The moderator at the inauguration of the Palestinian Agriculture Ministry's new offices in the northern Jordan Valley paced uneasily behind the speaker's back, and twice tried to stop him. Then Agriculture Minister Ismail Du'ek got up to speak. Smiling, he said that the previous speaker, Fathi Khdirat of the valley's Popular Struggle Committees, is "naughty, and we need naughty people."
The dedication of the new branch, located in an old building that was renovated, took place on February 22. This is only the ministry's second office in the valley, in addition to the one in Jericho. The new branch and the ceremony constitute a small part of a determined effort by the government of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to expand its involvement in 60 percent of the West Bank areas, which its predecessors completely neglected.
This could be seen as a "naughty" - that is, subversive - decision, and as a rejection of the Israeli dictate barring Palestinian development in that 60 percent (Area C) until further notice.
"Fayyad has visited the Jordan Valley seven times," Khdirat said this week. In the past, Khdirat was involved in almost constant confrontations with Palestinian officials because of his claims that the Jordan Valley has been neglected to the point that it almost seems as if Palestinian officials were in collaboration with the Israelis, who laid down the restrictions.
"No Palestinian prime minister ever visited it before," he explained. "I heard Fayyad say that for him there is no such thing as [Areas] A, B or C, that they are all territories of the state that we are building. I heard him say he can't read the letter C."
The Agriculture Ministry should be the main government entity concerned with the 60 percent of land in question. "All our farmland is there," Du'ek told Haaretz, confirming Khdirat's claims of neglect by previous governments.
"They believed they could regain it through negotiation, and that it would be easy. Reality proved otherwise and Israel treats C like Israeli territory," he said. The focus, naturally, is on the Jordan Valley both because it represents almost one-third of the area of the West Bank, and 90 percent of it is classified as Area C and because Israeli spokesmen repeatedly state that Israel's eastern border will pass through it.
"Jerusalem is the gate to heaven, the valley is the gate to Palestine," declared one poster at the dedication. "The valley is Palestine's border with sister Jordan," said another.
Even before the West Bank was divided into Areas A, B and C, in accordance with the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian interim agreement, Israel used various means to keep the Palestinians from developing their lands in the valley. Large tracts were declared state owned even though up until the Six-Day War, they were known and treated as the grazing lands of the villages on the ridge. Other areas were declared military training and firing zones, and shepherds and their flocks were forced to leave.
The area is replete with water sources over which Israel took control. Some of the Palestinian communities were eventually connected to the national water supply, but Israel restricts the amounts they receive. Other communities, which Israel does not recognize, have not been connected even when they are just three meters away from a well or a pipe carrying water to an adjacent Jewish settlement. And a connection to the electricity grid that serves all of the settlements is out of the question.
The Palestinians claim that the relatively small number of Palestinians in the Jordan Valley is the result of Israeli restrictions. Around 56,000 Palestinians live there, about 70 percent of them in Jericho. In contrast, 9,400 Israelis live in settlements that the Negotiations Affairs Department of the Palestine Liberation Organization says control 50 percent of the land in the valley. According to unofficial Palestinian estimates, on the eve of the 1967 war, the valley's population exceeded 200,000. Many of these people, especially those in refugee camps, fled to Jordan and were prohibited from returning.
Israeli sources quote the Jordanian census of 1961, which put the valley's population at 73,662. (The discrepancy is attributed to the region's extensive development between 1961 and 1967 as well as the fact that some of the people were counted as being in their villages of origin rather than in the valley where they actually lived.) The Israeli census after the war counted just 12,082 Palestinians as residents of the valley.
In the past 15 years the Civil Administration demolished many homes on the outskirts of Palestinian towns and villages - including Tubas, Beit Furik, Beit Dajan and Tamun - on the grounds that they were built illegally. In any event, building permits are not issued to Palestinians. With a population of 5,000 Jiftlik is the largest Palestinian community in Area C, but in the past several years around 180 families have left it for areas A and B because of the bans on construction.
The Agriculture Ministry's new strategy is aimed primarily at supporting farming families, the poorest of all Palestinians, throughout Area C, including the Jordan Valley, in various ways. The goals include building schools and clinics, aiding in the construction of mud-brick homes, providing loans for various business initiatives and helping the farmers to improve the quality of their produce as well as helping them to market it.
Fayyad's government has also undertaken to "make Palestine green." According to Du'ek, about 1.6 million dunams (400,000 acres) of land, much of it in the valley, have become infertile for various reasons. About one million dunams of this area could be reclaimed for pasture, expanding available grazing areas and auxiliary food industries, and creating jobs. Fruit trees could be planted on an additional 600,000 dunams of land in areas with higher rainfall.
Road construction is another way to invigorate the valley's Palestinian population. On a recent Saturday, Du'ek looked on as one kilometer of dilapidated road in Jiftlik was restored. The initiative came from the Popular Struggle Committees, founded several years ago by area residents fed up with official neglect and Israeli prohibitions. The idea is to create facts on the ground - to build, renovate and expand even without the unattainable permits. It is a widespread, unorganized, grassroots tactic.
"We stopped being afraid," explained one man from Jiftlik who presented a stack of Civil Administration stop-work and demolition orders issued several months ago for several plastic- or tin-roofed shacks built as a last resort. These popular struggle groups operate along similar lines, but erect buildings that serve the entire community, such as schools and clinics, and their work is of a higher quality.
Build schools, not mosques
"This is our popular struggle," Khdirat declared at last week's dedication ceremony. No disagreement there, but the moderator - a ministry official and a friend of Khdirat's - feared that the remarks would cause a stir. "The prophet Mohammed first instructed the people to read, not to pray," Khdirat continued. His message was clear: Give money to build schools, not mosques.
These remarks were not contested, but one comment elicited some protest from the audience: Khdirat criticized the donor states and international development organizations for directing most of their contributions to projects in Areas A and B rather than C. He charged that in this way they are collaborating with Israeli policies aimed at "imprisoning us in pens and enclaves." A few people, beneficiaries of those organizations, voiced their protest.
Du'ek is inclined to agree with Khdirat's claim that most donor states are reluctant to fund projects in Area C, deterred by the protracted process of obtaining Civil Administration permits. Sometimes the deadline for a project's completion expires before the administration issues its decision, whether approval or rejection.
He claimed that international organizations involved in agricultural projects have been informed that cooperation with them would cease if they continued to avoid participating in projects in Area C. He said the practice of avoiding such initiatives has been broken. It is clear to him, however, that in any case, now that the Palestinian Authority has publicly taken on the development of Area C, it is responsible for implementation as well as most of the funding.
The distinct shift in the Palestinian government's position regarding its role in the area "whose letter they can't read" highlights an interesting trend: The Palestinian leadership, headed by a former International Monetary Fund official, is actually adopting grassroots tactics, both spontaneous and organized.