25 novembre 2013
20-11-2013 01:34PM ET
Palestinian-Israeli talks meet new breaking point
New Israeli intransigence, on the Aghwar region between the West Bank and Jordan River Valley, is threatening to collapse all efforts at peace talks with the Palestinians, writes Ahmed Al-Sayed in Gaza
Israeli negotiators have always been excellent at laying land mines and booby traps in every round of talks with the Palestinians. The purpose has always been the same: to win more concessions and to gain more time to impose new realities on the ground through intensified settlement construction and the Judaisation of the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem.
During that negotiating marathon that has lasted 20 years since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, the questions of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and the settlements always loomed as the most complex issues. With the resumption of the US-sponsored negotiations in late July after a three-year hiatus, a new hurdle has emerged in the form of the Israeli insistence on maintaining a permanent military presence in the Aghwar region of the Jordan River Valley. The Palestinians maintain this area forms the eastern border of their future state while the Israelis are adamant in their refusal to return that portion of the occupied territories to the Palestinians.
The Aghwar is of both major strategic and economic importance. It is Palestine’s eastern gateway and runs along the longest border that Palestine has with a neighbouring state apart from Israel. It constitutes about 28 per cent of the territory of the West Bank and offers the best prospects for any Palestinian urban expansion in the future, as its population is only around 10,000.
The Aghwar has been described as Palestine’s breadbasket. It is the source of 60 per cent of Palestine’s vegetable production, 40 per cent of its citrus fruits and 100 per cent of its bananas. Due to its unique climate in terms of seasonal temperature changes, the area can produce early harvests of its crops giving them a competitive edge in international markets. It also houses Palestine’s largest strategic water reserves.
It addition to its huge natural wealth, the area is noted for its historical and religious antiquities and landmarks and tourist sites. Not least of which is the Dead Sea from which the Palestinians have been prevented from benefiting since the occupation of the West Bank in 1967. The many sources of wealth are extremely vital to the development of the Palestinian economy, especially in the fields of agriculture, industry, tourism and housing.
The Israeli occupation authorities have long been aware of the strategic and economic importance of that stretch of occupied territory. They had set their sights on it in the 1950s and in the immediate aftermath of the 1967 defeat they declared it a closed military zone and then proceeded to transform it into a prime zone for Israeli settlement development and agricultural and industrial production to serve the Israeli economy. There are now 37 settlements that house more than 10,000 settlers and these Israel is determined to impose as a de facto reality on any future solution.
Towards this end, it is playing the security card, as usual. In the current negotiations, Israel has demanded strict security arrangements in the Aghwar in accordance with which the Israeli army would retain its full presence in the area and its control over the borders and border crossings for an extended period. There has been talk of a 40-year period in the framework of a lease on this land that would be included as a point in any Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement. The arrangements would, of course, be made contingent on the Palestinians’ commitment to guaranteeing the security of Israel and its settlements in the West Bank.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stated his government’s outlook in no uncertain terms: “Israel is keen to reach an agreement with the Palestinians based first and foremost on guaranteeing its security, the need to protect its eastern borders [with Jordan and the Palestinian state], and the vital interests of Israel.”
In a recent report on the history of Netanyahu’s position on the Aghwar, the Hebrew-language Maarev noted that he had long spoken of an Israeli presence in that area and only then began to stress that the nature of that presence had to be military. During a tour of the Aghwar two years ago, he said: “The [Israeli] army must remain here in any future agreement with the Palestinians.”
Two months later, in an address to the US Congress, he again insisted that Israel maintain a military presence along the Jordan River. Several months after that, Netanyahu’s representative in the peace talks said, “Netanyahu demands retaining an Israeli presence in the Jordan River basin for a specified period.” It was then only a short step from there to Netanyahu’s recent declaration of his intent to build a “security wall” along the Jordan River. According to Netanyahu’s oft-repeated security theory, Israel’s loss of control over the Jordan River border to the east would usher missiles into Haifa and Tel Aviv.
The Israeli prime minister issued this declaration as the Palestinian-Israeli talks ran aground on precisely the shoal of Israeli insistence on retaining military control over that large stretch of Palestinian land for a long period after the creation of a Palestinian state. According to some reports in the Israeli press, one of the main reasons for building that so-called security wall in the Jordan River Valley is to prevent thousands of Palestinian refugees in Syria and Jordan from returning to Palestinian cities in the West Bank.
When announcing this latest decision of his, Netanyahu proclaimed: “This construction will deliver a message to the Palestinians opposed to the Israeli presence in the Jordan River basin and the border crossings that [Israel has no] intention of conceding its eastern borders in the Aghwar; that it will strengthen them with a security wall and that it will not relinquish them in any future agreement.”
In sharp contrast with Netanyahu’s hardline stance, many Israeli politicians and security officials stress that there are far more important issues in the negotiations than the question of sustaining a military presence in the Aghwar. Indeed, former Mossad chief Danny Yatom cautioned against the folly of allowing the Aghwar obsession to cause the negotiations with the Palestinians to collapse completely. “It is very important to prevent the smuggling of arms and saboteurs across the eastern border. However, there is an intensive Jordanian presence on the other side of the Jordan river border to ensure this does not occur,” he said.
In his opinion, it would be “possible to agree in principle on a continued Israeli presence for one year, after which the security responsibility would be transferred to US and British forces to safeguard against smuggling.” He also believed that once Israel was assured that the area was calm from the security standpoint it could withdraw its forces from there.
The former Mossad chief’s views were echoed by the former commander of the Southern Region, Amram Mitzna, who said: “The importance of the agreement [with the Palestinians] exceeds the importance of strategic depth.” He then asked rhetorically: “What good will it do us to have a few hundred metres of a security strip?” and: “What state in the world would agree to have another party monitor its borders?”
The Council for Peace and Security, which consists of Israeli reserve officers and former senior officials in the general security apparatus, Shin Bet, were more explicit in refuting Netanyahu’s security argument. “Sustaining control over the Jordan River Valley area was not necessary to safeguard the security and defence interests of Israel,” it said. A document prepared by the members of this council demonstrated that continued Israeli control over that strip of border land would not be necessary even in the event of the occurrence of the least realistic scenario — namely, a conventional war between Israel and Arab armies.
Observers believe that another reason that the Israeli government is determined to retain its hold over the Aghwar is that it fears that direct geographical contact between a future Palestinian state and Jordan would enhance the political roles and influence of both states.
To the Palestinians, who reject any offer that does not include a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Aghwar, the Israeli determination to hold on to that territory is motivated by economic rather than security interests.
Palestinian spokespersons have stressed that a permanent presence of Israeli forces on the border with Jordan would constitute an unacceptable violation of the sovereignty of the future Palestinian state. Palestinians demand full sovereignty over the borders of their future state, on land, sea and air.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Ereikat, who has just tendered his resignation to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in protest against Israeli intransigence, told a delegation of foreign diplomats during a tour that included the Israeli settlements, farms and factors that now occupy the larger portion of the Aghwar area, “Mr Netanyahu says that he needs to stay in the Aghwar another 40 years in the framework of any future political solution. My response is, what’s to keep him from staying here another 400 years in view of all the profits to be had?”
Ereikat took the occasion to point out that last year alone Israel reaped about $612 million from economic projects operating in Israeli settlements in the Jordan River Valley. He added: “In the Aghwar area, Israel has the largest palm groves in the history of this country. They have flower fields and chicken and turkey farms, and five artificial lakes to breed crocodiles whose skins are used to produce shoes and handbags.”
Further underscoring the economic nature of the Israeli interest in retaining its hold on the occupied territory in Aghwar, Ereikat said: “Israel has 37 settlements here. These settlements are equipped for agricultural investment. Major Israeli firms invest in these settlements whose produce is geared for export.”
Published by Al Ahram Weekly online.org.eg (Egypt)