Losing an Israeli-Jordanian island of peace

Regional Affairs: Losing an island of peace

Eli Arazi of Kibbut Ashdod Ya'acov, long involved in Israeli relations with the Hashemite Kingdom, looks down at the Yarmuk River at Naharayim, where it is about to become Israel's new border.  (photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
Eli Arazi of Kibbut Ashdod Ya'acov, long involved in Israeli relations with the Hashemite Kingdom, looks down at the Yarmuk River at Naharayim, where it is about to become Israel's new border.
(photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
Idan Grinbaum’s grandparents fell in love in Naharayim as young Ukrainian immigrants in the 1920s. His uncle was killed near there by a Palestinian terrorist in 1968.
Now, as the head of the Emek HaYarden Regional Council, he described for The Jerusalem Post how, in two weeks’ time, the 400-hectare (990-acre) tract of land will be transformed from a symbol of Jordanian-Israeli peace to an abandoned strip of lost hopes and dreams.
On November 10, Jordan plans to bring to a close two territorial components of its peace treaty with Israel.
This is “D-Day according to the Jordanians,” said Grinbaum, a third-generation member of Kibbutz Ashdot Ya’acov, which is located near Naharayim.
The larger Israeli-Jordanian peace deal, signed 25 years ago this Saturday between former Jordanian King Hussein and former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, has held, and both governments have sworn allegiance to it.
But last year, Jordan informed Israel that it would exercise an option in the deal, which could be put in motion after 25 years.
Jordan said it would not renew its lease of Jordanian agricultural land to Moshav Tzofar. It added that it would no longer allow Israelis to access 400 hectares of land in Naharayim. The land is owned by Jews and used by Israel as a tourist site, but under the terms of the 1994 treaty, the property is under Jordanian sovereignty. Some 70 hectares of the property is farmed by Ashdot Ya’acov, which has grown olives, vegetables, avocados and wheat at the site.
The Naharayim tract of land, situated at the intersection of the Jordan and Yarmuk rivers a short distance away from Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), known also as the Island of Peace, has attracted more attention than the Tzofar property because it has symbolized both the height of Israeli-Jordanian cooperation and the nadir.
In 1997, a Jordanian soldier at the site shot and killed seven Israeli school girls, ages 13 and 14.
It was in Naharayim that Golda Meir, then the Jewish Agency representative, held a secret meeting with King Abdullah I of Jordan, on November 17, 1947, in an attempt to prevent his army from attacking the Jews.
Prior to the creation of the state, Jordanians and Jews worked together in Naharayim to create the first large electricity project in the area.
Ukrainian engineer Pinhas Rutenberg established a hydroelectric plant at the intersection of the Jordan and Yarkon rivers that provided regional electricity. It continued to operate until it was damaged toward the end of the War of Independence.
Eli Arazi, whose parents came to the kibbutz from Syria in 1932, described how the project had the support of Abdullah I, who at the time was the emir of Transjordan.
Abdullah I attended the plant’s inauguration in 1933, explained Arazi, as he spoke with the Post by a waterfall that had helped power the plant.
Arazi said he believes that this gesture of support toward the modern advances Jews brought to the region, such as electricity, led to Abdullah’s assassination at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque in 1951.
Portions of the power plant still exist at the site, along with sections of a rail line that was bombed during the 1948 War of Independence.
Grinbaum recalled for the Post the periods of violence along the border, including during the war of 1948.
His mother, Netta, was 15 at the time, and was part of a group of children evacuated from the kibbutz to escape the violence.
“They walked out of the kibbutz and up to the mountains at night,” he said.
His uncle Hagay Anabi, the father of two small girls, was killed in a mine explosion in 1968, hours before the start of the Purim holiday, while he was working in the kibbutz’s fields. He rode his tractor over a mine that had been planted there by Palestinian terrorists who had snuck across the border from Jordan.
In the first years after the 1967 war, cross-border violence continued between Jordan and Israel in what has been called the forgotten war, he said.
In Ashdot Ya’acov alone, eight Israelis were killed, including his uncle, from mines and bombs, explained Grinbaum. Last year, the kibbutz held an event to mark 50 years to those killings.
“I was born two years later, in 1970, at the end of this tough period,” Grinbaum said. Still, he said, even as he grew up the border was considered to be a dangerous place. “Sometimes we faced terrorists who came from the other side of the border,” he said.
So the 1994 Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty was very important, in that it promised the end to such violence, Grinbaum said, adding that this promise had been fulfilled.
“We hoped it would change the way we live with our very close neighbors,” Grinbaum said.
The closest community to Kibbutz Ashdot Ya’acov is the Jordanian village on the other side of the Yarmuk River, less than 500 meters away, Grinbaum said.
“This is the quietest border in Israel. We have good relations with our neighbors. In the last 25 years there was [almost] not a single event [in which] terrorists crossed the border,” Grinbaum said.
Israelis and Jordanians work together to prevent smugglers and others from crossing the border, he said. They also work to combat environmental threats to the crops.
Both he and Arazi said they never imagined that at the 25th year, Jordan would halt the cooperative arrangement over Naharayim.
After the treaty was signed in 1994, Arazi said, he represented the kibbutzim on a joint Israeli-Jordanian committee tasked with working out the technical details of the deal. It disbanded only two years ago, he said.
Around that time, Arazi said, he sent a letter to the Prime Minister’s Office warning that Jordan might not renew the Naharayim deal. But Israel did little to prevent its expiration, he said, in part because the government disbanded shortly after the Jordanian announcement.
“I think that if there had been a government and a prime minster who understood Naharayim, he would have made some concessions,” Arazi said.
Netanyahu could have made concessions with regard to the Red-Dead desalination project and the Temple Mount, which would made it more feasible for King Abdullah II to extend the agreement, Arazi said.
“It is in our interest for the king to remain on the throne, but we have to speak with him and not present him with a fait accompli,” said Arazi. Netanyahu’s announcement during the election that he would annex the Jordan Valley was a “slap in the face to the king,” he said, who must answer now to his own people about continued ties with Israel.
IN THESE last moments before access is halted at Naharayim, Arazi said he knows that talks are ongoing to find a solution.
Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund world chairman Daniel Atar, whose organization owns the 70 hectares, said he has suggested to the government a compromise position in which the tourism aspects of the site revert to Jordan, but farmers would still be allowed to access the land.
Third-generation Ashdot Ya’acov resident Oran Reuveni, who began farming three years ago, said it was already evident to him that Jordan might not renew, because there were increasing difficulties in accessing the land, so much so that the kibbutz had already held off from investing in long-term agriculture until it would be clear that there would be a future.
He blamed the government for not taking the situation and the farmers seriously enough. Still, he said, he had always believed a solution would be found.
Grinbaum said he is not overly optimistic and can already imagine what it will look like on November 10.
“Everyone has asked me if there will be a ceremony or an event, where you take the flag down and close the gate,” he said.
Grinbaum imagines that on that morning “we will wake up and nothing will have happened.” Visually, everything will look just as it does now from the Israeli side.
“The Jordanian soldier will remain in the same pace. The gate will be at the same place, and the flag will be at the same place,” Grinbaum said.
It is just that from then on, there will be no access, he said. In all likelihood, the land will then be abandoned, because there is no argument about Israeli ownership of the property; the only issue has been access.
“The Jordanians know that this land is owned by Israelis, and they cannot just come and do whatever they want,” said Grinbaum.
“Maybe in the future we will find a solution regarding the agriculture, regarding a way that we could still work on the grounds,” he said.
Although the loss of Naharayim is painful, he has focused on what he considers to be the most important element here – that the peace has held between Israel and Jordan.
“It is a good relationship. We will not allow anyone to harm this relationship. When the ceremonies end and the politicians leave, we will still go out and work in the fields, and the Jordanians farmers will go out and work in their fields,” Grinbaum said.
Both sides will have to work together and share scarce resources, such as water.
“This is the most important thing,” he added. “There is no holiness in the land. Life is much more important than the land.”
Fifty years ago, Jordanians stood on the other side and shot at Israelis. Now the lights twinkle peacefully on the other side at night, he said.
So if leaving Naharayim is the painful price that has to be paid to maintain the peace, he is willing to pay it.
But, he added, there is a cautionary note here for those considering the details of a future peace plan with the Palestinians.
“I believe that the late King Hussein and the late Yitzhak Rabin, both of whom are not with us, when they signed the peace agreement in 1994, they never imagined that after 25 years [Naharayim] would become an issue,” he said.
When it comes to the Trump administration’s “Deal of the Century,” he said, people should ask themselves: If we do a great deal today, who will know what will happen 25 years from now?
“Consider what you sign and with whom,” he said, adding that Naharayim “should be a lesson for all of us.”