In the Jordan Valley in the West Bank, Israeli settlers are celebrating after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans to annex the region.
“I was excited. I didn’t sleep at night,” said David Elhayani, mayor of the Jordan Valley Regional Council which represents local settlers.
Late Tuesday Netanyahu announced that if he wins the September 17 parliamentary elections, he will annex the key area immediately.
The region makes up around a quarter of the West Bank.
Around 45,000 Palestinians live there, along with fewer than 10,000 Israelis. The areas outlined by Netanyahu include some 30 settlements, and though the prime minister has said no Palestinians will be annexed, 48 Palestinian villages with a total just under 9,000 residents are in the marked area.
Sitting with a plate of dates, one of the main products from the region, Elhayani told how he moved to the area in 1983, aged just 23 at the time. “There was nothing,” he said.
Tuesday’s announcement was “not a total surprise,” he said.
For months there have had inklings that US President Donald Trump’s long delayed peace plan was likely to consider the Jordan Valley a key area for Israel’s security, allowing Netanyahu to pledge to annex it, he said.
“We cannot do anything without the Americans.”
Trump has been a firm supporter of Netanyahu since he took office in the White House in 2017.
His administration is expected to finally reveal an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, drawn up by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, after next week’s elections.
But the Palestinians have refused to deal with Trump’s government, accusing it of pro-Israel bias.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also condemned Netanyahu’s Tuesday announcement, saying if he annexed the Jordan Valley it would mean an end to all peace agreements signed with Israel.
‘More eyes on the ground’
A desert region in the valley along the Jordan River, the Jordan Valley stretches 85 kilometers (some 50 miles) along the Jordanian border.
Almost all of it is already under full Israeli control, which argues it is imperative for its security.
Israeli left-wing group B’Tselem says 56 percent of the region is reserved for military use.
“Security and settlements go together,” said Elhayani.
“When there is a tractor there is another eye” to monitor the area, he said.
Some 70 percent of local settler families work in agriculture, which also employs 6,000 Palestinians every day, he said.
Further north, in the village of Jiftlik, Palestinian Mohamed Abu Saada shows off his dates cupped in the palm of his hand — brown and oval ready to be packaged.
“The best dates in the world!”
Business is good and he plans to expand the plant, where 40 people work in the cool of the warehouse.
“Nobody helped us here, whether Israelis or Palestinians, nothing,” he said, showing off the factory’s new extension.
‘Already under Israel’
Any development in the vast majority of the Jordan Valley needs an Israeli license, which can be extremely difficult for Palestinians to obtain.
According to B’Tselem, 85 percent of the land in the valley is already inaccessible to Palestinians.
“Israel has treated this area as if it is its own for 52 years,” said Roy Yellin, the organization’s public relations director.
But Palestinian Mohamed Abu Saada is confident Netanyahu’s threats are mere election rhetoric.
The Israeli leader is in a close and viciously fought campaign to maintain his control when the country goes to the polls for the second time this year on September 17.
Netanyahu “will not do anything, he has never done anything, he’s just doing it for the elections,” the 69-year-old said.
If the area did become part of Israel, he would be concerned.
“When I venture out of my land, I’m afraid to go out. We are under occupation, and it’ll be worse,” he said.
A little further, at the entrance to the Palestinian village of Marj Ghazal, nestled in a dusty hill overlooking palm plantations, Jalal Abu Jarrar has recently opened a service station.
Like other parts of the area, he said, “sometimes we have water, sometimes we don’t, the same with electricity.”
“And yet, it’s better than before when we had only salt water,” the 30-year-old with curly black hair and bright smile said.
“But it’s already like we are in Israel. What’s going to change? We’re under total Israeli control, there’s nothing new.”