Israeli farmers fear for future as Jordan claims back lands
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Israeli farmers fear for future as Jordan claims back lands

King Abdullah II has notified the Jewish state that it intends to take back two areas captured in the wars before peace deal between the two nations was signed

A Jordanian flag hangs on a pool on a bridge leading from Israel to Jordan in the Jordan valley area called Naharayim, or Baqura in Arabic, in northern Israel, Monday, Oct. 22, 2018 (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
A Jordanian flag hangs on a pool on a bridge leading from Israel to Jordan in the Jordan valley area called Naharayim, or Baqura in Arabic, in northern Israel, Monday, Oct. 22, 2018 (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

AFP — Every morning with the first rays of sunlight, Eitan Guedj leaves his house in Israel, passes through two checkpoints and heads for his pepper plantation in Ghumar, a leased Jordanian territory the neighboring kingdom now wants back.

He is joined by around 30 fellow Israeli farmers and some 150 Thai workers who make a living from the 1,500 dunum (150 hectare) desert enclave just beyond a hill dominating the skyline of Tsofar village in southern Israel.

Each worker has a permit to pass through the Israeli and Jordanian checkpoints, the 36-year-old said.

“The crossings are open 365 days a year, from sunrise to sunset.”

For the quarter of a century since a historic peace deal, Israel has leased from Jordan the border territories of Ghumar, in its southern province of Aqaba, and Baqura in the northern province of Irbid.

But on Sunday, Jordan’s King Abdullah II said his country had notified Israel that it wants to take back the two areas.

The lands in question were ceded to Jordan as part of the countries’ 1994 peace treaty, but Amman agreed Israeli farmers could still access and work the plots as part of a 25-year-lease that had been widely expected in Israel to be renewed.

King Abdullah’s announcement on Sunday came days before the end of a one-year notice period.

The move risks sparking a crisis between Israel and Jordan, the only Arab country apart from Egypt to have a peace deal with the Jewish state.

Relations with the Jordanians have hitherto been “excellent,” according to Eitan Lipszyc, 60, the village’s leader for the past 13 years.

“We felt at home and we were surprised to be no longer welcome at the house,” he sighs.

He said around a third of the village’s fewer than 100 residents make a living from farming. Without access to Ghumar, Tsofar’s very survival is in doubt.

If Jordan takes back the territories, “all the facilities will be lost,” said Guedj, who earns 80 percent of his income from selling peppers grown on the Jordanian land — most of them for export.

Planted in greenhouses tinted yellow by ochre dust from the surrounding desert, peppers grow better in Ghumar than elsewhere in the area, he said, as the soil there is rich in minerals.

He estimated it would take him five to six years to relaunch his business inside Israel, and said he would probably never achieve such good returns.

King Abdullah’s decision was seen as a response to growing public anger over high unemployment, inflation, and poverty, exacerbated by the presence of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the war in neighboring Syria.

The announcement came after a series of demonstrations calling for the return of Baqura and Ghumar organized by lawmakers, political parties, trade unions, and activists.

Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel is overwhelmingly opposed by Jordanians, more than half of whom are of Palestinian origin.

Following the king’s announcement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to calm the crisis, proposing negotiations with Jordan to keep the current arrangement in place.

Possibly in an attempt to show goodwill, Israel sent helicopters and search and rescue teams to its neighbor this week after a flash flood in the Dead Sea region that killed 21 people, most of them schoolchildren.

The Hashemite kingdom has said it is willing to engage in talks but insists on its right to reclaim the land.

Under the treaty, the two sides have a year to agree on the future of the enclaves.

Oded Eran, Israeli ambassador to Jordan from 1997 to 2002 and a researcher at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, said Israel must “offer something attractive to the Jordanians” or compensate the farmers for their losses.

In Tsofar, residents are hoping for a negotiated solution.

“For the time being, we’re looking at our options,” Lipszyc said, adding that he does not want to organize protests but rather to support the government in its efforts.

Israeli farmers tilling Jordanian soil is “good for peace,” he said.

Some residents speculate that Jordanian farmers will struggle to grow anything on the land, surrounded by barren desert.

The prospect of being cut off from the enclave places “enormous pressure” on the village, said Guedj, who has three children to feed.

“If I lose this land, I’ll probably leave,” he said. “There is nothing else in the area — neither tourism nor high-tech industry.”

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