Tue, Nov 12, 2019 - Page 6 News List

Israeli farmers shut out as Jordan deal expires


A picture taken from the Israeli side of the border shows Jordanian soldiers raising the national flag ahead of a ceremony at the Jordan Valley site of Naharayim, also known as Baqura in Jordan, on Sunday.

Photo: AFP

Israeli farmers were shut out from two Jordanian border enclaves on Sunday after a 25-year-old deal allowing them to work the land there expired amid souring ties with Amman.

Israelis who long grew watermelon, wheat and other crops there braced for financial losses after Jordan declined to renew a clause on the parcels that was part of their 1994 peace agreement.

For a quarter-century, Jordan had allowed the Israeli farmers access to the territories of Baqura — also dubbed the “Island of Peace” — in the north and Ghumar in the Negev desert south.

However, a year ago, Jordanian King Abdullah II said his country had notified Israel that it wants the two parcels back.

On Sunday, in a speech opening parliament, the king said Jordan would reclaim “full sovereignty over every inch of those lands” and announced “the expiration of the Peace Treaty annexes,” referring to the two territories.

“Israel regrets Jordan’s decision to terminate the annexes,” the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in an English-language statement later in the day.

Baqura — known in Hebrew as Naharayim, an area that also extends into Israel — lies on a spit of land where the Jordan and Yarmuk rivers meet, in a region of sun-baked brown and yellow hills.

On Sunday, two yellow gates leading to the Jordanian checkpoint were locked with chains. Local officials said Israeli soldiers had shuttered them at about 5pm the previous day.

On a hilltop on the other side, a Jordanian flag flew above two tents and military vehicles were patrolling the site where a ceremony was expected yesterday.

The Naharayim territory has seen its share of tragedy. On the Israeli side there is a memorial garden for seven schoolgirls killed in a 1997 massacre by a Jordanian soldier. Then-Jordanian king Hussein later went on condolence visits to the families.

Local Israeli official Shay Hadar, 47, said about 150 people would visit the enclave of Naharayim on a normal weekend with Jordanian permission.

He said the visitors would see the remains of a hydroelectric power plant and train station and learn about the history of the Island of Peace.

Tour money will be lost and business at a guest house at the Ashdot Yaakov Ihud kibbutz is expected to suffer.

“Of course it’s a big loss,” said Adva Algarisi, director of tourism for the kibbutz, who explained that visitors would often combine trips to the Island of Peace with other sites in the area.

“It’s close to the [Sea of Galilee], it’s close to other Christian places, holy places,” she said, adding what had long been the site’s unique appeal of demonstrating “how to live in peace with our neighbors.”

Residents hope to eventually regain some access to the lands, or compensation from the Israeli government.

“What’s most important is the fields, the land,” said Ami Kabri, spokesman for the Jordan Valley regional council. A statement by the Jordanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Israeli farmers would be allowed to harvest vegetables from both enclaves — but only once, during the upcoming harvest season, and after obtaining a Jordan visa.

The second enclave, Ghumar, deep in the Negev desert south of the Dead Sea, is known in Hebrew as Tzofar.

The lands were privately owned by Israeli entities for decades, but the 1994 deal saw the kingdom retain sovereignty there.

Since the heady days of Israel’s second peace treaty with an Arab state — after Egypt — relations with Amman have been strained.

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