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Annexation for Dummies: Making Sense of Netanyahu and Gantz's Declarations

Thousands of Israelis and tens of thousands of Palestinians share this contested part of the West Bank. How did we get to talking about annexation, and what might it look like?

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Hagar Shezaf
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Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the press on September 10, 2019.
Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the press on September 10, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
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Hagar Shezaf

Both likely candidates for Israel's premiership have recently said they intended to annex the Jordan Valley, the border area between the West Bank and Jordan that has been under Israeli control since 1967. This came despite a damning report by the International Criminal Court and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's statement that it would "eradicate the foundations" of any kind of peace process. In many ways, the area is unique in the West Bank, for its history and strategic value. But what would annexation mean for the people who live there?

Who lives in the Jordan Valley and what do they do?

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8,100 Israeli Jews, and 52,950 Palestinians lived in the Jordan Valley, according to separate figures from Israeli and Palestinian official surveys from 2018, and 2017 respectively. Israel splits the region into two different entities, the Jordan Valley and Megilot—Dead Sea regional councils.

Around 7,035 Israeli Jews live in the former, more than 1,100 of them in the larget settlement of Ma'aleh Efraim. The rest are split among 21 kibbutzim, moshavim and small towns. Settlement activity monitor Peace Now also counts 18 outposts, which are not officially recognized. Most work in agriculture, with about 66 percent of the agricultural produce destined for export. In 2017, about 38 percent of the dates grown in Israel came from the Jordan Valley, according to the Agriculture and Rural Development Ministry.

Palestinians working at a grove of date palms in the Jordan Valley. Credit: Michal Fattal

As of 2018, 1,065 lived in seven kibbutzim and moshavim in the Dead Sea council, most of them working in agriculture or tourism.

Read more: Here's what happens if Israel annexes the West Bank and lets Palestinians vote

The vast majority of Palestinians live in the city of Jericho, which is not part of any annexation plan. As of 2017, only 4,391 Palestinians lived in the section of the West Bank under full Israeli civil and security control, known as Area C. The Palestinian population in that area is sparse, spread out over 47 communities of shepherds and small villages, according to Peace Now.

The organization says that at least 250,000 dunams (62,500 acres), about a fifth of the territory that will supposedly be annexed, is privately-owned Palestinian land, according to the definition of the Israel Defense Force’s Civil Administration in the West Bank.

These areas represent what is commonly known as the Jordan Valley region - but Benjamin Netanyahu's annexation plan, presented before the September election, would also include a chunk of the neighboring Israeli council, Mateh Binyamin.

According to Peace Now, the number of Israeli citizens concerned would be 12,788.

Since when has annexation become part of the discussion in Israeli politics?

In practice, ever since Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Six-Day War. The Allon Plan, presented in July 1967 by then Labor Minister Yigal Allon, planned for annexation of the area, and still influences any kind of roadmap. The precursor to the Labor party, Ma’arach, supported building settlements in the Jordan Valley, and to this day the Jewish residents in the region have a slightly different profile from other such communities in the West Bank – many of them are non-religious, and some might even consider themselves leftists on Israel's divided political spectrum. Pre-Zionist cooperative organizations like the Moshavim Movement still send young people there for a year of volunteer service before the army.

Netanyahu, former U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton and U.S. Ambassador David Friedman touring the Jordan Valley, June, 2019.Credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO

“The Allon Plan has remained as an unchanging way of thinking over the years,” says Dr. Shaul Arieli, a colonel in the IDF reserves and an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin also saw the Jordan Valley remaining part of Israel, according to Arieli. In his October 1995 speech for the approval of the interim agreement of the Oslo Accords, he said that the Jordan Valley would be Israel’s security border.

At the Camp David Summit, then Prime Minister Ehud Barak presented a more limited interpretation of this view – in which a narrower strip of the Jordan Valley would be annexed, and about a quarter of its land would be temporarily leased. According to Arieli, the first time the Jordan Valley stopped appearing on Israeli maps for annexation was at the Taba Summit in 2001. At the Annapolis Conference in 2008 between former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israel asked to maintain a military presence in the Jordan Valley for a number of years, before its transfer to a third party. As part of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s mission on behalf of the Barack Obama administration in 2014, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, too, asked for a temporary Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley.

The renewed debate over the annexation was led by MK Sharren Haskel (Likud) – and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett’s plan to annex Area C, which was presented in 2012, would naturally annex the Jordan Valley too.

What does annexation mean for the Palestinians living in the Jordan Valley?

Benjamin Netanyahu's plan is to annex Area C in the Jordan Valley. It would therefore not include the city of Jericho, where most Palestinians in the region live.

Palestinian children in the northern Jordan Valley, November 10, 2017.Credit: Gil Eliahu

All Palestinian factions vehemently oppose the annexation of the Jordan Valley, or any other part of the West Bank, regardless of the plan. On the Israeli side, politicians disagree mostly on what status should be granted to the Palestinians living there today. Many point to the East Jerusalem or Golan Heights model, where residents received permanent residency with an option to become citizens, if they so choose. The test of time has shown that, years after the annexation of East Jerusalem, 95 percent are still permanent residents and do not vote in Israeli Knesset elections, and are therfore excluded from the democratic process.

Granting citizenship to the Palestinians living in Area C in the Jordan Valley is something that some voices on the right support, and there is talk about the relatively low number of Palestinians Israel can absorb. Many of the Palestinian villages in Area C are considered to be built illegally – for example, because they are located inside firing ranges – and the question is whether Israel would recognize them if and when these Palestinians are granted Israeli residency status.

Israeli law does not apply in the West Bank, which is considered occupied territory. Jordanian and military law applies. For example, while Israeli regulations apply to business licensing in Jewish communities, in Area C, Jordanian law applies to the Palestinians. If Israeli law goes into force tomorrow in these areas, many businesses might lose their legal status overnight. The problem is especially potent when it comes to the Israeli law on absentee property. If imposed, a Palestinian who owns land in the Jordan Valley but today lives in a different part of the West Bank, will suddenly become an absentee owner, creating an opportunity for expropriation, not as the result of their leaving – but because the border was moved.

Palestinian women from Jericho and nearby villages at work at a pepper packaging factory in the Jordan Valley settlement of Tomer, January 2014Credit: Ilene Prusher

One of the problems discussed at the lone inter-ministerial committee on annexing the Jordan Valley meeting was access to the Allenby Bridge, the only crossing point between the West Bank and Jordan, by Palestinians who live in the West Bank, said a person with knowledge of the matter.

Annexing Area C in the Jordan Valley would create a lack of territorial continuity, leaving Jericho for example as an isolated island inside Israeli territory. On the map Netanyahu presented at the press conference before the previous election, special routes could be seen connecting Jericho, the rest of the West Bank and the Allenby Bridge. A different proposal raised by right wingers is for the Jordan Valley to be made an exception to the Entry to Israel Law, which would allow for movement of Palestinians from the West Bank to Jordan.

What does the annexation mean for the settlers living in the Jordan Valley?

Settlers, who are Israeli citizens, will face a potentially long legal transfer process. Over the years, some Israeli laws were applied to the settlements, but many are still not. This would be a long and challenging process – which could certainly not be carried out overnight, involving transfers of powers, and adapting thousands of Israeli laws to the West Bank.

Israeli settlers start to build a new illegal outpost in the Jordan Valley, October 25, 2016.Credit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP

One of the main characteristics of the military rule is the fact that planning, building and infrastructure matters are in the hands of the Civil Administration, a military branch, and not in the hands of the relevant government ministry, such as the Transportation Ministry, for example.

For example, master plans for the settlements are approved by the supreme planning council of the Civil Administration – and not by regional planning committees. The Land Registry in the West Bank is located in the Civil Administration, and is not unified with the Israeli Land Registry. Bennett's intention to change that would mean de factor annexation. Some of the settlers hate the Civil Administration exactly because it symbolizes military rule, the separation of their entities from Israeli life.

Imposing Israeli law does not necessarily mean annexation – and annexation does not necessarily require the imposition of Israeli law, says attorney and left-wing activist Michael Sfard. Annexation is the declaration by a country that it views the area involved as part of its sovereign territory. “Imposing the law is one of the characteristics of sovereignty, but a country can say it is annexing a certain area and impose military rule on it. For example, when Israel imposed Israeli law in East Jerusalem, it claimed it was not annexation – all Israeli missions around the world were asked to explain that it was not annexation,” said Sfard. “Only in the 1980s, when [then Prime Minister Menachem] Begin passed the Jerusalem Law did the world view it as annexation.”

According to Dr. Harel Arnon, the attorney who representing the government in the High Court of Justice case concerning the “Regularization Law” – which would legalize the expropriation of privately-owned Palestinian land on which settlements has been constructed in good faith in return for full compensation under certain specific circumstances – one possibility would be a gradual change from Jordanian law to Israeli law over a period of a number of years, in order to limit the problems that a sudden imposition of Israeli law could cause.

And what does international law say about it?

Ein al-Hilweh, in the northern Jordan Valley, November 10, 2017. Credit: Gil Eliahu

According to Sfard, the only thing that has allowed Israel to claim some kind of protection from international legal mechanisms has been to define the situation in the territories as temporary, and subject to an agreed upon solution between Israel and the Palestinians.

“The moment Israel carries out annexation it destroys this alibi and admits it does not think the final status needs to be determined by negotiations, and that Israeli control of the Palestinian population is not temporary,” says Sfard. “It destroys its only defense against the claim it is establishing an apartheid regime.”

It is no coincidence that the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Fatou Bensouda, mentioned Netanyahu’s intentions for the Jordan Valley when she determined that, as far as the objectives of international criminal law are concerned, the authority of the ICC should be recognized. These statements, she said, “reflect concerns of a potential de jure annexation.”

“After World War II, a consensus was reached – which may have been broken recently with the Trump administration – that occupation by military force does not mean annexation,” says Sfard.

ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, August 2019. Credit: Reuters

But the field of international law is elastic enough for it to be possible to raise other claims, Dr. Arnon says. A preliminary question needs to be asked, he argues: Is the area actually occupied territory at all according to international law?

“The Israeli position that the territories are not occupied is more convincing than another position.” says Arnon. “Not only did we not take it from the Palestinian state that did not exist before it, Jordan too has no claims on the land, and moreover – we have historic claims to the land.” Arnon does acknowledge that most of the world considers the West Bank to be occupied territory in legal terms.

“It is true that it has the characteristics of occupied territory, for example, the fact that there is a population that does not have Israeli citizenship,” adds Arnon. “This is certainly one characteristic of occupied territory, but not the only characteristic – if you examine things from a legal perspective you need to have additional characteristics to claim so. In addition, if someone is not convinced by my claims, then they must admit that the annexation of the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem was illegal to the same extent.”

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