The morning after President Donald Trump committed to recognizing Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank during the release of his much-awaited Middle East peace plan, Palestinians protested the deal that would annex the Jordan Valley, the breadbasket of their territory, by motoring trackers through an Israeli checkpoint.
They arrived from two different directions – one group of about 100 people came from the south by Jericho and the second group of about 500 people drove from Tubas in the north of the Jordan Valley. The demonstrators planned a rendezvous point but never made it. Wednesday morning they were disrupted by a heavy presence of the Israeli soldiers, in apparent anticipation of a Palestinian response.
Speaking at the White House alongside Trump on Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem were “outrageously branded as illegally occupied territory,” adding such a description is “a big lie.” He exalted Trump as “the greatest friend that Israel has ever had in the White House,” for recognizing “Israel’s sovereignty over all the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria,” where Judea and Samaria is the biblical term for the West Bank.
The 80-page peace deal states, “The Jordan Valley, which is critical for Israel’s national security, will be under Israeli sovereignty.”
The Jordan Valley is home to around 65,000 Palestinians and 11,000 settlers. Approximately 85 percent of the land is in some way under Israeli control, either by the military or inside of settlements including large tracks of agricultural land farmed by settlers.
The protesters from the south were stopped by the army just before al-Hamra checkpoint. Yet they didn’t give up. They struck out on the main road before leaving the paved path to march through steep hills, waving Palestinian flags and chanting. The soldiers trailed alongside the protesters, mainly concentrating on confiscating the Palestinian flags. Outnumbered, they seemed unable to kettle or redirect the demonstrators.
“Even if the Jordan Valley region is far away from us, we will never give it up,” Sanaa Elayan, a Palestinian who came to protest from Jerusalem, said. Elayan was adamant that the Jordan Valley, contrary to Trump’s peace plan, is not Israel’s for the taking. “We can’t leave people who live here alone, they are Palestinians, this is Palestinian land. We want and we will keep trying to exist here and we will exist in any threatened area.”
Meanwhile, the bigger group of demonstrators, the one from the north, were also met by the Israeli army. At Tayasir checkpoint, soldiers tried in vain to stop them, firing sound grenades. Yet the crowd, who had abandoned their vehicles at this point, overwhelmed the soldiers and marched through the checkpoint.
Protesters continued to march for a few miles, their destination, Palestinian agricultural land that was declared a “closed military zone” and is currently used as an army training area. Around 46 percent of the Jordan Valley is designated as a closed military zone and with 11 operational firing zones, according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. Every few months, Palestinians who live in the Jordan Valley receive temporary evacuation orders– for several hours and sometimes days – while live-fire army training takes place.
The protesters entered the closed military zone with a tractor and started working the land. Soon after, clashes erupted. Soldiers fired more sound grenades and added tear gas to the mix.
Around the same time the clashes died down, Israeli’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walked back a promise to officially annex the Jordan Valley by way of a vote from his cabinet. The delay came as Ambassador to Israel David Friedman told reporters of plans to form a joint U.S.-Israeli working group that would hash-out the borders of the cabinet decree.
“I’m not going to speculate how long that will take. The president did use the word ‘immediately,’” Friedman said.
Wherever the lines of annexation are drawn on a map, Palestinian residents in the Jordan Valley already live under separate systems – one for them and the other for settlers. Indeed as Israelis head to the polls again in March, whatever the outcome the actual reality is already in play: ongoing dispossession. Both Netanyahu and his main challenger Benny Gantz, who was also in Washington the week meeting with Trump, accepted the deal and have committed to annexation.