Good afternoon from Upper Yanoun!
After this morning’s walk down to Lower Yanoun and beyond and return, we left for the Jordan Valley. The road descends steeply into a beautiful valley with the mountains of Jordan to the east of the Jordan river.
We first learned from our driver Ghassan about the military occupation in the Valley, in which his family was deeply affected. From 1970 to 1990, the Israeli military confiscated Palestinian sheep and “impounded” them in a sheep “prison” until the farmer paid to have the sheep released. When this action didn’t force the farmers to pack up and leave, they then arrested shepherds who would be released when the fine was paid. Next, they arrested all men and took them to a jail in Jericho. Later they started killing sheep and poisoning their grazing areas. As farmers moved west towards the hills and mountains of the West Bank, the military would destroy their crops of barley and wheat used to feed the sheep. Starting in 1990 and continuing on to the present, the military issue demolition orders to destroy homes and sheep enclosures, trying more draconian measures to drive the Palestinians off their lands. In the case of our driver’s family, they have had over 144,000 dunims (a dunim is 1 square kilometre) of land stolen. And from 2004-2008, the military operated four checkpoints used to isolate Palestinians from each other in the Jordan Valley and from the rest of the West Bank.
We next traveled to meet with met with Friends of the Earth – Middle East at the Auja Eco Centre just north of Jericho. This organization works to protect the Jordan Valley through environmental education and eco-tourism to address the issues of water scarcity, political conflict and ecological collapse. We learned that there are 36 Israeli settlements in the Jordan Valley with a population of 6,200 people who occupy 50% of the land. The military controls another 44%, leaving only 6% for use by Palestinians. We were exposed through presentations and on-the-ground observations of the extensive use of land and water by agricultural settlers. Israeli settlers have been given land, equipment, water and farming inputs revenue-free for 10 years.
Settlers can use to 2,000 cubic meters of water a month, while Palestinians have only up to 50 cubic metres. Little wonder that the settler farms and greenhouses were so lush and those of the Palestinians are small, dry and sere. And if Palestinians want to increase their farm holdings, or install irrigation, or fix broken pipes and equipment they have to apply for a permit that takes years to process, and may never be given. Although we were told settlers and Palestinians in the Jordan Valley seem to live peacefully, the opportunities for Palestinian farmers has reduced their numbers – from 125 to 27 in the Auja area alone. The Palestinian population has shrunk from 365,000 people in 1967 to 64,000 today. The irony is striking, as young Palestinians aged 13 to 20 work in the settlements on land that they parents and grandparents farmed before the occupation in 1967. We also learned that the Israelis are drilling deep wells into the aquifer that is lowering the water table and dewatering springs that are used by the Palestinians. And, yes, the Jordan River still exists, but primarily as a sewage channel from the outflow of the settlements.
Our next stop was a visit with the last Christian farmer in the Jordan Valley, outside of those living in Jericho. He is the last of four brothers who can afford to farm and stays because of his relationship with the land. Formerly the family were the largest producers of bananas. However, as water became scarce, he has had to switch to vegetables. There is a concern that a lot of the produce produced in the Jordan Valley by Palestinians does not make its way to market as Palestinian products. And because the Israelis charge Palestinians higher rates for water, their produce is not competitive with the lower costs of subsidized Israeli produce.
Our meeting was interrupted by an urgent call that sent us 40 minutes west into the mountains to the community of At Taybe, one of the last Christian communities in the West Bank. Settlers had been provoking four communities recently. Two weeks previously they tried to take over a church built by the Catholic monastery being build for priests, and then set up a tent on a hill near town, encroaching on lands being actively farmed near town. Last week they attacked a farmer living nearby. And then, as we arrived, the the clash was nearly over and we had our first exposure to tear gas. The Israeli military was there to support the settlers and lobbed tear gas into the unarmed Palestinian crowd. As the crowds dispersed and headed home, we were invited to meet with the town council and the Member of Parliament to get the facts and discuss how we might play a monitoring role at any future events.
We are wondering what tomorrow might bring. Check back to find out …