Farmers continue working land in Jordan enclave, despite impending end of lease

Regional spokesperson says agriculture workers entered area near Tzofar as normal, day after troops shut another site, Naharayim Isle of Peace, as 25-year lease with Amman ends

An agricultural vehicle in the Tzofar area in the Arava region on the Israel-Jordan border, leased to Israel by Jordan as part of the 1994 peace agreement, in February 2007. (Chaver83/Wikimedia Commons)
An agricultural vehicle in the Tzofar area in the Arava region on the Israel-Jordan border, leased to Israel by Jordan as part of the 1994 peace agreement, in February 2007. (Chaver83/Wikimedia Commons)

Israeli farmers on Sunday morning entered an agricultural enclave inside Jordan, despite the impending end of an agreement allowing them access to the lands.

Farmers from the community of Tzofar in the southern Arava region have been preparing to lose access to the land, after Jordan said it would not renew a 25-year lease agreement on two parcels — Tzofar’s and Naharayim to the north.

On Saturday, troops closed off the “Isle of Peace” in Naharayim near the Sea of Galilee, marking the end of the deal which was part of the historic 1994 peace agreement between the nations. The ending of the leases is seen as a sign of chilly relations between Jerusalem and Amman.

While Israelis have apparently been totally cut off from the Naharayim enclave, 31 Israeli farmers will be allowed to continue working in Tzofar until May 2020, as part of a tacit agreement between Jordan and the Israelis, the Ynet news site reported.

“The farmers entered [the enclave] to work today as normal,” a spokesperson for the Arava Regional Council told The Times of Israel.

The spokesperson said orders marking the enclave a closed military zone with access only to farmers remained in place, as normal.

There was no immediate comment from Jordan, which last month denied that a deal had been reached to extend the farming lease.

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

The farmers have crops growing on some 1,500 dunams (370 acres) in the enclave near Tzofar, some four kilometers (2.5 miles) inside Jordan. They say the produce is their main source of income.

The 1994 peace agreement allowed Israel to retain use of the enclaves for 25 years, with the understanding that the lease would be renewed as a matter of routine. However, in October last year, Jordan’s King Abdullah said his country had notified Israel that it wants to take the land back.

Last month, Israeli Foreign Ministry sources said that Jordan had agreed to an extension covering another farming season at Tzofar, lasting between five and seven months. However, Amman quickly denied the claim, saying there would be no extension of the lease on either site.

A Jordanian flag hangs 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)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, had met Monday in Amman with Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, to discuss Jordanian nationals being held in Israel and other bilateral issues.

During the meeting, Safadi said there would be no extension to the Naharayim and Tzofar leases, Israel’s Channel 13 news reported Thursday.

Citing “senior sources” in Jordan, it said Safadi instead suggested that compensation be paid to the Israeli farmers for crops remaining at the sites after the handover.

In northern Israel, Naharayim, which includes a peace park in addition to agricultural lands, was closed off to visitors Saturday. Hundreds of visitors took “farewell tours” during the day in the area, and following the last guided tour of the day around 4:30 p.m., Israeli troops shuttered the gate to the enclave, marking its effective return to Jordan.

“This is not a happy day for anyone, this is a sad day. It is a day that we’re sorry has come,” Idan Greenbaum, head of the regional council where Naharayim is located, said before the gate was closed.

In a video filmed inside the old power plant at Naharayim, Greenbaum said it was a “painful moment” for residents of a nearby kibbutz who have farmed the land for over 70 years and have strongly criticized the government for its unsuccessful efforts to retain access to the site.

A picture taken on November 8, 2019, shows Israeli soldiers and tourists next to a border gate on the Israeli side of the border at the Jordan Valley site of Naharayim, east of the Jordan river and which has been leased to Israel as part of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

“This farewell is entirely [the result of] improper and wrong conduct by the Israeli government over the last year,” he said. “We’re sorry we’re parting from this place we held with blood and sweat for so many years.”

Since the heady days of the 1994 treaty, which made Jordan only the second country after Egypt to make peace with Israel, relations with Amman have been strained.

Idan Greenbaum, head of the Emek Hayarden Regional Council, at the gate leading to the “Isle of Peace” at Naharayim on November 9, 2019. (Screen capture: Twitter)

Opinion polls have repeatedly found that the peace treaty with Israel is overwhelmingly opposed by Jordanians, more than half of whom are of Palestinian origin.

Naharayim, also known as the Isle of Peace, is the site of 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 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.

The flower memorial dedicated to the seven Israeli schoolgirls murdered while visiting the Island of Peace in 1997 (Public domain)

Officials in Israel have expressed concerns that the ending of the lease signaled a desire on Jordan’s part to effectively downgrade 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.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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