Making the Desert Bloom, With a Bit of Help

Readers of Isabel Kershner’s story about the Jordan Valley in the Jan. 5 issue of the Times  (“Strategic Corridor in the West Bank Remains a Stumbling Block in Mideast Talks”) may find much to admire in her accounts of settler enterprise. It seems they have truly made the desert bloom through perseverance and innovation.

They are growing dates, vegetables and herbs. They have the largest farms in the region producing turkeys, alligators, palms and grapes. They use treated wastewater to irrigate their groves and “employ 6,000 Palestinians in a thriving agricultural enterprise adapted to the semitropical climate.”

But missing from her story are the findings of a significant report that lays out just how 6,500 Israeli settlers, a minority among 60,000 Palestinians, have come to dominate the economy of the Jordan Valley. According to the Israeli NGO Kerem Navot, the settlers have succeeded because deliberate government policy has robbed Palestinians of their land.

The report, “Israeli Settler Agriculture as a Means of Land Takeover in the West Bank,” states that it is not “individual settlers or even entire settlements” that have produced this success but “a long-term and well-funded strategy that has been encouraged and supported by governmental and public agencies, despite the blatant illegality of much of the activity, even in terms of Israeli law.”

In her story Kershner notes approvingly that settlers have planted “abundant date groves” in a demilitarized zone along the Jordan River. It reads as if this is one more innovative and bold approach by the diligent settlers, bringing unused land to life. What she fails to say is that Palestinians landowners (who hold title to more than 12,000 acres in the zone) are forbidden to enter.

The Kerem Navot report states that while Palestinians are refused entry, settlers have been granted more than 2,000 acres to cultivate there. An Israeli newspaper also reported recently that even the settlers’ Thai workers are allowed to enter the zone to work in the groves.

Israel has found a number of ways to wrest land from Palestinians in the Jordan Valley and transfer it to the settlements, the report says. But the settlements don’t always farm the land themselves. Sometimes they lease it out to Palestinians to do the work.

This leads to a situation with layers of abuse, an “astounding finding,” in the words of Dror Etkes, who conducted the research and wrote the text of the report. He notes, “These Palestinian farmers must pay rent to settlers in order to farm lands that the settlers were given at no cost.” So much for the image of pioneering settlers surviving on personal grit.

Kershner includes none of this in her story. She describes a “neglected” Palestinian farm village and a Bedouin encampment destroyed by army bulldozers; she touches on water shortages, briefly mentions the occupation and the fact that Israel controls land and water, but she places most emphasis on conflicts between locals and the Palestinian Authority, implying that this is the major reason for a stagnant Palestinian economy.

As usual in reporting on Israel, the legal issues are never mentioned. Under international law every settlement in the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, is illegal.

Kershner had access to the Kerem Navot report, which was released in August 2013. It directly addresses land use and agriculture in the Jordan Valley, precisely the issues her story concerns, but she chose to ignore it. Rather than undermine the image of Jordan Valley settlers as “pioneers, salt of the earth, the true Zionists,” she censored the findings of serious research. Times readers are once again short-changed in the coverage of Palestine-Israel.

Barbara Erickson

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