“Enclaves,“ “Palestinian state,” and “territory slated for annexation” – these are some of the phrases being thrown around during the stormy debate about U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan for the West Bank. The debate is mainly between the government and settler leaders, who oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state that would leave 15 settlements isolated as enclaves. Hardly anyone is discussing other enclaves which, according to Trump’s map, don't exist: The Palestinian villages located in areas slated to be annexed by Israel, villages whose future is very unclear.
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In the Jordan Valley, Palestinian residents believe that everyone is after the land they live on but nobody wants them. In recent weeks, they’ve been wondering about their fate, sharing WhatsApp photos of maps and land allocations, trying to guess whether they are “in” or “out.” “In” means being part of Palestinian territory, while “out” means being annexed to Israel with undetermined legal status. “Does it seem reasonable that no one is telling us what will happen to us if annexation takes place?” asks Khaled, a 40-year-old resident of the village of al-Jiftlik, while sipping coffee along Highway 90, which traverses the entire valley. His village, along with ten others in the Jordan Valley, is expected to be annexed to Israel. “We’re totally in the dark, and that’s the worst situation to be in,” he adds.
According to a study published last month by Shaul Arieli, an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Trump plan annexes 43 villages, with a combined population of 106,000, to Israel. Eleven of these villages, home to 11,000 people, are in the Jordan Valley. In a recent interview with the daily Israel Hayom, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Palestinians living in the valley would not be granted Israeli citizenship, but rather remain Palestinian “subjects.” However, it’s not clear if this can be done. The village of Fasayil sits on land slated for annexation. Most of its roughly 1,000 residents work in the adjacent settlement of Tomer.
Amna and Bassam Suwarka sit in their yard in Fasayil, discussing the implications of annexation. “If we get wages like Israelis do, with benefits, pension and a blue ID card, that would be good,” Amna says, listing possible advantages. Bassam works for seven hours a day as an agricultural laborer in Tomer, getting 110 shekels ($31.5) a day. “But then we’d have to pay property tax and electricity like in Israel,” he tells his wife. “And what about our houses? They are already demolishing houses here all the time. If Israel annexes us, they’ll ask for property taxes as well as tearing the house down.” Another resident who works as a gardener in Tomer also estimates that the cost of living will cancel out any rise in wages.
Hamdan, another resident of al-Jiftlik, sells coffee at an intersection on Highway 90, working every day from 5 A.M. to 7 P.M and making 100 shekels a day. “In the Jordan Valley, an Israeli makes four times more than a Palestinian,” he says. Hamdan and his friends at the coffee house ridicule the idea that Israel will grant citizenship to people in this area. “They want to get rid of Arabs who remained in 1948, so how will they agree to add more Arabs?” says one of them.
“Ultimately, we want to be happy. If annexation is good for us, we’ll support it, and if it’s bad we’ll oppose it.”Bassam, Fasayil, Jordan Valley.
Al-Jiftlik is emblematic of another problem facing the valley’s Palestinian villages. Even though it is the only village with an Israel-approved master plan, with the status of some of its houses already settled, the plan does not leave room for future development. Its resident can therefore not build any more, leading to repeated demolitions. This is the reason that Salem, a village resident, is obliged to live in a tent made of plastic sheets, along with his 17 children.
Demolitions is not only a problem in al-Jiftlik. According to the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Israel has demolished 16 inhabited buildings since the beginning of 2020, along with 47 uninhabited ones. It has also taken down infrastructure and agricultural buildings in the area. Even though these demolitions do not make headlines, they worry residents more than the annexation. “Overcrowding in the village is growing and we’re not allowed to expand,” says Bassam, who lives in Fasayil with his two wives and 14 children in a small house. “In 10 years, my children will have children, and this will no longer be a house. It will be a small refugee camp,” he adds, saying that he’d be happy if annexation changed this situation. “Ultimately, we want to be happy. If annexation is good for us, we’ll support it, and if it’s bad we’ll oppose it.”
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Rashid Khoudry from the village of Bardala, also on the annexation list, says that residents’ indifference to annexation stems from a lack of understanding. “Many people here have lost hope and no one provides solutions, neither the Palestinian Authority nor Israel,” he says. “We’re living under occupation, which in the valley means demolitions and control of water sources.” Khoudry is active in a group called Jordan Valley Solidarity, which deals with Palestinian human rights issues in the region. He says that over the years, Israel has destroyed wells across the valley, without allowing the development of independent water infrastructure. Palestinians therefore need to transport water from the Palestinian-controlled Areas A and B of the West Bank, for a hefty price. According to figures supplied to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel by the Civil Administration, 13 injunctions against Palestinian water drilling sites in the valley were handed down between 2010 and 2016, while most Israeli drilling in the West Bank takes place in the valley. Excessive water pumping, according to the Palestinians, is drying up their wells.
“No one in Israel has advanced a solution in the last 10 years, so how do they expect us to repeatedly show up for negotiations? We need our own state and elections.”Rashid Khoudry, Bardala, Jordan Valley
The only solution, says Khoudry, is a Palestinian state: “No one in Israel has advanced a solution in the last 10 years, so how do they expect us to repeatedly show up for negotiations? We need our own state and elections.” These harsh conditions are shared by most residents of this area. Along the Allon Highway in the valley lives Fathi Dragma, a 62-year-old member of the shepherd community of Ein al-Hilwe. He lives in an encampment of tents, made of poles and plastic sheets, with no hookup to water or electricity. He and his ten children take their cows and sheep out to pasture every day. According to the UN, 60 members of this community were expelled in 2016. In 2017, the Civil Administration issued 300 expulsion orders, claiming the area they were on was an army fire zone. After a petition was filed, the administration said the expulsion order had expired and that the state would not extend it.
Even though the threat of expulsion is not looming for now, Dragma’s grazing area has been shrinking over the years, with settlers in the area chasing off Palestinians frequently, claiming the area belongs to them. “Even when I move farther away, I’m told: “it’s not your area, move away,” he says. The police remove him, not the settlers. Nowadays, activists from the Ta’ayush Israeli-Palestinian volunteer group accompany him when he goes to pasture, but during the coronavirus crisis they haven’t come, he says. Settler attempts to expel him from the area multiplied during this period, he adds.
Amused, he says he heard about the annexation on TV. “Why do they need the whole world to watch them?” he asks. “Israel is already taking our land; settlers are cultivating Palestinian plots along the river and no one says anything.” Dragma is pessimistic about the possibility that residents will receive an Israeli ID card. He mainly worries about being removed or about a fence being erected between him and the area that will become part of a Palestinian state. “My son lives in the village of Tayasir. Will I need a permit to visit him?”
Palestinians selling their wares can be seen along Highway 90. In the village of Auja you can find various types of vegetables and fruit, selected for their low water requirements. The village is known for its year-round spring. In the summer, when temperatures rise, Palestinians and settlers go there, enjoying the water. Last week, ten Palestinians who had come to work in some settlements nearby were visiting. The father of one of them had his own opinion of the annexation: “Israel should have granted citizenship to everyone here 30 years ago, finalizing things. I grew up with Israelis, but this interim situation in which we have no rights and soldiers shoot dead Palestinian youths with mental disabilities will lead to an explosion.”
In addition to the not-fully known implications of annexation for the residents of the valley, it will also have far-reaching implications for the entire West Bank. “The Jordan Valley is the largest agricultural area in the West Bank and the area with the most water. It’s critical for a future Palestinian state,” says Osama Alwat, a resident of Jericho and a member of a group called Fighters for Peace. “The valley is also the only border the West Bank has with another country and the only outlet for Palestinians to the world.” If it’s annexed, he explains, every exit will require going through Israel.
Jericho, the largest Palestinian city in the Jordan Valley, numbers 20,000 residents, according to a 2017 census. While the city is not slated for annexation, annexing the rest of the valley will critically affect it. “Jericho will become a ghetto and will die economically, surrounded on all sides by Israel,” says Alwat. Annexation would also mean the loss of most of Jericho’s water sources. There are five springs the city, four of them controlled by Israel. During the summer, he says, his family gets water supply only for half a day, during which he fills containers for the rest of the day. “When we signed the Oslo Accords, we compromised, getting only 22 percent of our historical homeland, of our dream,” he says. “Since then, it’s only been shrinking. To quote John Kennedy, you can’t hold negotiations with someone who says what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is negotiable.”