The Island of Peace, a small pocket of land on the Israeli-Jordanian border formed by the confluence of the Yarmouk and the Jordan Rivers, lives up to its name, aesthetically at least. Rivers, both man-made and natural, border it on every side. In the winter, rains bring an explosion of green. Winds rustle the wheat stalks and the giant Jordanian flag as birds perch gracefully on the banks and, in the distance, cars whiz down Route 90.
At Naharayim — “double river” in Hebrew — which once powered the entire northern part of pre-state Israel with hydroelectricity, the country was stunned by an act of senseless violence 22 years ago Wednesday, and the site is now the center of a diplomatic tussle between Israel and Jordan.
Once a symbol of peace between Israel and Jordan, the enclave has since March 13, 1997, become a symbol of the division between the two countries, the more so after Amman last year decided to cancel an agreement to lease small plots of land on the border to Israeli farmers.
The Island of Peace is one of two plots of agricultural land that Jordan leases to Israel as part of the 1994 peace agreement between Jordan and Israel. According to the peace agreement, Jordan agreed to 25-year leases for two areas – Naharayim in the north and Tzofar in the south. These lands were deemed to belong to Jordan, but Israeli farmers have tilled them since the 1950s. As part of the peace deal, Israeli farmers could continue to work their land in cooperation with the Jordanian authorities. The lease agreement was automatically renewable, unless either side gave a year’s notice to terminate the deal and enter into negotiations.
On October 21, 2018, the Hebrew anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Jordan’s King Abdullah II announced plans to pull out of the land lease agreement, which expires in October 2019. The timing was no accident: Rabin was the Israeli prime minister who signed the peace deal with the current king’s father in 1994.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly announced that Israel would enter into negotiations to extend the land lease, but Abdullah II’s announcement has served to highlight a severe disconnect between Israeli and Jordanian expectations over what will happen to these small pieces of land.
Israeli politicians, experts, and farmers on the two enclaves in question are confident that some kind of agreement will be reached, which could include Israeli gestures such as giving Jordan more water, speeding along the process for the Red Sea-Dead Sea water project, or economic initiatives.
But Jordanian politicians and experts say Israel is misunderstanding the deep discontent and anger within both the public and the government, and they are adamant that Jordan will stand strong and not renew the lease.
The more Jordan resists, the more popularity the move gains at home and the higher its bargaining power. Meanwhile, the question remains over how much Israel is willing to pay to hold onto two small, moderately profitable parcels of farmland.
One more river to cross
The land at the center of the storm is tiny: Naharayim is approximately 1,000 dunams (250 acres), and the Tzofar enclave is around 1,200 dunams (300 acres) of fields and greenhouses. Together, it’s about 2.2 square kilometers (0.9 square miles) of land that Israeli farmers have tilled since 1949.
“They couldn’t decide, using historical documents, who really owns the land, so instead, they decided on a compromise,” explained Avner Ron, a farmer from the nearby kibbutz of Ashdot Yaakov Ihud. Ron, now semiretired, still grows wheat on the Island of Peace and offers tours of the area to visitors, in cooperation with the Jordanian military. He said about 10 farmers from the kibbutz grow crops on the Island of Peace, though many, like him, are retiring.
In Naharayim, Israelis farmers have special IDs that allow them to pass through the Jordanian military checkpoint into their farmland. They once had orchards of fruit trees and groves of bananas, and some olives. “It wasn’t really profitable,” said Ron. “It was hard to get to, there were a lot of wild boars, and we had water problems.” Over the past few years, most farmers in the area have shifted to growing wheat, which is less labor intensive and requires minimal infrastructure.
In contrast, the farmers of Moshav Tzofar, the plot of land in the south also affected by the lease agreement, grow peppers and flowers in greenhouses in a much harsher desert climate. The greenhouses cost hundreds of thousands of shekels, and many say if they are forced to leave their land, it will put them out of business and possibly force them to leave the region.
While Israeli officials had reportedly been aware for several months of Jordanian murmurings about cancel the land agreement, Abdullah’s announcement — and particularly the sharp tone of his statement — came as something of a surprise.
“We are practicing our full sovereignty on our land,” Abdullah said in his October announcement. “Our priority in these regional circumstances is to protect our interests and do whatever is required for Jordan and the Jordanians.”
“Jordan is not going to rescind this position,” said Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian analyst living in Amman who writes for Al-Monitor and runs a local radio station. “Jordan has no political incentive to help Israel, and it has a legal right to retain its sovereign property.” Kuttab said he could not see “any circumstance that would let Jordan make a compromise on this issue.”
“This is one of those rare cases in Jordan where the people, the government, the king, and the parliament are all in unison on this issue,” Kuttab added. “That’s what makes it much more difficult for Jordan to retract this statement.”
Kuttab said that with little hope of renewing the dormant peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, Jordan has no reason to make concessions to Israel. He said that if Israeli government officials had taken action early last year, when the issue first came up for discussion in the Jordanian parliament, it would have been easier to find a compromise. That was before several mass demonstrations in Jordan urged the government to “reassert Jordanian sovereignty” over the area and and before 80 lawmakers signed a letter to the government advocated the cancellation of the lease.
But King Abdullah’s announcement in October was a turning point that significantly weakened Israel’s bargaining power. “Once the decision was made, it’s impossible to retract,” said Kuttab. “I don’t see that there is the stomach for something like [reneging on the announcement]. Jordan has own economic and internal problems.”
It’s not the land, it’s the symbol
In Israel, analysts agree that the land itself is the smallest part of the conflict. The real issue is what Abdullah’s announcement means for deteriorating Israeli-Jordanian relations.
“In Jordan, there’s a lot of internal problems,” said Dr. Ronni Shaked, the head of the Middle East department at the Hebrew University’s Truman Institute. “The number of residents in Jordan has doubled because of the war in Iraq, the war with ISIS, and the war with Syria. Amman is just an enormous metropolis now. Jordan has lost its identity. The public has become more radicalized, more Islamic and more anti-Israel.”
“In terms of agriculture and economy, I don’t really understand why this area is so important,” Shaked said. “Security-wise, there’s no danger. Economically, I’m not sure it’s so significant.”
But Israel will never simply walk away from the two square kilometers of farmland. “It is a symbol,” Shaked said. “In our current political climate, leaders love more and more land.”
It was only in January 2018 that the countries had patched things up after relations frayed following the shooting deaths of two Jordanians in July 2017 by an Israeli security guard at the embassy in Amman.
Israel said the guard opened fire in self-defense after one of the men tried to stab him, but Jerusalem eventually apologized for the deaths of the two Jordanians, as well as for the killing of a Jordanian judge in a separate incident in 2014.
Following Abdullah II’s October announcement, Netanyahu said that the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty was nevertheless “an agreement of true peace.”
“We will enter into negotiations with Jordan to extend the existing agreement,” he said of the land-lease clauses, “but the entire agreement from a comprehensive perspective is important and dear to both countries.”
Jordan for its part has said the decision will not affect the decades-old peace agreement, seeking to assuage fears in Jerusalem that ties could be downgraded.
The prime minister’s spokesman refused to comment on ongoing negotiations about the land lease. Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi has said that the only item on the table is the mechanism for canceling the agreement.
Still, Israeli analysts are confident Israel will eventually be able to find something to sweeten the deal enough for Jordan to walk back on the rhetoric. “We need to make the king feel like he won something,” said Shaked. “Maybe it will be economic stuff, maybe it will be water stuff.”
Planting The Hill of Plucked Flowers
Naharayim, the Island of Peace is perhaps most known on both sides of the border as the site of a 1997 massacre that shocked both countries and nearly demolished the three-year-old peace agreement between Israel and Jordan.
On March 13, 1997, Jordanian soldier Ahmed Daqamseh calmly climbed down from the guard tower and shot point-blank at a group of schoolgirls from Beit Shemesh who were in the area on a field trip. Daqamseh killed seven students and injured five others, along with their teacher.
Orna Shimoni, a resident of nearby kibbutz Ashdot Yaakov Meuhad who used to give tours of the Naharayim area every two weeks to schoolchildren, had just left the group a few minutes prior to the massacre.
“I saw the shooting and just started running toward the army bunker,” Shimoni recalled, standing just outside the Island of Peace on a sunny winter morning earlier this year.
“There was screaming and I couldn’t see anything, everything was exploding around me. I lifted up my head and saw girls rolling down the hill, everyone was yelling for their mothers.”
Shimoni ran toward an Israeli police outpost and grabbed a radio, yelling, “There’s been a massacre, send a helicopter!” It took 10 minutes for ambulances to arrive.
In the aftermath of the shooting, emotions ran high between Israel and Jordan. King Hussein made a rare visit to Israel and visited each of the bereaved families at their homes.
He knelt before them and told the families, ”Your daughter is like my daughter. Your loss is my loss.”
King Hussein’s gesture was deeply appreciated by Israelis. Daqamseh was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and a Jordanian medical team gave him a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder. But on March 12, 2017, Daqamseh was released from prison and received a hero’s welcome in his home of Ibdir, drawing condemnation from some Israelis.
After the massacre, Naharayim Island was renamed the Island of Peace. Since 1998, Shimoni has maintained a memorial to the seven girls who were killed, called “The Hill of Plucked Flowers.” Gently curving paths modeled after tree branches lead to small mounds along a hillside, where she has spelled each of the girls’ names in seasonal flowers that she replaces three times a year. Shimoni’s memorial is outside of the Island of Peace, next to the road that leads to the Jordanian checkpoint, on land that won’t revert back to Jordan.
Nonetheless, Shimoni was shocked to hear, last fall, that Jordan did not plan to renew the lease. “I have an emotional connection to these 1,000 dunams,” she said.
“From pain and grief, we can keep the hope and the memory of the girls alive,” said Shimoni. She said that representatives of the Jordanian military still come each year to the memorial for the Beit Shemesh girls, though they come as private citizens and not as official representatives of Jordan.
Shimoni said cooperation surrounding the future of the site should be done “in the spirit of peace.”
“We shouldn’t be fighting for this, it should be quiet work between Israel and Jordan,” she said. “If we publicize that our relations are good, it is bad for Abdullah.”
Shimoni was optimistic that eventually, the two governments would find a solution to continue the status quo. “They’ll find a way,” she said.
An island of history and tourism
Avner Ron, the farmer whose fields lie inside the Island of Peace, also believes that eventually negotiations will find a solution that will enable Israelis to continue farming the land.
“Until October, we are here,” said Ron. “It all depends on the king. Maybe after [Israel’s April 9] elections, there will be discussions.”
Even if agriculture doesn’t continue on the site, Ron hopes that the two countries will be able to reach an agreement to encourage tourism to this quiet pocket along the border. He envisions concerts set in the natural amphitheaters created by bends in the rivers, and wants to bring a message of peace – and economic opportunity – to the place where two rivers and two countries meet.
At the center of his tourism plan is the old hydroelectric plant that once hoped to power the dreams of a modern state.
In the 1920s, Pinhas Rutenberg, later known as the Old Man of Naharayim and the father of Israeli electricity, singled out Naharayim, near the southern edge of the Sea of Galilee at the point where the Yarmouk River meets the Jordan River, as the best place for a hydroelectric dam.
Construction on the plant began in 1927, and Rutenberg designed a system of dams and channels bringing the Jordan River several kilometers away from its natural path toward a steep drop into the Yarmouk River. This man-made channel created an parcel of land between the rivers’ natural paths, today known as the Island of Peace.
A massive flood in 1931 delayed the production of electricity, but in 1932 the plant started to work, eventually providing power for most of the north of the country. During the 1948 War of Independence, Iraqi forces destroyed the turbines and the plant has remained unused ever since.
The hydroelectric plant sits on Jordanian land, though climate change and diverting the water for agriculture has weakened the flow of the rivers to the point at which hydroelectricity would no longer be feasible.
“For people from the Ashdot [kibbutzes], their grandfathers worked at this plant, there’s an emotional connection,” said Ron.
Visitors can also see ruins of many of the original bridges across the Jordan and Yarmouk Rivers, including train tracks that led from Haifa to Damascus that were blown up during the War of Independence. Today, the twisted remnants of the train tracks still jut into the air over the Jordan River.
It won’t be a stretch to encourage Israelis to visit, since many already enjoy the quiet thrill that comes from passing through a foreign military checkpoint to take a few hours’ stroll. On January 26, the Island of Peace made national headlines when the Jordanian military reportedly denied entry to hundreds of Israelis on an annual hike for Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish holiday that celebrates trees.
Ron said the Jordanians often bar entry for short periods of time due to scheduled military exercises or visits, but visitors were able to enter the Island of Peace later in the day. He chalked up the hoopla to “fake news” and local Israeli politicians trying to capture the media’s attention ahead of the lease negotiations, and insisted the incident was not indicative of deteriorating relationships with the Jordanian military nor predictive of any expected outcome after October 2019.
Years of living on the border between two countries in uneasy but persistent cooperation has taught Ron that sometimes the most important work happens quietly, out of the government and media limelight, when two groups with common interests find a way to work together.
“There could be an informal agreement,” he said, as he stood on a bridge that separates the two countries with the Jordan River churning below. “That is my hope.”
Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.