Jordan Valley explained

The Jordan Valley and today's political boundaries

- by Alexander Jones and Mohammad Barakat -

Chances are you have heard recently that Israeli Prime-Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has plans to annex the Jordan Valley. The idea was given a massive boost from both the 2020 Israeli election results and the 'Peace to Prosperity' plan revealed by US President Donald Trump. Annexation is now looking increasingly possible.

But what is this place, and why is it important? Who lives there? What does Netanyahu want from it? And will annexation really happen?

This guide will answer all these questions, and more.

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The Jordan Valley is part of one of Earth's great tectonic divisions: the Syro-African Depression, in turn part of the Great Rift Valley. This growing chasm in the planet's crust extends from Lebanon along the Jordan River to the Red Sea, and from there through Ethiopia into the Great Lakes region of Africa as far as Mozambique. The rift divides Africa, Asia and Europe and has for millions of years been a migration route - including the first humans to come out of Africa, and thousands of bird species today.

The Jordan Valley section is created both by this tectonic pulling apart of plates, and also the 250km long Jordan River. The sorry trickle of polluted water here today is a far cry from the once important fresh water source which traversed an otherwise dry desert, allowing a narrow but important strip of agriculture. Starting in the snowy mountains which now form the border between Israel, Lebanon and Syria, the Jordan flows south into the Sea of Galilee. This section is still lush and free flowing, and below the lake the Lower Jordan once formed a strip of sub-tropical oases. This southern section near where the Jordan empties into the Dead Sea is thought to be where Jesus was baptised by John amid reeds, bamboo and date palms, but in modern times it has been utterly transformed. A dam built at kibbutz Deganya (incidentally, the first ever kibbutz, or collective farm) has almost entirely cut of water supply to the Lower Jordan since 1964. Below this point, the valley is marked by a small, grossly polluted stream, which is also now the border separating Israeli and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, from Jordan.

But for most of recorded human history the Jordan River did not politically divide anything, and both banks of the Jordan were typically included in the territory of subsequent Middle Eastern empires. Certainly during the 400 years of Ottoman rule the river was not a divider, with the eastern boundaries of the Empire's Syrian Provinces undefined, as the desert spanned hundreds of largely empty miles within the two curves of the Fertile Crescent. Bedouin traversed the land between the Jordan and the Euphrates but this territory was almost never centrally governed.

The Ottoman Empire in 1862. The Jordan Valley is in the centre-left.
Today's political divide along the Jordan was created by the series of international conferences after WWI which reallocated the former Ottoman territories in the Middle East. In 1922 the son of the Sharif of Mecca, the Hashemite Abdullah, was made Emir of the section to the east of the river (thereafter called Transjordan, literally 'across the Jordan'), while the area to the west became the British Mandate for Palestine. When the British Mandate ended 25 years later, war broke out. The State of Israel was proclaimed in most of the former mandatory territory, but Abdullah, now the King of Jordan, ended up with control of land on both banks of the river and annexed the 'West Bank' to his new Kingdom. The people who lived there, most of whom identified as Palestinian, were given Jordanian citizenship and one country spread uninterrupted from the old city of Jerusalem to the distant borders of Iraq.

This situation in turn lasted less than 20 years, as over six days in 1967 Israel conquered everything from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. In one generation the Palestinians living here went from being Ottoman subjects, to Jordanian citizens, to living under military occupation (which continues to this day). Something like 250,000 Palestinians fled into neighbouring Jordan, and despite the creation of civilian settlements in this new territory, relatively few Israelis were prepared to move to the harsh conditions of the Valley and 'replace' them. Fewer than 5000 Israelis today live in the 21 settlements in the valley, which is also home to over 60,000 Palestinians (about half of whom live in or near Jericho).

In the years after the Six Day War Israel fought further wars on both banks of the Jordan Valley in the battle against Palestinian militants, but in the early 1990s two major agreements were reached which gave cause for optimism. These were the Oslo Accords; which allowed some parts of Jordan Valley to be governed autonomously by the nascent Palestinian Authority, and the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty; which officially ended decades of tension and opened borders between the two erstwhile enemies.

Despite this apparent progress, things did not advance much beyond this. In 2020 Palestinian Authority autonomy is limited at best, and even then only extends to the area around Jericho, the one major Palestinian city in the area. The remaining 90% of the Jordan Valley is designated as an IDF military training ground or as a nature reserve, and Palestinians unfortunate enough to live here find themselves frequently cut off from resources including fast disappearing water supplies. The peace with Jordan is a cold peace at best, and incidents such as the cross-border murder of seven Israeli schoolgirls by a Jordanian soldier in 1997 speak to a generally loveless situation. Last year the 25-year lease of two plots of Israeli owned land which were on the East side of the river expired, and to the surprise of many in Israel, Jordan refused to renew this deal. It was seen as a key part of the spirit of compromise that symbolised the original treaty and the ease with which it fell apart shows how little trust had been built between the two countries over the intervening quarter century.
Steep hills on either side, with a narrow strip of agriculture in the middle. Date palms are common in the Jordan Valley.

For Benjamin Netanyahu then, what value does this valley with a polluted trickle of water really hold? Unlike other large settlement blocs, there aren't many voters in the Jordan Valley. Unlike the potash and other mineral extraction plants further south, at the bottom of the Dead Sea, there aren't many economic resources worth fighting over here. The scant water does nevertheless allow for a fairly significant amount of productive agriculture, but as with most features of Israeli politics, the driving motivation here is security (or at least perceptions of security). Annexing the Jordan Valley route 90, and the perpendicular route 1, which connects Jerusalem with the valley, would split the West Bank in two and end the possibility of forming a coherent Palestinian state.

Additionally, successive Israeli governments have viewed the Jordan Valley as a crucial weak point in Israel's defensive armour. Once across the Jordan, an Israeli security expert sees nothing but a barren land teaming with impoverished, radical, angry, Muslims. Holding it, therefore, is deemed critical. Refugees from at least two catastrophes in Palestine, combined with more recent Syrian and Iraqi refugees, are all just a quickly crossed desert from the biggest baddy of all - Iran.

Netanyahu has so frequently painted the Islamic Republic as the bogeyman that he has to pay attention to his country's closest border to be taken seriously by his electorate. To be fair, rhetoric like "Israel is a cancerous tumor that must be eradicated", from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is enough reason to be concerned. Jordanian King Abdullah also said that Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley would lead to a "massive conflict with Jordan". Israeli security types point to Iranian Revolutionary Guard activity in Syria and Lebanon as a sign of Iran's real intentions. However, it should not be overlooked that it is Israel, not Iran, which has acted aggressively outside its own borders in this proxy war. Israel has bombed Iranian and Syrian targets frequently over the past few years, with barely an eyebrow raised from domestic or international audiences despite clearly being illegal and immoral. The threat of annexation also greatly endangers Israel's domestic security by increasing the risk of terrorism, and the Palestinian Authority have already stopped security cooperation as a result. Furthermore, what right does Israel have to annex territory, something plainly prohibited by international law?

Netanyahu's government would likely argue that the Jordan Valley constitutes an integral part of 'historic Israel', and that because no formal Palestinian state ever existed there and Jordan renounced its claim to the West Bank, there is no entity Israel could be occupying the land from. This claim is easily countered. The Palestinian people have the right to self-determination, and the fact that they haven't yet been able to enact sovereignty over their land doesn't mean they should never be able to. Furthermore, international law is not based on big book of rules, but on international consensus. When the United Nations, European Union, and Arab League all warn Israel against going through with its annexation plan, it's pretty clear how the international community views the issue.

Binyamin Netanyahu's threat to annex West Bank crash-lands at home ...

But international law is also based, unfortunately, on power. If President Trump backs the plan, Israel will almost certainly be able to get away with it. However, his administration's support has been inconsistent at best, and there is no saying Israel will receive the same encouragement in November under Joe Biden were the election to swing to the Democrats.

Israel is in total control of the Jordan Valley today. The infrastructure for ruling the area has existed for years and for all intents and purposes, the territory is already annexed in all but name. After more than 50 years of Occupation, what is there to be gained by such a bold move today? It could be nothing more than a bluff, and one would be foolish to underestimate the political brinkmanship of Netanyahu. Possibly the Jordan Valley is a smokescreen and will be used to distract us while he annexes the real prize, the E1 area around the large settlement Ma'ale Adumim. This would allow him to then rebuild the relationship with Jordan.

Another possibility is that this is part of his recent geopolitical strategy to subtly build unofficial ties with Gulf States like Bahrain, the UAE and even Saudi Arabia. Seen as key allies in the struggle against Iran, and key purchasers of Israeli arms and technology, if Netanyahu is seen to publicly appease their calls for restraint in the Jordan Valley and renounces annexation, these countries can pursue more public ties with Israel. This would allow them to maintain a veneer of Arab solidarity as defenders of Palestine, while Israel's de facto control in the Valley is allowed to continue.

Interestingly, despite voting overwhelmingly for parties which supported annexation in some form, the Israeli public have since been polled showing less enthusiasm, as several surveys and this June 2020 graphic demonstrates.


This is probably not helped by the recent announcement that annexation would not mean an extension of Israeli citizenship to the Palestinians living in the valley. Even some Palestinians felt that annexation may actually improve their lot, giving them better infrastructure, easier access to markets and a fairer share of resources. It could have been the first step towards a 'one state solution', with equal rights for all and a healthy functioning democracy. But it is now clear that Netanyahu's plan would create dozens of tiny Palestinian exclaves and bring none of the supposed benefits. Divide and conquer is a strategy as old as strategy itself, and creating another category of Palestinians separated from the diaspora, Israel, Gaza, Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank further fragments Palestinian society. Benjamin Pogrund, the respected activist, author, and friend of Nelson Mandela who left South Africa for Israel in the early 1990s, has made a living ever since writing and refuting claims that Israel is an apartheid state. He now says that if annexation goes ahead, Israel would indeed become an apartheid state.

It is staggering that a region important to so many groups has been so disrespected in recent years. The river is important in Judaism, Islam and Christianity and today it remains a vital food and water source for Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians alike. Yet the valley has been a site of frequent conflict and since the 1960s, 96% of the river's historic flow has been diverted and 50% of the Valley's biodiversity has been lost. Considering the Jordan Valley's material, spiritual and political importance to so many peoples, it is a tragedy that so little cooperation has been displayed here. So what can be done about it?

The lamps you bought being donated by Green Olive CEO Fred
For many years now Green Olive has been bringing groups to the Jordan Valley so that our guests can meet the Palestinians living there and hear their stories. In December we made a trip to donate solar lamps to farmers, many of which were bought by people like you on our fair trade website (and where you can still buy or donate one now!). If you're unable to come yourself, you may prefer to explore this issue further from the comfort of your own home with one of our experts on a private, virtual tour. We are also hoping to shoot the third of our documentary film series Homeland Insecurity in the Jordan Valley next month. Our fundraising campaign for this is open until the 24th of June. If you want to be involved, perks are available and you'll be making a real difference in helping us spread the word about the importance of this region before it's too late.

Credit to the Geneva Accord for their poll information and Yahav Zohar, Yuval Abraham and EcoPeace Middle East for help researching this article.


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