Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley - what does it mean?

What is the Jordan Valley, who lives there, how is it governed, and why is Netanyahu focusing on it?

Arutz Sheva Staff, | updated: 09:43

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Benjamin Netanyahu said in a message to the nation on September 10th, that if he is re-elected next week, he’ll immediately declare Israeli sovereignty over a swathe of land along the west bank of the Jordan River, bordered by the river on the east and a range of hills to the west, and running north-south from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea. The area is known as the Jordan Valley.

It would be the first time in decades that Israel applied sovereignty over any territory gained in the Six Day War, and it assuredly would have serious implications for the future of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, if they do take place. Netanyahu also said he’d move to apply sovereignty to more territory — after the Trump administration unveils its long-awaited peace plan sometime following Israel’s elections next week.

“Today I’m announcing my intention, with the establishment of the next government, to apply Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea,” Netanyahu said. “This is our essential safety belt in the east. This is the eastern defensive wall.”

Here’s what that means:

What is the Jordan Valley?

The Jordan Valley is part of the land originally allocated for the Jewish homeland at the 1922 San Remo Conference, which defined it as a country to be established on the area west of the Jordan River.  The1937  Peel Commission suggested dividing that small  parcel of land between the Jews and the Arabs as well and was adopted by the UN in 1947. The Jews accepted the plan (it is said that Ben Gurion was desperate to have a Jewish state to accept Holocaust survivors who were being sent out to sea or imprisoned by the British)  but the Arabs did not.

In the ensuing 1948 War of Independence when seven Arab armies invaded the fledgling Jewish state, the Jordan River posed a real danger due to the possibility of massive Arab forces crossing it, leading the Palmach (pre-IDF Jewish forces) to blow up the bridges along its length.

Israel blew up the bridges again and captured the Jordan Valley during the Six-Day War in 1967 and has controlled it and the bridges since then.

The entire area captured in the Six Day War is actually the biblical Judea and Samaria, but is also known as the 'West Bank' because it is located west of the Jordan River.

The Jordan Valley's is part of that region, but its borders are not precisely defined. It consists of the strip of territory in the 'West Bank' that runs alongside the Jordan River, and stretches to only ten miles west of the river at its widest point.

Who controls the Jordan Valley now?

The 'West Bank' was divided into three areas by the 1993 Oslo Accords which established the Palestinian Authority (PA). Some of it is entirely governed by PA institutions (Area A), some is governed by the PA except for security issues (Area B) and some (known as Area C) is run entirely by Israel. Israeli civilians are barred from Areas A and B which pose a danger to their lives. The Jordan Valley is in the part that is fully controlled by Israel, with the exception of the city of Jericho.

The Jordan Valley is home to dozens of Israeli communities, most of them agricultural, built after the Six Day War as part of the Allon Plan, a program by Labour Party minister Yigal Allon, in which the location of Israeli communities was decided according to security needs. The plan, on which there was general consensus both on the left and right, defined control of the land along the west bank of the Jordan River's as crucial for defense of the narrow state of Israel against hostile countries to the east. 

In fact, the hills to the west and the valley itsefl were known as "Eretz Hamirdafim", the "area of pursuit" referring to the nightly pursuit of terrorists who crossed the Jordan River in attempts to attack Israeli citizens, but almost eradicated after the peace treaty with Jordan.

Is the Jordan Valley officially part of Israel?

Like the rest of Judea and Samaria, and as opposed to the Golan Heights and greater Jerusalem, Israel has controlled it for more than 50 years but has never officially applied sovereignty.

Israelis who live there are Israeli citizens. Palestinians there do not have Israeli citizenship and do not have the right to vote for Israeli officials, but vote in Palestinian local elections.   

The Palestinian Arabs, much of the international community and the Israeli left say the 'West Bank' is unjustly occupied by Israel, although it is legally considered "disputed territory" because Jordan was actually an occupying power until 1967 and its control there was recognized by only two countries.

The Israeli right cites international law in claiming that Israel rightfully won the territory in a defensive war.. A majority consider it vital for Israel's defense. Some Israelis — especially religious Jewish ones — view  Judea and Samaria, as Israel’s heartland, as it is the setting of many of the Bible’s events.

With annexation, Netanyahu would officially be making the Jordan Valley part of Israel, having the same status in Israel’s eyes as Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.

However, Palestinian areas like Jericho, would not be under Israeli sovereignty.  Those areas, now surrounded by Israel, would maintain their current status.

Why is Netanyahu focusing on the Jordan Valley?

Israelis have been fiercely debating the status of the 'West Bank' for decades. But to Jewish Israelis, the Jordan Valley is less controversial than the rest of the territory.

Successive Israeli governments have viewed control of the Jordan Valley as a strategic asset for Israel. It completes the country’s eastern border with Jordan and allows Israeli forces to encircle the 'West Bank’'s Palestinian population. It essentially creates a buffer between Israel and the Arab states farther to its east, including Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces that if he is re-elected, he will make the Jordan Valley a sovereign part of Israel, Sept. 10, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The valley, whose temperatures are extremely hot in summer, is also sparsely populated. 'West Bank' Palestinians are concentrated elsewhere, and Israel’s larger Judea and Samaria communities are farther to the west.

Maintaining control of the Jordan Valley is also not a new idea. Even Yitzhak Rabin, the left-wing Israeli prime minister who launched the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the 1990s, said in 1995 that “The security border, for the defense of the State of Israel, will be in the Jordan Valley — broadly defined.”

Would this hurt the chances for peace?

Chances for peace are already pretty slim. The Palestinians and Israelis haven’t been in any kind of serious negotiations for more than five years. Palestinian leaders won’t talk to the Trump administration because they view it as overly pro-Israel. Netanyahu has said repeatedly that he will not evacuate any settlement and opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state. 

This move would make any thought of future evacuation of the territory as part of a peace plan that includes territorial compromise unlikely. The Palestinians have insisted on governing the Jordan Valley as part of a future peace deal.

Netanyahu also promised, in his speech and earlier, to annex even more Israeli communities in  Area C, which is where all the Jewish communities and 4% of the Palestinian Arab population are located, down the line. The more Israel annexes, the less possible a contiguous Palestinian state would be.

How are people reacting?

For opponents of an Israeli withdrawal from the 'West Bank', this is good news. Yishai Fleischer, the spokesman for the Jewish community in the city of Hevron, tweeted (in all caps) that Netanyahu’s speech was “A HUGE MOVE FORWARD!”

Many Palestinians and many across the international community had a different reaction. A United Nations spokesman called Netanyahu’s pledge “devastating to the potential of reviving negotiations, regional peace and the very essence of a two-state solution.”

“If the annexation is carried out, it will have succeeded in burying any prospect of peace for the next 100 years,” tweeted  Palestinian Arab negotiator Saeb Erekat,. “The Israelis, the international community must stop this madness. Annexation is a war crime.”

Israelis as a whole are split. Nearly half of Israeli Jews and 11 percent of Israeli Arabs favor annexing the Jordan Valley if Trump supports it, according to a recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute. Twenty-eight percent of Jewish Israelis and a majority of Arab Israelis oppose the idea.

Bottom line: Is this going to happen?

At this point, it’s impossible to say. Before carrying out this pledge, Netanyahu has to win in next week’s election and assemble a coalition that supports the move. The race is neck-and-neck right now and some are talking about a broad coalition with the rival Blue and White party..

The Trump administration has said it will release its plan for Mideast peace after the election. Netanyahu has said he would pursue annexation in full coordination with the U.S., so before the plan is released, it is hard to predict what will happen.

This article is loosely based on the outline of a JTA article by Ben Sales, but most of its content has been added to and amended by Arutz Sheva Staff.




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