Specter of withdrawal a constant for Jordan Valley settlers

Farmers and free spirits living in the area can imagine having to go elsewhere, but a community leader warns there can be no IDF presence without settlements

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

The Jordan Valley, a buffer zone and an agricultural miracle (Photo credit: Moshe Shai/ Flash 90)
The Jordan Valley, a buffer zone and an agricultural miracle (Photo credit: Moshe Shai/ Flash 90)

Gal Shani grows peppers. He, along with his brother, sister and father, exports 3,000 tons of red and yellow peppers a year. They cultivate the “unforgiving vegetable” in Tomer, a secular agricultural settlement in the Jordan Valley. This is a daunting task. It means making a life in the lowest place on earth. It means fending off flies that seem to live in clouds and making peace with a cruel, relentless sun. It means contending with what even the Jordan Valley Regional Council website acknowledges is a “terrific heat … accompanied by the shades of barrenness.” It means working with Palestinian laborers day in and day out, even as the West Bank simmers with violence. And it means having to contend with the growing thicket of protests and boycotts on the European market. So excuse him if he — a farmer used to living with things that he can’t control — doesn’t get worked up about the news.

Has he heard about the US plan that will reportedly allow Israel to maintain a security presence in the Jordan Valley but also categorically demand the withdrawal of all settlements? Yes. Has he followed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statements, which have carefully sidestepped the issue of an Israeli civilian presence in the region? Yes. He also knows that Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who has, rather astutely in terms of local politics, taken on the cause of settlement in the Jordan Valley, is slated to visit his family’s net-house pepper farm on Thursday, but he refuses to muster much more than a shrug.

“I built a house a little while ago,” Shani said, standing alongside an assembly line that disinfects, washes, dries, weighs and sorts peppers. “The contractor was Palestinian. And he said to me, ‘I’m going to build this really well so I can move in after the withdrawal.’ We’re not naïve. We know it could happen. There’s no sense dwelling on it… We’ll comply if the time comes.”

That attitude is shared by 62 percent of Jordan Valley residents, who would either favorably consider, or certainly be willing, to leave their homes and accept adequate compensation within the framework of a peace deal, according to a recent poll by Blue White Future, an organization that promotes a two-state solution on the basis of land for peace.

Gal Shani at his family's SM Valley farm in the Jordan Valley (Photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)
Gal Shani at his family’s SM Valley farm in the Jordan Valley (Photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/Times of Israel)

Others, including politicians both local and national, have shown far less equanimity in the face of recent developments. In November, Netanyahu announced that Israel’s security requirements would “no doubt include many things but first among them will be that the State of Israel’s security border remains along the Jordan [River].” Between the lines, readily visible, was the unsaid truth: security border meant soldiers, not settlements.

In December, Army Radio reported that an American framework agreement, as presented to both sides by Secretary of State John Kerry, accepted the notion of an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley and called for the construction of a significant border barrier, along with the free and frequent travel of drones in the area.

Likud leaders, realizing that even a relatively generous US plan, one the Palestinians considered outrageous, would not include the Jordan Valley’s 21 settlements, submitted a bill to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation calling for the annexation of the territory [there are fewer than 15,000 Palestinians in the area], even though, all sides understood, Netanyahu will not let the bill evolve into law.

On Thursday, Interior Minister Sa’ar will travel to the Jordan Valley with a large contingent of Knesset members and lay the cornerstone of a new settlement, likely triggering castigation and congratulations from the usual corners.

These cat-and-mouse games, within the halls of government and out in the field, are par for the course in the high country of Judea and Samaria, the settlement districts along the mountain ridge of the West Bank. In the Jordan Valley, home predominantly to no-nonsense agriculturalists, the political theater, judging by a recent visit, registered as something between a nuisance and an unnecessary pawing at old wounds for many residents, and as an absolutely crucial show of support for the head of the regional council.

To the lowest valley in the world

Traveling east from Jerusalem, watching the color drain from the hills as they bled from red to brown to yellow to a sun-beaten near-white, I was reminded of the Yiddish-speaking prime minister Levi Eshkol and his deputy prime minister Yigal Allon. The two set out together to tour the prairies of the Jordan shortly after the Six Day War. As they traced the river north, Allon recalled in an oral testimony quoted in Gershom Gorenberg’s “The Accidental Empire,” Eshkol kept hopping out of the jeep to examine the color and consistency of the soil, because, as Allon said, he was “a man of settlement in every sinew of his body.”

Prime Minister Levi Eshkol drining water during a 1967 visit to the Jordan Valley (Photo credit: Moshe Milner/ Government Press Office)
Prime Minister Levi Eshkol drinking water during a 1967 visit to the Jordan Valley (photo credit: Moshe Milner/Government Press Office)

Today, most Israelis do the opposite as they drive past the shredded plastic bags snagged on the separation fence and the Bedouin shanty towns and the adorned camel that marks sea level. They keep the windows up, crank the air conditioner and scramble to find a source of music that does not rely on radio reception. And they remain in that mode, generally, until they’ve passed through the 70-kilometer stretch and arrived safely at the Sea of Galilee and beyond.

Head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council David Elchaiiani, who fielded phone calls from Sa’ar during a recent interview, was eager to dispel the notion of the valley as a fly-ridden patch of desolation. “Take the Arava,” he said of the wide desert prairie south of the Dead Sea. In all three regional councils, stretching to the city limits of Eilat, there are a total of 7,500 residents, on 24 settlements, cultivating 35,000 dunams [7,907 acres] of land. In the Jordan Valley, he said, on a smaller parcel of land, in an area where the temperature was once recorded at 51 degrees Celsius in the shade, “we have 7,000 residents on 21 settlements, cultivating 52,000 dunams [12,849 acres] of land — and that’s in a region that is shrouded in uncertainty, politically speaking.”

Jordan Valley Regional Council head David Elchiiani (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/ Flash 90)
Jordan Valley Regional Council head David Elchaiiani (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

Elchaiiani, a former merchant marine from Tiberias and currently an herb farmer on the moshav of Argaman — he came to the area in the late 70s to visit his girlfriend, Channa (today his wife) — offered three main reasons why Israel should, while genuinely striving toward peace, assert sovereignty over the Jordan Valley.

The first and most emphatic was security. A secular, life-long Likud member who only once strayed and voted for Ariel Sharon when he headed Kadima, Elchaiiani did not quote the Midrash attributed to Rabbi Tanchuma, in which it is written that Jericho is “the lock to the Land of Israel.” He did say, however, that every one of the settlements in the valley was put in place for security reasons. “Our entire concept is defensive,” he said, noting how the two lines of settlement rest along the north-south Route 90 and the major junctions on the roads leading west.

The instability that has seized the region, along with potential weapons smuggling from Jordan, he said, would put Israel’s major cities at risk if the state relinquished control of the valley.

Fond of car and driving metaphors, he likened the region to a seatbelt on a hazardous road: a minimal requirement.

Interestingly, he claimed that Israel’s security requirements, for which there is wide public consensus, could not be answered by military presence alone. “Just as there is no settlement without the army, so, too, there is no army without settlement,” he said.

To put soldiers on the ground without the infrastructure of settlements surrounding them, he said, would instantly create another sort of south Lebanon security zone, where soldiers came under constant attack. “It’s a suicide mission,” he said repeatedly. “There’s no chance they’ll survive here. Without settlement there will be no army here.”

Asked for a military perspective on this symbiotic relationship, MK Shaul Mofaz, who served as IDF chief of staff during then-president Bill Clinton’s final push for a peace agreement in 2000, said his position today is just as it was back then: that Israel must maintain sovereignty in the Jordan Valley for 20 years. “And if we maintain sovereignty, then there’s no reason to remove the settlers.” He would not say, though, that the well-being of the troops on the ground was dependent on the presence of civilian settlers.

Elchaiiani’s other two reasons for state sovereignty in the Jordan Valley relate to agriculture and regional cooperation. But they are best addressed outside the confines of his office.

South of the regional council building, in the settlement of Na’ama, Gil Rosenbloom grows organic cucumbers and herbs. For a while, as the husky in his yard will attest, he wasn’t sure he’d follow his parents’ footsteps and settle in the Jordan Valley. But in the end, the young father said, he was drawn to the landscape of his youth and the freedom it provided. The uncertain future of the settlements was not a deterrent. The feeling has accompanied him for most of his life. “We live in the moment,” he said. “To tell you that we’ll be here in another 30 years? I don’t know. But we don’t live with our suitcases packed.”

Gil Rosenbloom, in a green house in which his family grows organic cucumbers (Photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)
Gil Rosenbloom, in a green house where he grows organic cucumbers (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/Times of Israel)

Instead, his focus is on growing herbs, which provides more than ample distraction and headache. Na’ama, a 36-family settlement, grows more than 10 percent of the fresh mint, rosemary, basil and thyme in Israel. The vast majority gets exported — previously to Europe, but that’s become more difficult of late. England, he said, is completely unreachable for produce grown in the West Bank. “They won’t touch it,” he said, adding, “and we don’t hide it.”

Germany, France and Holland are more open, but the majority of produce these days — aside from dates, which the Europeans still buy regardless of politics — goes to the expanding market in Russia. The Shani family farm, SM Valley, situated several miles north of Na’ama, today sends 90 percent of its peppers to Russia.

But what both farms share, and the point Elchaiiani was keen to hammer home, is that beyond financial success in the face of daunting natural and political obstacles, this farming isn’t done in a vacuum. At SM Valley, on the day I visited, there were upwards of 120 Palestinian workers from Jericho picking and sorting the vegetables. The majority of them were women. “There are 6,000 Palestinians who work in agriculture [in the Jordan Valley] every day,” said Yuval Shani, Gal’s older brother. “They’re the ones who will be harmed. I’ll be compensated.”

Palestinian workers from Jericho at the SM Valley farm (Photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)
Palestinian workers from Jericho at the SM Valley farm (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/Times of Israel)

Elchaiiani responded with outrage earlier this year when Jews committed “price tag” attacks in the Jordan Valley. He labeled the crimes terrorism, displaying an empathy often lacking in the feeble condemnations heard from other corners of the West Bank. He added that local Israeli farmers paid a total of 200 million shekels a year to Palestinian employees. “What has Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] done for them?” he asked, his voice rising. “What jobs has he provided? What has he built? Nothing. Not one sidewalk. Not one playground. Not one fucking playground.”

Israeli settlements, he continued, grow dates collectively in the Jordan Valley. They cultivate 18,000 dunam [4,448 acres] of date orchards, bringing to market 40 percent of the world’s majhoul dates, which are hard to grow and had disappeared from the region many years ago. European and even Arab states buy the Jordan Valley dates — the Arab states, he said, ask for plain brown packages with no writing or design. But the settlements also sold saplings and irrigation systems to Palestinians, who now cultivate 8,000 dunam [1,977 acres] of their own date palms. “Do you have any idea how long it took us to figure out how to grow those dates here?” he asked. “We gave that to them.”

Further north, the ambiance was notably different. Shira Amusi, a mother of five and two stepchildren, met me with the youngest of her kids strapped to her back. Since I was late and she was short for time, we agreed to talk while she hung the laundry. Nearby a mud house was under construction and she explained how she had, as a single woman, founded the ecological settlement of Rotem by herself.

Shira Amusi in her front yard (Photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)
Shira Amusi in her front yard (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/Times of Israel)

Born in Jerusalem to a librarian and a teacher, and quite certain after her army service that she wanted to live in a community “where you can change your mind” about religion without worrying about what your neighbor will say, she ventured out looking for a place to live. Seeking religious freedom and an eco-friendly mindset, she combed through the Negev and found nothing suitable. In 1998, on her way to check out a place in the Golan Heights, she asked a settlement adviser about the Jordan Valley. She had never spent any time in the area and had no interest in living there. “You don’t want to live there,” the adviser said. “It’s hot. There are flies. The communities are small. They are spread far apart.”

“Perfect,” she said. “Show me.”

They turned left in a westerly direction at Mehola Junction and climbed a bit toward the ridge line. At the top of a hill, her friend stopped the car. There were a few old caravans, relics of an ultra-Orthodox Nahal Brigade camp, mounds of tan hills above and the Jordan Valley below. “I’ll take it,” she said.

But before moving in, she waited for legal authorization. “I didn’t want to be a troublemaker,” she said, and more importantly, “I knew that if I established it illegally, I would have a religious settlement, that only they would come, and that’s not what I was looking for.”

Netanyahu and Ehud Barak each nixed the settlement plan, but in August 2001, Sharon, an ardent backer of Israeli sovereignty in the Jordan Valley, green-lighted the development and Amusi was given several days to appear before the settlement board with her founding group of pioneers. Only there was no group. So she persuaded some friends to pretend that they were planning to move to the hilltop, and some two weeks later, she moved to Rotem alone. For two-and-a-half months she lived there by herself, accompanied only by two bodyguards sent from the regional council. They sat around a bonfire every night, and in the mornings she worked on a dairy farm at one of the settlements below. Her friends rotated in and out of her caravan for company.

A mud house under construction in Rotem (Photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)
A mud house under construction in Rotem (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/Times of Israel)

With time, serendipity caused her future husband to rescue her while hiking at a dried up spring in the Negev desert, and that in turn brought an eclectic mix of people to the community. Today, Rotem is defined by what Amusi called “spiritual liberty,” which is to say that there is no set number of religious or secular residents in the community, and that four different school buses arrive at the settlement each morning, taking kids to everything from ultra-Orthodox Talmud Torah day schools to state-run secular schools.

That spirituality, she said, serves as a buffer between the community and the political turbulence all around them.

Amusi, who raises sheep for beef, bees for honey and organic olives for oil, and who regularly pulls a guard shift with the flock, a sort of roving round-the-clock protection in place of a fence, is well aware of the renewed tension. Nonetheless, she said, “If the day came when they told us, ‘Go, there’s peace. Real peace.’ Then we’d be glad to go. To be the ones fulfilling this process.”

The departure would be “emotionally difficult,” she said. “But I built this place as a mission. There has to be a place in Israel where people live in spiritual liberty. And the place exists. And it doesn’t exist physically. It exists in the consciousness. And if it exists in this stretch of land, fine; and if it has to go to a different place, for a good reason, with God’s help, then it will exist elsewhere.”

Back in Jerusalem, wondering how one pours sweat into the land and contends with the constant gnawing of doubt and uncertainty, I called Professor Amia Leiblich, who spent five years chronicling the lives of people living on Kibbutz Gilgal in the Jordan Valley and eventually published “Gilgulo Shel Makon,” a community memoir, in 2000. “They’ve grown used to it,” she said. Some are aided by ideology, some by business incentives and some by the seemingly low-hanging reward of compensation in exchange for withdrawal.  “Then as now,” she said, “even though it is an absurd statement to make, the feeling was that the uncertainty could go on forever.”

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