Expert: Diana Buttu, Ramallah-based political analyst, former advisor to Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian negotiators.
On January 28, 2020, President Donald Trump released the final details of his diplomatic plan for Palestine/Israel, which included US recognition of Israeli annexation of large swathes of the occupied Palestinian West Bank, including the Jordan Valley. The IMEU offers the following expert Q&A examining the consequences and context of Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley.
Q: For people who don’t know, explain what the Jordan Valley is and why it’s important.
Diana Buttu: The Jordan Valley is a strategically important part of the occupied Palestinian West Bank that borders Jordan, comprising approximately 30% of the land of the West Bank and spanning nearly four hundred thousand acres. It is a water-rich area, with an estimated one-third of the West Bank’s underground water reserves, and is where most Palestinian agricultural is grown. The area has vast potential for agriculture and tourism, with the World Bank declaring it vital to Palestinian economic development. Instead, however, Israel bars Palestinians from entering or using 85% of the Jordan Valley. Since militarily occupying it along with the rest of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, during the June 1967 war, Israel has put mechanisms in place to bar Palestinians from living and farming in the Jordan Valley, including destroying homes, declaring areas closed to Palestinians, and expropriating Palestinian land. Almost 90% of the region is designated as Area C under the terms of the Oslo Accords, which means that it is under full Israeli military and civilian control.
At the same time, Israel has built some three-dozen Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land in the Jordan Valley in violation of international law, with an estimated 11,000 settlers living illegally next to approximately 65,000 indigenous Palestinians who are struggling just to hold on to their land and homes. On average, these settlers consume six times more water than Palestinians, with settlement agricultural farms consuming 18 times more, and Palestinians are allowed to consume a mere 20 litres (about 5.25 gallons) of water per day, well below the WHO standard of 100 liters (about 26.5 gallons) per person per day. In short, Israel wants to retain permanent control over the Jordan Valley so that it can continue stealing Palestinian water resources and to ensure that any Palestinian “state” that emerges will be completely surrounded by Israeli territory on all sides.
Q: What exactly does Trump’s plan say about the Jordan Valley?
DB: The Trump plan gives Israel a green light to redraw its borders as it chooses and to formally annex occupied Palestinian land in the West Bank, including settlements and the Jordan Valley, that it has long sought to permanently control. It’s not yet clear exactly how much of the West Bank Israel will annex, but the Jordan Valley comprises 30% and Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise covers a total about 60%, not including East Jerusalem. Regardless of the exact percentages, annexing the Jordan Valley would mean that any future Palestinian “state” will be entirely enveloped by Israel, with the movement of people and goods subject to Israeli approval. This means that Palestinians, our economy, and resources, including water, will remain under the indefinite control of the Israeli army.
Just this week, Netanyahu announced plans to move ahead with settlement construction in the so-called E1 corridor east of Jerusalem, which has long been considered a red line by the international community because it severs the West Bank in two, making the establishment of a contiguous Palestinian state all but impossible. Israeli leaders have long sought to change international law when it comes to their illegal actions in the occupied territories, including their theft of Palestinian land and water. Trump’s plan is intended to help them do so, by trying to legitimize Israel’s flagrantly illegal actions. This is an extremely dangerous precedent not just for Palestine and the region, but the world as a whole.
Q: What would Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley mean for Palestinians living there?
DB: For years, Israel has been trying to drive Palestinians out of the Jordan Valley, and has used a variety of means to do so, including expropriating Palestinian land, declaring it “state land” - which effectively means it is allocated to Israeli settlers - denying Palestinians access to their land, destroying their homes, and limiting their water usage. As a result, many Palestinians have left the Jordan Valley. Today, a mere 65,000 Palestinians live in the area while in 1967 it was home to 250,000. Palestinian farmers cannot effectively produce under these constraints with the resultant effect that Israeli settlement farms end up taking over their lands. With annexation, Israeli efforts to drive Palestinians from the Jordan Valley will be intensified, making life even more difficult and putting more pressure on them to leave.
Q: Shortly after the release of the Trump plan, Netanyahu announced he would hold a cabinet vote on annexation within days, but has since said he will wait until after the March 2 election in Israel. Do you think he (or anyone else who becomes prime minister) will actually formally annex the Jordan Valley or any other part of the West Bank? And why hasn’t Israel annexed the West Bank/Jordan Valley before, as it did East Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights?
DB: Netanyahu is unable to pass a cabinet vote at the moment because this is an interim government that can only deal with pressing matters. Passing annexation now would mean a host of legal challenges which Netanyahu seeks to avoid in the lead up to an election. It should be noted that both he and his chief rival, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, both support annexation and accordingly there is no substantial difference between the two men when it comes to the Palestinians. However, after the election, Netanyahu, or perhaps Gantz if he wins, will likely begin the process of annexing the Jordan Valley and other parts of the West Bank.
As to why Israel hasn’t officially annexed the West Bank before, it was due to concern about the diplomatic fallout. For decades, the international community has given lip service to creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank while turning a blind eye to Israeli actions designed to prevent the two-state solution from ever being realized. As long as Israel didn’t annex the West Bank, the world could hold out hope that one day the “peace” process would be resumed and a two-state solution achieved. If Israel actually goes ahead and officially annexes parts or all of the West Bank (as opposed to the gradual de facto annexation it has been engaged in for decades), the world will finally have to confront the fact that Israel is an apartheid state that rules millions of disenfranchised Palestinians who are granted no rights because they are not Jewish. Now, with Trump in office giving them everything they want, the Israeli right is drunk with power and seems not to be bothered by such concerns anymore.
Q: For decades, the Palestinian leadership has been committed to the two-state solution (i.e. the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state in the occupied territories) to fulfill their peoples’ aspirations for freedom and self-determination. What would annexation mean for the Palestinian national movement as a whole?
DB: Sadly, the Palestinian leadership has responded to the plan the same way it has addressed other crises and assaults on their people since Mahmoud Abbas took office, including Israel’s settlement enterprise and apartheid wall, with words of condemnation but little action. Under Abbas, the Palestine Liberation Organization and Palestinian Authority remain committed to a two-state solution achieved through negotiations, even though it has been clear for many years that the “peace process” and two-state solution are dead because Israel, backed by the US, has refused to negotiate in good faith, and instead used talks as a cover to further expand settlements and cement control over Palestinian land. Interestingly, in a recent poll, only 39% of Palestinians in the occupied territories said that they still support a two-state solution, while 37% support a single state in all of Palestine/Israel with equal rights for all, an increase of 10% over the past decade. In this pivotal historical movement, Palestinians should be pressing for Israeli accountability at the UN and other international bodies while rethinking our goals and strategic options, including whether it is feasible and sensible to continue working for the creation of a Palestinian state and two-state solution in light of the realities we face today.