A large Jordanian flag flutters high over the so-called Island of Peace in the northern Jordan Valley, visible for miles around.
“That flag wasn’t there a few days ago,” says Orna Shimoni 77, a member of nearby Kibbutz Ashdot Ya’akov. “The Jordanians put it up as a symbol of sovereignty. It’s provocative – and it’s meant to be.”
The 250-acre area where the Yarmouk River flows into the Jordan River is known to Israelis as Naharayim (“Two Rivers”) and to Jordanians as Baqura. In the 1949 armistice agreement between the two countries, Naharayim remained Israeli (although Jordan claimed at the time there had been an administrative mistake and parts of Jordanian territory had been missed off the map).
In 1994, when the peace agreements with Jordan were signed, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin – in a goodwill gesture – relinquished the area to Jordanian sovereignty. In return, the Jordanians leased Naharayim (along with an area in the Arava Desert known as Tzofar to the Israelis and Ghamr to the Jordanians) back to Israel for a period of 25 years.
While Jordanian soldiers are stationed in the area, special arrangements have allowed the kibbutzim to develop agriculture and tourism there.
Thousands of tourists have crossed annually through a rickety shack into sovereign Jordan, to enjoy the confluence of the rivers, the flora and the area’s many historical sites.
The Island of Peace was not meant to be a mere buffer zone though. In the heady, hopeful days following the peace agreement, it was meant to be a symbol of everything that peace between Israel and an Arab country could be.
But the 25-year period is up next year and King Abdullah II announced last month he would not renew the lease, giving Israel the required one year’s notice.
The warning signs have been there for a while, says Shimoni. Some three years ago, the Jordanians built an imposing gate on the island, featuring large pictures of the late King Hussein in regal dress and King Abdullah in fatigues and aviator sunglasses.
“We were complacent, not thinking of how the Jordanians were seeing things,” she says. “That gate should’ve made us more sensitive.”
Yana Abu Taleb, Jordanian coordinator for EcoPeace Middle East – a trilateral environmental NGO promoting cooperation between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians – agrees that the king’s decision to stop the lease should not have come as a surprise.
“As an organization, our vision focuses on creating a just peace for all the states involved,” Abu Taleb tells Haaretz via phone from Jordan. “But in this agreement all of the benefits – the tourism and most of the agriculture – have gone to Israel and Jordan has received almost nothing, as reflected in His Majesty’s decision.”
But Gidon Bromberg, Abu Taleb’s Israeli counterpart, offers some words of cautious optimism. “The lease doesn’t end for another year. Maybe it’s not too late to negotiate something new, something that will benefit both countries,” he says.
Bomb shelter birth
Shimoni notes that, perhaps not coincidentally, King Abdullah announced the decision not to renew the lease on the Hebrew date of Rabin’s assassination. “We had such hopes for this region,” she says. “But those were the days of Rabin and King Hussein, who had a wonderful relationship and shared their vision for peace. [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and King Abdullah don’t have the same friendship or vision.”
Following Rabin’s assassination in November 1995, the hoped-for warm peace never really materialized. Relations between the two countries have been particularly strained in recent years, exacerbated by tensions on the Temple Mount and the shooting of two Jordanian citizens in Amman by an Israeli Embassy security guard in July 2017. He claimed one of the men had tried to stab him with a screwdriver and he shot both him and the other man in an act of defense. After a brief impasse, Israel was allowed to evacuate its embassy in the Jordanian capital. But when Netanyahu gave the guard a hero’s welcome back home, it sparked a diplomatic crisis that has yet to fully heal. The embassy only reopened last January.
A lack of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front has presumably not helped matters. Some 2.2 million registered Palestinian refugees live in Jordan, comprising a constant threat to the stability of the kingdom, which struggles to provide for them with its economy in decline. U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to end support for the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA, and Netanyahu’s close alignment with Trump, have aggravated tensions further.
The king has been under intense pressure to reassert Jordanian sovereignty over the two areas. Earlier this year, some 80 Jordanian lawmakers signed a letter to the government calling on King Abdullah to refrain from renewing the lease.
When Haaretz visited Naharayim at the end of October, Shimoni was gardening on the Hill of Plucked Flowers – a low, gentle slope next to the border shack. It was here, in March 1997, that a group of teenage schoolgirls from Beit Shemesh were standing on the hill by the man-made lake when a rogue Jordanian soldier approached them and opened fire. He killed seven girls before being subdued. He received a life sentence in Jordan, but according to reports was released last year on the 20th anniversary of the attack.
Shimoni was there when the terror attack happened, and helped evacuate the survivors and the bodies. She later planted the seven mounds of flowers, each bearing a victim’s name, upon the hill.
“I change the flowers in the fall and spring,” she says, pointing to some bright begonias. “It’s like changing the girls’ dresses.” She also recalls how, in a torrential storm, King Hussein flew his own plane into Israel following the attack, visiting each of the families and asking forgiveness in his name and the name of his kingdom.
Shimoni says her life and the life of Israel are entwined in this region. Growing up in the area in the 1940s and ’50s, she remembers infiltrations and border skirmishes. And coming to the kibbutz as a bride, between 1968 and 1970 she endured the War of Attrition – a period of near-constant shelling of Naharayim and the Jordan Valley by the PLO, led by Yasser Arafat.
“I gave birth to one of my children in a bomb shelter because of that shelling,” Shimoni says, matter-of-factly. “My life, and so much of the history of modern Israel, are part of this valley,” she adds.
In 1970, during Black September, King Hussein began to attack the PLO and drove the group into Lebanon, where its members regrouped and eventually became part of the Lebanese National Movement. Israel would fight the PLO in 1982, in the first Lebanon war. Then, after that war ended, it occupied southern Lebanon and established a “security belt” in the area. Shimoni’s youngest son, Eyal, served in the Israel Defense Forces, but just a few months after the seven schoolgirls were killed in Naharayim, he was killed in Lebanon when a missile hit the tank he was commanding.
In response to her loss, Shimoni established the Four Mothers anti-war protest movement, which helped turn public opinion against Israel’s continued presence in Lebanon and led to its eventual withdrawal from the area three years later.
‘Feel the tension’
Despite King Abdullah’s recent announcement, buses full of tourists continue to visit Naharayim. However, Avner Ron, a tourist guide from the local kibbutz, says “it feels different now. You can feel the tension.”
On this crisp fall day, visibility is sharp and the dusts of summer have been washed away by the heavy yoreh (first rains of the season). Across the border, to the east, numerous small Jordanian villages can be seen at the foot of the hills of Gilead. Look west and you see Kochav Hayarden – the remains of the Crusader fortress built in the 12th century on an isolated hill. Dozens of kites – black birds of prey with a broad wingspan – circle somewhat menacingly above.
Our bus crosses over a small bridge into Jordan and Ron hands a passenger list to the Jordanian soldiers. “The soldiers are jumpy,” he tells the tourists, warning them: “Don’t take pictures until we get past the barrier, and don’t do anything provocative.”
What was once a routine procedure now takes about 15 minutes. The soldiers seem unsure of what to do. They call their superiors and hold the bus back until they receive confirmation and raise the border barrier. “That never happened before,” observes Ron.
As the bus moves forward, he tells his passengers: “Now you can take as many pictures as you like – but not of the soldiers. And don’t do anything provocative.”
The bus makes its way around the tourism sites. At a Jordanian outlook, the flag visible from Israel is flying on what Ron says is an 18-meter (60-foot) flagpole. Nearby is a large paved square that is now overrun. It was initially intended as a space where Jordanian and Israeli families separated in 1948 could meet. But both countries were afraid that it would turn into a smuggling spot for weapons and drugs, so the visits were curtailed.
The main attraction on the tour is a hydroelectric power station that was built after Russian-born Zionist Pinchas Rutenberg founded the Palestine Electric Company in the 1920s. The plant, built in the Bauhaus style with long straight lines and curved corners, was meant to take advantage of the heavy flooding in the Yarmouk River. Opened in 1932, it once provided electricity to the entire northern region. But it was attacked by Iraqi forces in the War of Independence and abandoned, its Israeli workers taken as prisoners of war and released only many months later.
Nearby, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, sits an abandoned railroad station. Also built in the Bauhaus style, this was part of the Hejaz railway that ran from Haifa to Damascus (and then on to Medina), with a whistle-stop break at Naharayim. Hebrew-language graffiti on the walls dating from the ’30s and ’40s includes complaints that the trains are always late.
“Maybe someday we’ll take the train to Damascus,” says Ron. “But probably not in my lifetime.”