certain things that they don’t approve nowadays. But to say that if there’s annexation, in two days the area will flourish? I don’t think so. The fact that we aren’t annexed shouldn’t interfere with repairing the water infrastructure in the region, for example.”
Indeed, it looks like there’s an inverse correlation between talk about annexing the Jordan Valley over the years and the little that’s been done regarding one of the most urgent issues for the valley’s farmers: improving the water supply. It’s a complex issue that is also connected to the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. On the one hand, the Israelis complain that the Palestinians are stealing water from them, while on the other the Palestinians complain that the wells Israel has drilled in the region since 1967 have been taking water from them. The Jordan Valley is not connected to the National Water Carrier, and every year, during heat waves, Israeli farmers suffer from water supply interruptions that harm their crops.
On a recent Sunday, Hanan Pasternak got up before dawn to water his fields. Pasternak is one of the founders of Moshav Netiv Hagdud, which was established in the mid-1970s, and chairs the moshav executive. He grows hundreds of dunams of peppers. He estimates that last year, water problems cost him 10 million shekels of damage; this season the damage has cost 7 million shekels. “Mekorot’s entire water system is collapsing,” he says. “This is the result of decades of neglect. They didn’t invest in water infrastructures, they didn’t drill, they didn’t replace equipment, despite our requests and warnings.”
He adds, “I assume Netanyahu will be annexing thorns and thistles here, because Jews there won’t be. He’s in power for 11 years straight. What stopped him from investing in the water infrastructure here? As a farmer, I feel as if they simply deceived us. Officials at Mekorot and the Water Authority are going to get slapped with personal lawsuits. There are lawyer and assessors looking around here. It’s not going to pass quietly.”
At the Meller farm’s small packing house on Moshav Na’ama, Anna Miller and her son-in-law Nir are deliberating how to route the irrigation system between the various herb greenhouses. Heller explains that because the hothouses at Na’ama are scattered around the moshav and not adjacent to each farm, routing the water becomes even more complicated.
Nir leaves and she is left alone in the office that looks out at the empty packing house. It’s the holiday of Eid al-Fitr, and the Palestinian workers are off. The farm employs 30 Palestinians from Jericho or the village of Al-Auja who help them grow basil, chives, dill and other herbs and spices. The question of whether they will continue to work for the farm if annexation happens drifts over the silence of the packing house. The Meller farm also employs 10 Thai laborers who have gone to work in the fields the family leases from Kibbutz Mitzpeh Shalem in the southern Dead Sea region.
The spice business has taken a significant hit from the coronavirus crisis since its customers are restaurants and event halls in Israel and abroad. The market has been totally paralyzed since March 15, when the closure in Israel began, and Meller found herself destroying entire yields. “When the crisis is over, the shoe store owner can always go back to his store and reopen; he’ll find the same shoes. I, on the other hand, don’t start to grow new spices until I get orders from customers,” she says.
She says that she’s lost 700,000 shekels to date, and has gotten only 10,000 shekels in government assistance. Some of her time has been spent traveling to Tel Aviv, where two of her children live, and with making direct sales. Her two other children live on the moshav, which now has 40 farms. The moshav, like other communities in the valley, is opening to community expansion. Seventy-two families are seeking to move to Na’ama, and 15 of them have already passed the acceptance committee. The new residents, who hail from Jerusalem, Ma’aleh Adumim and other places, bought 900-square-meter plots for only 290,000 shekels. Two homes have already been built.
According to Meller, annexation could improve the value of her land, since the farm would be registered in the Israeli land registry, but that’s the only positive thing she can see. “I assume it will be chaotic, which is disturbing,” she says. “I’m not taking the security situation lightly. You can’t belittle comments about the end of security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, nor what Jordan’s King Abdullah said about annexation being a path to confrontation. I don’t need annexation for my farm and my daily life here. As far as I’m concerned, it will only complicate things.”