The Jordanian army on Saturday reportedly prevented hundreds of Israelis from entering the Naharayim border area, which was leased to Israel under an appendix to the 1994 peace accord that is set to expire later this year.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II announced in October 2018 he would not renew the appendix to the peace treaty that granted Israel use of the area — two small parcels of agricultural land, long farmed by Israeli farmers, which are also home to the remains of a hydroelectric power station built by Jews in 1921. Known in Israel as Naharayim in the north and the Tzofar enclave in the southern Arava desert, the territories are thus set to return to Jordanian hands when the lease expires in October.
Israel is hoping to persuade the Jordanians to reconsider, but no progress is known to have been made in such efforts.
Israeli tourists who arrived Saturday at the Naharayim site, also known as the Isle of Peace, were turned away by the Jordanian military despite being in possession of the necessary permits and having coordinated the trip with authorities in advance, Hadashot TV news reported.
A local Israeli official told Hadashot news that Jordanian officials were changing the facts on the ground, but that he remained hopeful that tourists from both sides would be able to continue to visit the site.
“Unfortunately, since the announcement by the king of Jordan about the future of the Naharayim Isle of Peace, we are witnessing attempts by Jordanian officials to change the arrangements and facts on the ground that have been in place in Naharayim for the past 25 years,” said Idan Greenbaum, head of the Emek HaYarden regional council.
“We continue to hope that the leaders of both countries, Jordan and Israel, will act to allow citizens on both sides to continue to visit the Isle of Peace, which should continue to serve as a symbol of good neighborly relations between the sides.”
The Isle of Peace was so named in the wake of a deadly March 1997 attack, when a group of schoolgirls from Beit Shemesh were fired upon during an outing to Naharayim. 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.
Eventually, new security arrangements were finalized, designed to ensure the safety of Israeli visitors.
After announcing in October that it would end the Israeli access, Jordan said the following month it had received a formal request from Israel to open negotiations about the future of the two parcels of land.
But Minister of State for Media Affairs Jumana Ghunaimat noted that Jordan was exercising its legal right in notifying that it had decided not to renew the agreement. She said that the kingdom was committed to negotiating with Israel in a way that “preserves Jordan’s national interests,” the report said.
With Abdullah II’s announcement, the sides formally have a year to negotiate the end of the lease. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated he will lobby for Amman to reverse the decision, Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi has said that the only item on the table is the mechanism for canceling the agreement.
Jordan has said the decision will not affect the decades-old peace agreement, seeking to assuage fears in Jerusalem that ties could be downgraded.
Officials in Israel have expressed concerns that the move signaled Jordan’s desire 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.
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.
An Israeli TV report last month said Israel is set to approve a highly touted and long-stalled project for a canal to link the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, in a likely effort to improve relations. It has previously been reported that Israeli officials believe the repeated delays in implementing the project have contributed to tensions between Israel and its neighbor, which suffers from severe water shortages that could be alleviated by the canal.
According to the plan, a desalination plant in Jordan will provide much-needed drinking water to the region while its brine (very salty water left over from the desalination process) will be pumped north to the Dead Sea to replenish the fast-shrinking lake, while also producing green energy through use of water turbines.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.