Jordan denies it agreed to extend Israeli access to border lands it wants back

Israeli officials say King Abdullah to allow farmers to raise crops for one more season before enclave is returned to Hashemite Kingdom following expiration of lease

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

Jordan on Wednesday denied Israeli officials’ claim that it was willing to extend for another season Israel’s access to border lands that Amman wants back, as leases for the areas are on the verge of expiring.

King Abdullah II has agreed that Israeli farmers be allowed to continue working their crops in the Tzofar enclave in the southern Arava desert for another season, sources in the Foreign Ministry and the National Security Council told Israeli media earlier in the day.

However, Jordan swiftly denied the report, with the country’s foreign ministry saying in a statement that the decision to take back the lands is “final and decisive.”

The development came amid ongoing talks between senior Foreign Ministry representatives and Jordanian officials regarding two parcels of land along the border between the countries — Tzofar and an enclave in the north known in Israel as Naharayim.

A special clause in the 1994 peace treaty between the two countries allowed Israel to retain use of the land for 25 years, with the understanding that the lease would be renewed as a matter of routine. However, in October 2018, amid domestic unrest in Jordan, Abdullah 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.

A view of Naharayim and the Isle of Peace, Israeli-Jordanian border, January 26, 2019 (Amanda Borschel-Dan)

On Wednesday morning, Israeli Foreign Ministry sources said that negotiations were still underway, but Jordan had agreed to an extension covering another farming season at Tzofar, lasting between five and seven months. The land in question at Tzofar covers roughly 1,100 acres (4,500 dunams), of which 272 acres (1,100 dunams) is agricultural land.

In response, the Jordanian state-run Petra news agency said, “The Foreign Ministry denied what Israeli media reported regarding the kingdom’s approval of renewing or extending the use of the Baqoura and Ghomar regions,” the Jordanian names for Naharayim and Tzofar, respectively.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Sufyan Qudah affirmed that the decision made in October last year to terminate the leases is final and will be implemented on November 10 without “renewal or extension.”

Qudah clarified that while Israel had asked to hold talks about the terms of the leases, Jordan “entered discussions regarding its termination, not its renewal.”

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.

US President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, King Hussein of Jordan and Israeli President Ezer Weizman at the peace treaty signing ceremony in the Arava Desert, October 1994. (Flash90 / Yossi Zamir)

Besides Egypt, Jordan is the only Arab country that Israel has a peace agreement with.

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 killings, the late king Hussein made an unprecedented trip to each of the victims’ homes 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.

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