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Beyond the barren Judean Mountain range, east from Jerusalem, lies the Jordan Valley, an area which receives almost no media coverage, despite being home to 52,000 Palestinians and accounting for 30% of West Bank territory.
I am taken there by Stop the Wall campaign, in a battered mini bus with Egyptian music blaring out of the radio and the blazing heat burning our skin through the window. As we drop down from the mountains vast plantations of palm trees, citrus fruits and grape vines stretch as far as the eye can see. Every plantation is also surrounded by electrical fencing, barbed wire and "Danger" signs, because these oases of intensive production have been created on stolen land, grown by over-exploitation of water, farmed and owned by illegal settlers.
The lack of international attention means the land grab in the Valley goes unnoticed, for despite being on the Jordanian side of Palestine, Israel has invested large sums of money making this area a permanent part of their state, and a permanent obstacle to the emergence of Palestine.
One million palm trees have been planted here and one million more are planned in the next five years, while the number of Settlers will double in the next two. Israel has poured $58million into making their presence in the Valley viable since 2004, and at that price it is unlikely to have any intention of giving it up any time soon. Israeli Prime Minister Olmert admitted as much in February when he spoke in a TV interview of annexing the Jordan Valley to Israel, cutting any proposed Palestinian state into further enclaves, and preventing it from having direct contacts with its neighbours.
This scale of production has had enormous implications on water supply. All surrounding areas traditionally depend on the Jordan river for water, but the river’s resources have been drained by two enormous reservoirs which pull water from across the Valley. As we drive past we notice that one reservoir was donated by the Women’s Zionist Organisation of America, an organisation which faces no threat of sanctions despite funding projects which clearly violate international law. For the Palestinians meanwhile, stealing this water carries a hefty fine.
We continue down the valley, along the Ghandi Road, appropriately named not after the Indian resistance leader but the ironic nickname of Rehavam Zeevi, Sharon’s former far-right Tourism Minister who openly supported the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, famously comparing them to "lice" and "cancer". Pepsi advertisements encourage drivers to "live life to the max" something the Settlers appear to have taken to heart.
The mostly state-owned Carmel-Agrexco packing houses prepare fruit, herbs, flowers, palm oil and wine for export, much bound for Europe, where it will be displayed on supermarket shelves as ‘Made in Israel’, despite the fact that it is produced in militarily occupied Palestine. In fact business is booming for Agrexco, which handles 60-70% of all goods produced in the illegal Settlements, and who have increased their exports by 72% in the last three years. The food which isn’t exported is dumped on Palestinian markets, forcing out of business local producers unable to compete with subsidised goods being produced at their expense.
The finite land and waters resources in the Jordan Valley mean that Palestinians have lost all that Israel has gained, and are now packed into villages surrounded by closed military zones, bereft of land and water. Even their jobs as wage labourers on their occupier’s plantations are under threat. Settlers are beginning to import labourers from the Far East to work the Settlements, though it makes little sense economically. As one Palestinian farmer tells us "They will pay more just to get rid of us".
We meet Hasan Jermy, the Mayor of one such Palestinian village, Zubadat. Hassan’s profession is teaching, and he tells us how this marks him out for particular humiliation when trying to cross the checkpoints along the Ghandi Road. He tells us how Palestinians used to export their produce to Jordan and Israel, but this is now unthinkable, partly because of lack of land and water and partly because it can take several days for Palestinian goods to cross the checkpoints of the Valley, costing money and leaving produce unusable.
Many Palestinians in the area now scrape together their basic needs from the few sheep they own or tiny and infertile plots of land. Even the sheep are in danger if they wander into the closed military zone they’re likely to end up in what our guide calls "an animal prison", from which the farmer must pay five Jordanian Dinars to recover their animal.
Few have lost as much as Faisal’s family, once local landowners, who now have a small house in an Oasis, from which they can see but not access the land they used to own. Faisal is growing aubergines in his field, but they are dry and shrivelled compared to the well watered grapes that grow on the plantations which have been stolen from him. "The water these plants constantly get comes through my land" he tells us "yet I have no access to it."
Then there is the housing shortage. The Oslo Agreement demarcated only 0.5% of the Valley as Palestinian residential area. Palestinians are never granted permits to build new homes, so all new Palestinian homes are considered illegal by the Israeli Army and can be demolished at any time. Those who refuse to be forced out can be seen living in shacks, under plastic and corrugated tin roofs, or even in the back of lorries.
There are few words which can be used to describe 52,000 people living without livelihood, surrounded by plantations rich with food for export to the West. Or to compare the lifestyle of the illegal Settlers, enjoying a free education, unlimited water, suburban gardens and even discounted mobile phone deals, while Palestinians are crammed into villages, with no rights or services, fetching water from dirty ponds and organising their own education in tents in the desert. One word increasingly used to describe this situation across Palestine, and indeed in Israel itself, is Apartheid.
As we head back, our Mini Bus is held at a checkpoint as we’re questioned about our purpose here. Shiny saloon cars with Israeli licence plates speed through at the nod of a soldiers’ head.
Hasan Jermy has a simple message "for Bush, for Blair, for Putin and for Kofi Annan: Don’t close all the windows. The Palestinians want the chance to work our own land and to live our lives in peace." But the action of Israel and the international community leave young people with few options starvation, crime or violence.
As the West seems increasingly intent on shutting out the last rays of light that give the Palestinian people hope, groups like Stop the Wall go on mobilising peaceful resistance to the injustices they face. They have little choice. For the people of the Jordan Valley their struggle is not only for equality and justice, but a struggle to prevent the eradication of their very identity and existence.