Settlement Rift (Extract)

An attempt to revive a dormant Jordan Rift Valley settlement seems set to cause an international fuss

10rift224 (photo credit: Joshua Mitnick)
(photo credit: Joshua Mitnick)
Extract from an article in Issue 10, September 1, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Against the tranquil backdrop of parched brown hills, the entrance to Ro'i, a tiny Jordan Rift Valley settlement, is lined on either side of the road with greenhouses. Few people venture outside in the extreme midday heat that often exceeds 100 degrees Farenheit, except those en route to run errands in the nearby "metropolis" of Beit She'an (population 15,000), just north of here, or to do laps at the local swimming pool. Whisking dirt from the kids' pool, Eli Mendelbaum, 52, gestures at the outdoor movie screen erected for the settlement's 30th anniversary celebration that took place just over a month ago and reminisces about what prompted him to leave the suburban comforts of the coastal city of Rishon Lezion in the late 1970s and move to the desert farms on the eastern edge of the West Bank, just a few miles from the border with Jordan. "It was Zionism. We thought we were strengthening the border," he tells The Jerusalem Report. "But now it's about lifestyle. I wouldn't trade this quiet for anything." This eastern strip of the West Bank is 120 kilometers long, and runs from the northern Dead Sea in the south, to the Green Line south of Beit She'an in the north. It is fifteen kilometers wide. Back in the 1970s, then-deputy prime minister Yigal Allon, a leader of the Labor movement, designated the desert Rift Valley frontier with Jordan as an essential buffer between Israel's enemies to the east and the Palestinians in the West Bank highland to the west. Since then, some 26 mostly agricultural settlements were established in the valley as a line of defense, interspersed among the estimated 200,000 Palestinians who lived in the area before the Six-Day War. But today, there are still less than 5,500 Jews (and approximately 42,000 Arabs) living in the Jordan Rift Valley. The early visions wilted in the stifling heat of the Jordan Rift. Ever since the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s, and the subsequent peace accord with Jordan, Israel has intermittently discussed relinquishing the Rift Valley to the Palestinians. Agriculture no longer supports all the settlers here, many of whom struggle to make a living. Many of the second generation have gravitated towards professional careers and moved to the cities. Deterred by the harsh desert weather, the distance from Israel's major cities and by the political uncertainty, few newcomers have joined, leaving the region, which constitutes some 14 percent of the total area of the West Bank, as the area with the most sparce Jewish settlement in the West Bank. Yet, veteran settlers like Mendelbaum still try to hold on to their dream of settling the valley, despite its small population and the diplomatic debates. "We hope that, in the framework of a final agreement, we could stay,"' says Mendelbaum. "But we're realistic." Earlier this summer, it began to seem that the settlers had a new reason for optimism. The Defense Ministry approved plans to build what would be the first permanent buildings - 20 in total - at the embryonic settlement of Maskiyot, just a few miles north of Ro'i. For the prospective residents of Maskiyot - who were evacuated from the Gush Katif settlement of Shirat Hayam during Israel's 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip and have yet to find permanent residences - the approval meant a chance to start over by establishing a new community in the West Bank. In the eyes of most of the international community, including the United States and the European Union, as well as for Israeli left-wing groups, the approval is a blatant contradiction of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's promise not to build new settlements, a promise inherent in the Road Map proposed by the Quartet and reiterated at the Annapolis summit in November, 2007. Israeli officials have argued that since temporary housing units are already in place, the new construction is merely an expansion, rather than a new development. Western officials reject this flat-out. "To say that Maskiyot is not a new settlement is to throw sand in the face of the international community," one Western diplomat tells The Report, speaking on condition of anonymity. And human rights groups in Israel and abroad have complained that the construction is a human rights violation, since several Palestinians have been given eviction and demolition orders by the Israeli authorities, in order to make room for the new housing. Peace activists noted that the fertile and scarcely populated region is essential for any future Palestinian state, in terms of territorial continuity, agriculture, water, and border access and would provide the only area into which a future Palestinian State could expand. Furthermore, they note, due to security checkpoints and barriers and new systems of roads, Palestinians living outside the Jordan Valley, who have farmland inside the valley, are now separated from their land. Yet, the mostly secular residents of the Jordan Valley are hopeful that this handful of religious nationalist families who intend to make Maskiyot their home will boost the population in the region and that other families will follow them. "I hope that it will be milestone," Jordan Valley Regional Council Head Duby Tal, tells The Report, referring to the Maskiyot decision. "It will be the beginning of a statement by the government that restores the Jordan Rift Valley to its rightful place.'' Maskiyot was authorized as a settlement in 1982, but with its pre-fab mobile units and dusty appearance, it seems more like an unauthorized hill-top settlement than an official site. Since its inception, it has functioned as a temporary way station - first as a base for Nahal soldiers, who combine infantry duties with settlement activity, then as a pre-military preparatory school for Orthodox soldiers. It never managed to became the residential settlement the government intended it to be when Maskiyot was approved in the 80s. Tal explains why. "It's a problem to bring a group of people to a new settlement. You need at least 35 families for minimal social life," he says. "The Jordan Valley is considered a rough place because it's hot and remote. "What's more," he adds, "agriculture isn't thought of as the sexiest thing in the world." That's why, at the time of the disengagement from the Gaza Strip three years ago, Tal sought to recruit evacuees to settle Maskiyot and the Jordan Valley. Then-prime minister Ariel Sharon agreed to make an exception to the government ruling that prohibited the evacuees from using their resettlement stipends to subsidize relocation to the West Bank on two conditions: that no new settlements would be established and that the settlers would keep a low profile. The evacuees from the seaside settlement of Shirat Hayam were a perfect fit. Young and fervent believers in the religious nationalist ethic of reclaiming the remote parts of the Land of Israel, they were searching to set up a new community together. Extract from an article in Issue 10, September 1, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.