Unease on the Jordan

Talk about the security implications of a possible Israeli withdrawal from the Jordan Rift Valley is split neatly along right- and left-wing lines.

An Israel army vehicle patrols the Jordanian border in the Jordan Rift Valley, January 1 (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Israel army vehicle patrols the Jordanian border in the Jordan Rift Valley, January 1
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Seeing Yinon Rosenblum walking around Moshav Na’ama, at the southern tip of the Jordan Valley, it is difficult to imagine him in an urban setting. Despite having grown up in Haifa, 35 years of growing organic herbs, basil, mint, sage, rosemary, tarragon and more, in this unforgiving climate have left their mark – calloused hands, an even suntan and a manner that is free of any hint of nonsense.
Like the other Jewish communities in the Jordan Rift Valley sector of the West Bank, Na’ama is an austere village in the heart of forbidding surroundings. Average summertime temperatures here top 35 degrees Celsius, annual rainfall measures less than 120 millimeters, and the earth is so salty, due to the proximity to the Dead Sea, that farmers must rinse the soil with fresh water prior to planting.
And yet, Rosenblum and other Jewish residents of the Valley are clearly at home here on the desert floor. Like earlier generations of pioneers who established the first kibbutzim and Jewish agricultural settlements in the Land of Israel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Rosenblum moves around the grounds with purpose and vision. He is clearly familiar with every rock, every crevice in the sandy terrain he has tended for more than three decades. Inside his greenhouses, the tender attention he pays to the produce stands in stark contrast to his rough hands.
Back in the mobile home that serves as his business office, however, the conversation turns quickly to US Secretary of State John Kerry’s current push to draft a peace deal with the Palestinians, and to the possibility that it could mean an eviction notice for Rosenblum and the other 6,000 Jewish residents of the Valley.
Like most farmers here, Rosenblum admits that it is hard not to pay attention to the negotiations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. But he stresses too that he doesn’t get upset about the talks because there is a long history of discussion about the Jordan Valley – all of which has led “exactly nowhere,” he relates to The Jerusalem Report.
“Am I concerned? I guess so,” Rosenblum continues. “I came here with a group of young couples straight out of the army to build this community, and we’ve all poured everything we’ve had into building our moshav. I can’t say that we didn’t make any mistakes along the way, but I raised my children here, and the land here has become an integral part of who I am, as an individual. So, of course talk about ceding the Jordan Rift Valley is of concern.
“But are you asking whether we are worried? Absolutely not. To tell the truth, we are too busy to worry – we have jobs to do, children to raise and lives to live. And we’ve heard it all before so many times that nobody really gets too bent out of shape about the headlines you read in the news. Mark my words, this round of negotiations will go exactly the way of every previous round – nowhere,” Rosenblum says.
Rosenblum’s dismissive attitude is both understandable and also indicative of prevailing attitudes among Jewish residents of the Valley. As in the rest of the West Bank, talk about the ultimate fate of the Jordan Valley has ebbed and flowed for more than 20 years with the tidings of the diplomatic process with the Palestinian Authority. Currently, the Jordan Valley is categorized as Area C, meaning Israel retains full civilian and security control; but residents and activists are worried that Netanyahu could revive a 2009 offer by former prime minister Ehud Olmert to cede control of the valley to the Palestinians.
As negotiations progress, the fortune of Rosenblum and his neighbors is unlikely to play a significant role in the ultimate fate of the Jordan Valley. Like in the case of the withdrawals from the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, Israel could be willing to demolish settlements such as Na’ama, Mehola, Argaman and others in the event of a peace deal.
Instead, the prevailing discussion in Israel and abroad about the Jordan Rift Valley focuses on security. Discussion about the security implications of an Israeli withdrawal split neatly along right- and left-wing lines.
Right-wing commentators stress historic Jewish ties with the area, and they worry that the terrain between the Jordan River and the city of Jericho would offer easy cover to terrorists infiltrating from Jordan. They are also quick to quote former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who pledged that Israel would maintain control of the Jordan Valley in any eventual settlement with the Palestinians. (Significantly, supporters of a pullback cite unconfirmed reports that government officials in the Rabin administration offered residents cash incentives to leave the Valley.)
On the other hand, left-wing activists insist that both the PA and Jordan have the ability and a strong interest in preventing terrorist infiltrations and securing the Jordan River as the recognized border between Israel (and, eventually, Palestine) and the Hashemite Kingdom. Retired security officials point out that traditional military threats to Israel’s eastern flank – Jordan and Iraq – have become largely irrelevant over the past decade or two.
Driving up the valley it is easy to understand both the Jewish connection to the area and its military significance. In Biblical Jericho, Joshua led the Israelites into the Land of Israel following the death of Moses. And 20 minutes to the north, the Sarbata peak is one of the hilltops mentioned in the Mishna. Jews there would mark the beginning of a new month by lighting a torch to let communities further afield know that the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem had declared the new month.
The peak also provides a wide view of most of the Valley as well as an appreciation of the necessity for the Israel Defense Forces to maintain the high ground in the event of war. The sharp drop in height between Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus and Jericho (a mere 30 minutes by car) is almost a kilometer.
“In order to understand the security threat Israel faces if we give up the Jordan Valley, one must look west, not east,” Yaakov Amidror, former head of the IDF’s Research and Assessment Division, has stated. “The distances here are short – it would take less than an hour for a terrorist to make it from the Jordan River to a waiting car on the main road,” Amidror noted.
“From there, it is a short drive to Nablus or Qalqilya. It is a perfect staging ground for a massive smuggling operation that in the best case scenario would make Judea and Samaria look like a mini-Gaza. In the worst case, Judea and Samaria would look like a maxi-Lebanon. If that happened, the Green Line is within easy striking distance of Ben-Gurion Airport. You’d be opening up the airport to the reality that Sderot has faced for the last 14 years,” he asserted.
On the other hand, several retired IDF generals and security officials have called Amidror’s concerns “demagoguery,” noting that they fail to take into account the new realities in the Middle East in terms of the changing nature of military warfare, the military capabilities of Jordan and Iraq, and current political realities.
“Let me compare the Jordan Rift Valley to Sinai,” says Shlomo Brom, former director of the Strategic Planning Division of the IDF General Staff and a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies. “Egypt has very little control over Sinai, and there are many problems there. But would you ever compare the troublesome situation there now to what we would be looking at if we were facing the Egyptian army on the other side of the border fence?”
Speaking to The Report by telephone, Brom adds that Jordan is both a more “orderly” country than Egypt, and that the Hashemite rulers there have a vested interest in preventing smuggling into both Jordan and Israel. “They have been very effective in this area, and there is every reason to believe they will continue to be,” Brom says. “Even in the very worst case scenario, a case where the Hashemite rulers are overthrown, we could still maintain effective security arrangements.”
From south to north, the 75 minutes it takes to drive from Kibbutz Almog, at the southern tip of the Jordan Valley, to the shores of Lake Kinneret is marked by a dramatic change in landscape. The southern portion of the drive, bordering the Dead Sea, is stark and sandy, dotted by hothouses and date palm trees, and very little else. But further north, as Route 90 rises from the desert floor towards the rolling hills of Mount Gilboa and leads eventually to the Sea of Galilee, the surroundings become pastoral – the hills are green, despite the dry winter, but the weather is no more forgiving than farther to the south.
Despite Rosenblum’s loyalty to the harsh climate and rugged lifestyle, few Israelis have been willing to brave the elements to build their homes in the Jordan Rift Valley. More than three decades of an active settlement policy that offers tax benefits and other incentives to Israeli families to try out life in the valley has brought just 6,000 Jews to the region. Rosenblum’s community, Moshav Na’ama, has just 25 families, numbering barely 100 people. The last new family to join the moshav arrived in 1995.
Still, Rosenblum says that while he harbored a grander vision for the Jordan Rift Valley when he moved here in 1981, he does not regret his decision or the life he has built for himself.
“We came here long before the intifada, the Gulf War, the Oslo Accords, or any of that,” he says. “We were living the Zionist ideal – settling the land, making the desert bloom; you know the script. And we’ve done that.
“In hindsight, are there things I think we should have done differently? Sure. But at the end of the day, I’d still say I made the right move. The quality of life we’ve got here, our strong feeling of community, the ability to leave your door unlocked on a permanent basis – you’d never have any of that in a city,” he says.