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(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Palestinian Authority and Palestinian farmers are accusing Israel of trying to force Palestinians out of the Jordan Valley through economic pressure and physical barriers. Israel denies the charge, saying that new restrictions derive solely from security considerations.
"Israel has been systematically making life difficult in the Jordan Valley in order to reduce the number of Palestinians living there," Ghassan Khateeb, Minister of Planning of the Palestinian Authority, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
The IDF's recent decision to prevent Palestinian agricultural produce from crossing the Beka'ot checkpoint into Israel is putting Palestinian farmers in debt and threatening their ability to farm their land next year, he added. The IDF has also closed checkpoints west of the valley, barring entry to Palestinians not from the area. As a consequence, hundreds of Palestinian families from outside the valley are now squatting in tents inside the valley, so as to able to stay at their jobs there.
Israel said the entry ban on Palestinians from outside the region is security related. "This is not a policy," said a spokesman from the Prime Minister's Office, Ra'anan Gissin. "This is a security issue. We need to protect terrorists from entering Israel." The banning of vegetables from crossing through the Beka'ot Cargo checkpoint is also for security reasons, he said.
If the good were being blocked for security reasons, Khatib asked, why were they allowed to be transported the long distance to the Jalama checkpoint, north of Jenin, via checkpoints for which special permission is granted?
A report published in October by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) stated that "The Jordan Valley has become increasingly out of bounds for Palestinians living in other parts of the West Bank." The report was released before the new regulations were introduced at the Beka'ot checkpoint.
The Jordan valley is fertile and sparsely populated - with approximately 6,250 Israelis, who live in 21 settlements, and 53,000 Palestinians (including the population of Jericho).
For generations Palestinian villagers in the valley have relied on manpower from the villages in the mountains above to cultivate and harvest the land. Settler farmer also rely on Palestinian labor. The Palestinian farmer in the valley export almost exclusively to Israel through the Beka'ot checkpoint a few hundred meters north of Bardaleh, the northernmost Palestinian village here.
The ban on such exports was introduced on October 13. Initially, an IDF spokesman told the Post, "We are not aware of any prevention of agricultural goods through the Beka'ot checkpoint." However, Adam Avidan, spokesman for the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, confirmed that a regional IDF commander had signed an order which prevents vegetables from crossing the checkpoint.
"It's strangling us," said Issa Muhammad, 45, who owns 165 dunams in Bardaleh. Muhammad grows cucumbers, squash, peppers and eggplant. He has transported vegetables to Jalama, instead, but says the extra cost means he barely breaks even. If the ban is maintained, he said, "the farms won't be able to pay for pesticides, seeds and plastic for greenhouses. Many of us won't be able to sow our fields next year."
The entry restrictions have been in force since May. Only Palestinians with an address on their identification card from the north of the Jordan Valley are allowed to reside there. All others need special permission, which must be obtained through the District Coordination Office. Among those affected are Palestinian women born outside the valley but married into a family here, who say they are afraid to leave for fear they won't be allowed to return.
Entry permission is given to hundreds of Palestinian day laborers working in the settlements. They leave their villages early every morning and return in the evening, although they often wait hours at checkpoints in each direction. However, Palestinians claim that few of their landowners are granted permission to bring in such laborers. Israeli officials said they would look into this allegation.
One consequence, local Palestinians say, is that many Palestinians from the town of Tubas - a 22-kilometer drive from Bardaleh in the valley below - are now squatting in the valley's villages. Locals estimate that more than 1,000 such Palestinian families spend nine months of the year in plastic tents on the land so that they won't be prevented from getting to work, with their children crowding the classrooms of local schools.
Jordan Valley Palestinians have held two demonstrations at Beka'ot in the last month. Another is planned for next week.