In the Jordan Valley, the desert is blooming. Just ask David Elhayani, the newly reelected head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council.
Before becoming council head in 2009, Elhayani built an eight-hectare oasis of spices in the harsh, arid desert. Since 2009, he has focused on preserving an environment of peace, where Israelis and Palestinians can work side by side, and a community that maintains its pioneering spirit, despite harsh blows by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
Now, the Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy ministries are partnering with the Jordan Valley Regional Council on a new project to combat BDS that includes participation in international conferences at which products, such as dates and wine from Judea and Samaria, are distributed to participants along with information on industrial development in the valley. Special emphasis is placed on the innovative solutions to agricultural challenges that serve both the Israeli and Palestinian communities and the day-to-day peaceful coexistence that working together fosters.
The project, said Elhayani, will help confront the deleterious effect the BDS movement has had on economic growth and development in the Jordan Valley.
Elhayani moved to the Jordan Valley in 1983 with his wife, Chana.
“My whole young life I wanted to be a moshavnik,” Elhayani told The Jerusalem Post
Some 35 years later, his married son is following in his footsteps, and a second son, engaged to be married, will join the family spice farm, too. He also expects his third son, recently released from the IDF, to come back to the area.
“Once a farmer, always a farmer,” Elhayani said.
But this farmer is now more focused on the spice of life in the Jordan Valley than on his own land. He said he never envisioned going into politics, but in May 2008 a fellow farmer cornered him in his field at 6 a.m. and told him, “You should be running for head of the regional council.”
“I told him, ‘I am making good money. I lack nothing. Why change?’” Elhayani said.
But later that evening, his friend visited Elhayani again, and finally he decided to run for the role – and he won. Now Elhayani oversees 28 Jewish villages in the region – including Mehola and Bekaot – which comprise approximately 15,000 residents.
The Palestinian inhabitants of the Jordan Valley live in 10 cities and villages – including Jericho, the administrative capital of the Palestinian Authority. They have a total population of approximately 50,000.
SINCE TAKING office, Elhayani has focused on maintaining positive relations between local Arabs and Jews, which he said is easier than one might think.
“We live with each other and each other’s children,” Elhayani said. “When you work together for 10 and 12 hours in the fields, you become good friends.”
On his own farm, he employs some 25 Palestinian workers. Elhayani is not short on personal stories, like how his wife and daughter attended a wedding party for one of his worker’s children in a local Palestinian village, or how he attended a wedding with some 500 Palestinian guests.
“We felt totally secure,” he said.
When his own son was married two years ago, he invited the wives of some of his Palestinian workers to his soon-to-be daughter-in-law’s henna party. He said she is American, and when the Arabs came, she and her family members were in shock. But they quickly warmed to the unexpected guests, especially when one of the Palestinian women started designing with the henna.
He admitted it is not always that simple.
This past October, tensions in the valley were high after a terrorist shot two Israelis to death at the Barkan Industrial Park in the Samaria region of the West Bank. This was the first attack in the park, which employs both Israelis and Palestinians and, like the Jordan Valley, is considered an oasis of coexistence.
In December 2014, a farmer from the Netiv Hagdud settlement, Avi Ben-Zion, was stopped and pulled out of his car by several Palestinian terrorists at the Alon junction in Samaria. They pounded his head with an iron bar and escaped with his vehicle. He later died of his wounds.
Ben-Zion had a pepper farm in the Jordan Valley since 1976 and employed several Palestinian residents over the years. Elhayani said the workers wept when they heard the news and many even came to his funeral.
Similarly, in December 2011, when Jewish extremists torched a tractor and car in the Palestinian village of Burkin, Elhayani worried that peace might deteriorate. So he visited the village.
“I walked right past the soldiers and sat down in the town square,” Elhayani recalled. “I asked for a cup of tea, and then I told the residents that this incident was not carried out by a resident of the Jordan Valley and that we were with them – the Palestinians.” Tensions were eased.
“Things have happened in the past, and they will happen in the future,” Elhayani said. However, he said he believes that most Palestinians ultimately want better economic opportunities – “they want to work, to have a car, a house.” He said Jewish farmers employ some 6,000 Palestinian workers year-round and double that during the high season.
“They know that with every security incident, they could lose it all,” he said. “There have been plenty of hard times, but there have also been wonderful times.”
RESIDENTS OF the Jordan Valley also face external threats – mainly from BDS activists in Western Europe.
In 2010, Europe’s highest court ruled that goods manufactured in Israeli settlements in the West Bank cannot be imported into the European Union duty-free, like all other products made within Israel’s 1967 borders. As such, Jordan Valley farmers must pay full export taxes; the Israeli government now reimburses the farmers the difference.
But it did not stop there.
A few years later, the EU stopped accepting the organic certification of products produced in the region, saying the products were receiving this certification from Israel, yet the products were not Israeli.
Then, in 2015, the European Union insisted that some goods produced on land seized in the 1967 war must be labeled “made in settlements,” and many grocers stopped carrying Jordan Valley products all together.
“It has had a major financial impact,” said Elhayani, who told several stories of this vineyard or that pepper farm closing down. He said area farmers used to sell 100% of their products to Western Europe, and now only about 20% are sold there. Instead, they sell to Russia or other places for 30% to 50% less money.
“They call it ‘labeling’ products because boycotting Israel is technically forbidden,” Elhayani said. “We all remember when Jewish products were last labeled in Europe,” he said, referring to Nazi Germany’s antisemitic policies.
He said that once a London-based reporter visited him in the valley and made light of the EU’s labeling policy. Elhayani responded with the following scenario:
“Let’s say you are going to a pub. Before you come, I tell you that you must wear a cap. Then, I tell all the people there before you come that if someone walks in wearing a cap, he is a criminal who spent time in jail. A few minutes later, you walk in with your cap. What do you think will happen?
“They want to label our products to condemn us, to stain us,” said Elhayani. “This is a boycott.”
He said the boycott is even more despicable when one realizes that it is targeting not only the settlers but the Palestinians whom it claims to help. BDS could leave thousands of Palestinians without jobs, dignity or a future, he said.
Later this month, through the new project with the Strategic Affairs Ministry, Elhayani will travel to Frankfurt for a “major public appearance at the Israelkongress, where Minister Gilad Erdan will deliver an address on BDS activities, and Elhayani will sit on a panel together with a Palestinian spokesman on the importance of coexistence and continued economic growth for both the Jewish and Arab populations of Judea and Samaria.
The new project is what helps Elhayani maintain his pioneering spirit and hope.
“Farmers are always optimistic,” Elhayani said. “We believe in the quality of our products and will continue to work hard and be creative. In the end, we will beat BDS.”
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