Israeli Community's Farmers Fear for Future of Their Peppers Near Jordan, but Mum Is the Word

Residents may find themselves out of work when the land they use is returned to Jordan – but they are avoiding talking about it for fear of torpedoing negotiations

The entrance to the agricultural enclave in Moshav Tzofar.
Alex Levac

In less than a month, the farmers at Moshav Tzofar in the Arava may find themselves out of work. The land where they grow peppers is being returned to the Kingdom of Jordan, and they will be left without any land to farm.

Even though time is of the essence, the farmers – who in normal times don’t hesitate to protest about issues such as rising water prices and an increase in agricultural imports – have sworn themselves to silence. They are not speaking to the press or sharing any fears for their financial future, though they live in a place where agriculture is about the only possible way to make a living. Even the report on Thursday that the handover of the land may be postponed to exhaust the possibility of negotiations with Jordan in the hopes that they may continue to farm in the border enclave, even after Jordan seizes control, has not induced the farmers to talk, apparently for fear they could torpedo any negotiations.

On Wednesday afternoon, the atmosphere was still sleepy in Tzofar, just like in every other agricultural moshav in the Arava. Here and there Thai workers crossed the road while moving produce, and farm owners could be seen driving between their fields and the moshav.

“It’s a waste of your time,” one of the farmers told me in a determined tone. “There is an order from the farmers, no talking to the media.”

Another farmer, who does not have land in the Jordanian enclave, took the liberty to be frank and say that “no one here really knows what is going on.” He acknowledged that the issue “worries the moshav a lot.”

Only one person was seated in the moshav's office, the economic coordinator, Oz Efroni. He, too, was faithful to the decision not to be interviewed on the matter. “I won’t expand on it for you, it is possible to talk about other things.” He doesn’t think that publicizing the matter will help, and didn’t express any optimism either about achieving a diplomatic solution.

He did agree to say that no alternative plan had been advanced in the case the farmers of the enclave did have to give up their land in the next few weeks. The Israel Lands Authority, which is supposed to promote any such alternative solution, said the matter was being dealt with at the highest levels and that they will act as required according to any decisions taken and whatever instructions come from cabinet ministers.

About a year ago, farmers in the enclave continued to work as normal despite Jordan's announcement of plans to take back the enclave it had let Israeli farmers cultivate for another 25 years beyond a peace treaty. They worked the field and raised their crops. But they did speak out. The economic coordinator at the time, Eitan Lifshitz, called the move a “death sentence for the 35 farmers who work the land there, and at a later stage a death sentence for the entire moshav.”

Lifshitz, who was pessimistic about finding a solution to the problem, told Haaretz there was another plot of land near Tzofar that had been cleared of mines in recent years, and with the needed investment could serve as an alternative for the farmers who lose their land. He estimated the amount needed as tens of millions of shekels. The matter has not been advanced in the appropriate planning bodies, a senior planning official in the Southern District told Haaretz.

The pepper season ends around the end of May, and if the Jordanians demand the land back next month, as they might, the crop will not be picked and they will suffer enormous financial damage. These fears are what has led the farmers to speak very cautiously – if at all.

The size of the Tzofar enclave is 4,500 dunams (1,125 acres), about a quarter of which is farmed by 35 moshav members. For some this is their only farmland. Others also have plots that they farm inside Israel. Alongside the fears about the future, the moshav has plans to expand. Last month, a detailed plan was submitted to the authorities to add 49 agricultural land parcels to an existing 101. An explanatory note indicated that these new plots were intended to provide a solution for the farmers of the Tzofar enclave.