'Not a happy day'; kibbutz has farmed the area for 70 years

Gate closes at ‘Isle of Peace’ park as border lands to return to Jordan

Visitors take likely final tour of Naharayim, which along with Tzofar will no longer be accessible to Israelis; local official slams government for failing to prevent ‘farewell’

Israeli soldiers close the gate leading to the "Isle of Peace" at Naharayim on November 9, 2019. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)
Israeli soldiers close the gate leading to the "Isle of Peace" at Naharayim on November 9, 2019. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

Israeli soldiers on Saturday closed the gate to a peace park along the Jordanian border for what was likely the final time under Israel’s control, as two sites leased by the country as part of the peace treaty were set to return to Jordan.

Hundreds of visitors took “farewell tours” on Saturday at Naharayim in the Jordan Valley, which along with Tzofar in the southern Arava region was to be closed off to Israelis on Sunday.

Following the last guided tour of the day, Israel Defense Forces troops shuttered the gate to Naharayim around 4:30 p.m., marking its effective return to Jordan.

“This is not a happy day for anyone, this is a sad day. It is a day that we’re sorry has come,” Idan Greenbaum, head of the regional council, where Naharayim is located, said before the gate was closed.

The 1994 peace agreement allowed Israel to retain use of the enclaves for 25 years, with the understanding that the lease would be renewed as a matter of routine. However, in October last year, Jordan’s King Abdullah said his country had notified Israel that it wants to take the sites back.

In a video filmed inside the old power plant at Naharayim, Greenbaum said it was a “painful moment” for residents of a nearby kibbutz who have farmed the land for over 70 years and have strongly criticized the government for its unsuccessful efforts to retain access to the site.

A picture taken on November 8, 2019, shows Israeli soldiers and tourists next to a border gate on the Israeli side of the border at the Jordan Valley site of Naharayim, east of the Jordan river and which has been leased to Israel as part of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

“This farewell is entirely [the result of] improper and wrong conduct by the Israeli government over the last year,” he said. “We’re sorry we’re parting from this place we held with blood and sweat for so many years.”

Greenbaum told Army Radio on Friday that Jordanian officials informed him that as of Sunday the Naharayim site will be out of bounds. Israeli authorities, he said, have told him nothing.

“As of this time, no Israeli official has chosen to update us,” he said.

Asked by AFP for details, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said “the agreement will expire on November 10th,” without elaborating.

Idan Greenbaum, head of the Emek Hayarden Regional Council, at the gate leading to the “Isle of Peace” at Naharayim on November 9, 2019. (Screen capture: Twitter)

Last month, Israeli Foreign Ministry sources said that Jordan had agreed to an extension covering another farming season at Tzofar, lasting between five and seven months. However, Amman quickly denied the claim, saying there would be no extension of the lease on either site.

Channel 13 reported Thursday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, had met Monday in Amman with Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi who told him there would be no extension to the Naharayim and Tzofar leases.

Citing “senior sources” in Jordan, it said Safadi instead suggested that compensation be paid to the Israeli farmers for crops remaining at the sites after the handover.

Since the heady days of the 1994 treaty, which made Jordan only the second country after Egypt to make peace with Israel, relations with Amman have been strained.

Opinion polls have repeatedly found that the peace treaty with Israel is overwhelmingly opposed by Jordanians, more than half of whom are of Palestinian origin.

Naharayim, also known as the Isle of Peace, is the site of a deadly March 1997 attack in which a group of schoolgirls from Beit Shemesh were fired upon during an outing to the area. The girls and their unarmed teachers were standing on a hill above an abandoned lake in the enclave when a Jordanian soldier opened fire on them and killed seven of the schoolchildren.

Following the killings, the late King Hussein of Jordan made an unprecedented trip to each of the victims’ homes in Israel to express his personal sorrow and the grief of his nation.

The flower memorial dedicated to the seven Israeli schoolgirls murdered while visiting the Island of Peace in 1997 (Public domain)

In 2017, an Israeli embassy security guard in Amman killed two Jordanians. Three years earlier, an Israeli soldier at a border crossing killed a Jordanian judge he deemed a threat.

Just last month, Amman recalled its ambassador in Israel over the prolonged detention without trial in the Jewish state of two Jordanians. Israel has not commented on the reasons for their imprisonment, though Israeli media have said they were detained on suspicion of security-related offenses.

Screen capture from video of the Tzofar area of land between Israel and Jordan. (YouTube)

They were freed and returned to Jordan on Wednesday and Netanyahu’s office said the Jordanian ambassador would return shortly.

Officials in Israel have expressed concerns that the ending of the lease signaled a desire on Jordan’s part to effectively downgrade diplomatic ties, and many see it as a reflection of intense domestic pressure from a Jordanian public that still largely views Israel as an enemy.

But Jordan has said it was exercising its legal right in deciding not to renew the agreement and denied the move would affect the decades-old peace treaty, seeking to assuage fears in Jerusalem that ties could be downgraded.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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