A record-breaking group of some 150 Israelis on Saturday visited a parcel of border land that has been worked by Israeli farmers for decades but that is likely to be reclaimed by Jordan next week.
“There is a sense that many Israelis want to take a last chance to visit,” site manager Shai Hadar told Channel 13 news.
Naharayim, known in Arabic as Baqoura, in the Jordan Valley, is controlled by Jordan but has been leased by Israel for 25 years in an agreement that is set to expire.
A special clause in the 1994 peace treaty between the Israel and Jordan allowed Israel to retain use of the land, along with the Tzofar enclave in the southern Arava desert, for 25 years, with the understanding that the lease would be renewed as a matter of routine. The two areas together span 1,000 dunams (247 acres).
However, in October 2018, amid domestic unrest in Jordan, King Abdullah II announced plans to terminate the lease. Despite ongoing efforts by the Israeli government, negotiations to guarantee continued access to the areas have so far been unsuccessful. Jordan on Wednesday denied Israeli officials’ claim that it was willing to extend Israel’s access to Tzofar for another season.
Naharayim is also known as the Isle of Peace, following 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 attack, 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.
Tensions between Israel and Jordan have mounted in recent years over such issues as the contested status of Jerusalem and its holy sites, stalled peace talks with the Palestinians, and the 2017 shooting of two Jordanian citizens by an Israeli embassy guard in Amman, which ignited a diplomatic crisis.
Besides Egypt, Jordan is the only Arab country that Israel has a peace agreement with.
Officials in Israel have expressed concerns that the move signaled a desire on Jordan’s part to effectively reduce 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.
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz on Friday held a rally at Naharayim and called for advancing ties with Jordan.
“I know that King Abdullah comes from a royal house of nobility, respect and peace. Like his father, I’m sure that he understands that there is great importance in continuing to cooperate with us in the name of peace,” Gantz said.
“I’m pledging here that when I lead the State of Israel I’ll do all in my power to strengthen the peace agreement with Jordan and move relations with Jordan forward,” Gantz said, according to the Walla news site.
Gantz said he would improve ties with Jordan through shared infrastructure projects, as well as with political and security efforts.
“In order to turn the area where we live, alongside Jordan, into an area of cooperation, we need to move forward processes that will expand our connections with Jordan and with other Arab countries,” Gantz said.