The sprawling hills of the northern Jordan Valley have turned from their usual lush green into a sea of dusty bronze for the summer, dried out from the scorching hot weather that passes 100 degrees Fahrenheit on any given day.
Driving through the valley, which stretches for hundreds of miles along the Eastern border of the occupied West Bank, there are a number of things you are bound to pass by: flocks of sheep grazing on the brush, dozens of bedouin encampments dotted along the highway, Israeli military checkpoints and outposts, the scorched remnants of military training drills, and countless gated Jewish-only settlements.
These “landmarks” tell the story of the northern Jordan Valley, and many other places in the West Bank just like it, where Palestinians have been living for years under what they say is a system of apartheid.
Active military training, home demolitions, forced expulsion, and land confiscation are daily realities in the northern Jordan Valley, which is home to tens of thousands of Palestinians, many of whom rely on agriculture for their livelihoods.
With farming and agriculture as the number one source of income for Palestinians in the Jordan Valley, there is nothing more important than land.
That life source is under threat now more than ever before, as Israel gears up to annex the Jordan Valley and other parts of the West Bank on July 1st.
Though Israeli leaders have clashed over when and how they should proceed with annexation, all signs are pointing towards the policy, which is illegal under international law, moving forward.
As annexation day approaches, Palestinians on the ground are gearing up for a new reality, one they say they’ve been forced to get ready for for years.
“Israel has been making our lives difficult here for more than 70 years,” Zayd Sawafta, a farmer and mayor of the small village of Bardala, which sits at the very edge of the northern Jordan Valley, a few kilometers away from the border with Israel.
For Sawafta, while official annexation of the West Bank would be new, Israel’s discriminatory policies against Palestinians in the occupied territory are anything but.
“From not allowing us to build roads to our villages, giving us no access to water, restricting our farmlands, destroying our homes, arresting us, confiscating our animals, taking our tractors — all of these things are part of their so-called ‘annexation plan’,” Sawafta said.
“Israel has slowly been working towards official annexation for years. Now they’re just putting a name on it, but we’ve been living this reality for a long time.”
Things changing on the ground
Many Palestinians consider the West Bank to already be under de-facto annexation, and don’t expect much to change on the ground in terms of military orders and policies that target their communities.
Despite this, Sawafta says he and his fellow residents of the Jordan Valley have noticed a number small changes or incidents over the past month that seem to be related to annexation.
“The first thing they did in this area after announcing annexation, was taking down all the signs that indicated that this village is ‘Area A’ and under the control of the Palestinian Authority,” Sawafta said, referring to the infamous red billboards written in Arabic, English and Hebrew that are staple landmark of the occupation across the West Bank.
According to Sawafta, the signs were taken down outside Bardala and her sister village of Kardala,as well as the nearby village of Ein al-Baydah, which are all located on the northeastern edge of the West Bank.
After the signs, soldiers allegedly came and tore down all the Palestinian flags at the entrances to the villages, which Sawafta speculated was simply a routine “provocation” of the community.
“Then, a few days ago, a few Civil Administration vehicles came to the area with maps, and looked like they were surveying the land,” he told Mondoweiss.
In the strangest turn of events, after attempting to settle a local dispute in his capacity as mayor of Bardala, Sawafta says he received a call from the Israeli police, something that had never happened before.
“They told me that if I needed to fix any problems, I should call the Israeli police, not the Palestinian police,” Sawafta said, alleging that the Israeli policeman told him “we are in charge here now.”
Sawafta highlighted what he saw as the significance of the fact that the police called him, as opposed to the army.
“We are usually used to the army enforcing military orders on us, whereas the police are meant to deal with civilian matters,” he said. “So i think they were trying to send the message that they will soon be in control of everything, security and civil matters.”
‘They have no sovereignty over us’
Despite signals from Israeli police in the area suggesting that Israel will begin overseeing Palestinian civilian matters, typically the job of the PA, Palestinians maintain that Israel will not protect Palestinians, even if they’re living under Israeli sovereignty.
“It’s quite simple: Israel wants the land, without the people,” Motaz Bishaarat, a local activist from the Jordan Valley city of Tubas told Mondoweiss.
“Their only goal is to control the land, at the expense of the Palestinian people,” he said. “So why would they be interested in protecting us or giving us rights?”
Israeli leaders have gone back and forth over how annexation will be applied in place like the Jordan Valley, where tens of thousands of Palestinians live.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that despite Israel taking control of the land on July 1st, he doesn’t intend on providing Palestinians living in those areas with citizenship, let alone basic rights enjoyed by Israelis.
Benny Gantz, the alternate Prime Minister, said last week however that Israel would grant Palestinians “full rights” where Israel applied its sovereignty.
Bishaarat scoffed at the claims, saying “annexation itself is blatantly illegal under all aspects of international law. So we are supposed to take them at their word when they say they will give us rights?”
Even if Israel were to extend certain rights to Palestinians living in annexed territory, locals say they would never accept it.
“Even if they came here and handed me an Israeli passport, I wouldn’t take it,” Sawafta told Mondoweiss.
“They will steal our land, and then say we are the ones who are not willing to negotiate,” he continued. “Well, we have nothing to negotiate about. They have no sovereignty over us, and their presence here is illegal.”
“We will never recognize their control over us.”
Nothing can stop them
By Monday evening, the rift between Gantz and Netanyahu over annexation only seemed to be growing bigger, as the media reported Gantz as saying that July 1st was not a “sacred date” for annexation.
According to reports, Gantz told a White House aide that annexation was not currently a priority given the COVID-19 crisis in Israel, where a second wave of the virus has been sweeping the country.
In addition to Gantz’s remarks, Israel is facing increasing pressure from neighbors like Jordan, who have warned of regional instability and a damaged relationship between Israel and the Kingdom if Netanyahu follows through with annexation.
King Abdullah of Jordan has reportedly threatened to withdraw from or downgrade its 1994 peace treaty with Israel, while the EU has continued to double down on its opposition to annexation, which European leaders have condemned as a flagrant violation of international law.
Even Jared Kushner has reportedly asked Netanyahu to dial it down on annexation talk, for fear that the backlash could further damage President Trump’s already rocky political standing back home.
Despite the pressure Israel is facing from all sides, Palestinians aren’t convinced Israel will be stop moving forward with annexation.
“Since Israel occupied the West Bank, they have had their sights set on the Jordan Valley,” Bishaarat told Mondoweiss, pointing to the valley’s array of natural resources, particular its vast water reserves.
“They first destroyed a lot of villages and enclaves here during the Nakba and kicked people out,” he said. “Some of these families fled to Jordan, while other were internal displaced around this region.”
“Then they took control of our resources, and then confiscated our land, and now they control our every move,” he continued. “Annexation has always been their plan.”
Sawafta echoed Bishaarat’s statements, saying “no amount of international pressure will stop them.”
“They commit war crimes on a daily basis, so why would they stop at annexation and more land theft?” he asked. “They clearly have no regard for international law, because they have gotten away with these violations, with no accountability, for decades.”
For Sawafta, even when annexation does go through, he says that no matter what happens, Palestinians will “make sure there won’t be another Nakba.”
“We have learned from experience. They will do everything they can to kick us off this land and take it for themselves, but this time, we are not leaving.”