Jordan Valley: Jericho water well in danger — it's in Area A on Palestinian map, but Israeli military map says it's Area C – UPDATED

Israeli military activity in the Jordan Valley has increasingly targetted isolated and poor Bedouin communities in recent months, following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent public raising — again — of an Israeli claim to retain control, for security reasons, of the border area along the Jordan River and of large parts of the Jordan Valley, which constitutes a large part of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Surprisingly, one gleaming new privately-owned Palestinian family agricultural enterprise in Jericho, a date palm farm and a separate packing factory not far from the Dead Sea in the Jordan Valley, has also been hit with sudden demolition orders for an essential new well it was digging, adjacent to an established well it has been using that was licensed and opened when the West Bank was under direct Jordanian rule in 1961.

Both of the wells are in danger of demolition, according to the orders issued in late July by the Israeli Defense Ministry’s “Civil Administration” in the West Bank.

This is a large-scale business venture, with real potential to advance development of the Palestinian agricultural sector — one of the motors of the future Palestinian economy.

Four thousand threatened date palm trees under cultivation are on the verge of producing fruit in the coming weeks.

But, if the water wells are destroyed, the date palm trees will soon die in the summer heat that sometimes reaches 50 degrees Centigrade.

Manasrah date pale tree farm in Jericho - photo by Mohamed Jaradat

The Manasrah Development and Investment Company [MADICO], which owns the date palm plantation, was founded in Jericho in 2009, by Zuhair Manasrah, several years after he retired from decades of service with the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization], and then also with the Palestinian Authority [PA]. Manasrah started the new enterprise tentatively, in 2006, personally cultivating a plot of land that he had bought a long time earlier.   He then expanded, renting additional land from neighboring farmers under long-term year-leases, and the company grew from there.

Manasrah was born in the Bani Naim region of Hebron, to a family with agricultural roots. He was arrested and imprisoned by Israel for resistance activities as a youth, later studied in Germany, and then served the PLO in exile in several countries, including Iraq. Following his return to the West Bank in 1996, Manasrah worked in the Palestinian Preventive Security services, where strong men developed wild, deeply bitter and long-lasting rivalries.

Manasrah was appointed as Governor of Jenin, and served there during Israel’s ferocious re-invasion of the Jenin Refugee Camp in 2002, targetting what the IDF said was the suicide bomb workshop center of the West Bank, at the height of the Second Intifada. He was later appointed Governor of Bethlehem, where he served in 2004-2005.

The original well at his Jericho farm dates back to 1961, when it was licensed under Jordanian administration. Now, that well has limited productive capacity and is about to run dry. Manasrah has been trying to extend its life by mixing in an adjacent pond he built its slightly-saline water with fresh water he is temporarily able to purchase from an agricultural neighbor, then filtering the blend through pipes to irrigate his four thousand date palm trees.

All the trees are about to yield their fruit — the prized Medjoul dates — some for the first time this year. But without an adequate regular supply of water, the trees cannot survive.

The Manasrah enterprise has just completed construction, in another area of Jericho, of its Palestinian Dates Center, which it says is “the most technologically advanced packing house in Palestine”. USAID gave financial support for the construction of this facility, and contracted experts to give technical advice for planning its operation.

Manasrah applied for, and received, a license from the Palestinian Water Authority in Ramallah, to dig a new well at the date palm farm, to ensure a better water supply. He said that he believed this license was enough, all that was needed.

“I assumed they did all the necessary coordination”, Manasrah said.

Workers at the Manasrah date palm farm standing by the new water well, next to equipment storage area – photo by Mohamed Jaradat

He has a map, stamped by the Palestinian Authority, showing his water wells to be in Area A, under PA control — where Palestinian licensing procedures should apply.

“I have Palestinian permission”, Manasrah said. “I have a Palestinian license for the old well, and Palestinian permission for the new well”.

The replacement well is located 25 meters from the original well. Manasrah said that the replacement well had been drilled down some 95 meters before he was suddenly ordered by the Israeli military’s “Civil Administration”, late last month, to stop work. He still needs to drill down another 30 meters to reach a good water source.

After several notifications received at long intervals starting in 2007 — which Manasrah said he was assured, by the Palestinian Water Authority, were erroneous — he went in 2008 to the IDF “Civil Administration” at Beit El to file an appeal against a demolition order for the original well licensed by Jordan in 1961.  That appeal was rejected, but the demolition was not carried out– leading Manasrah to believe that the Palestinian Water Authority was, indeed, sorting things out.

In May this year, when Manasrah realized he needed a replacement well, he went back to Beit El to file another appeal and clarify the situation.

The IDF suddenly, and in force, visited the date palm farm on Thursday 21 July.

They demanded an immediate halt to the drilling of the new well, and Manasrah said he complied, to avoid destruction of the well on the spot, and confiscation of the drilling equipment that belonged to someone else.

The Israeli officials told him that he should have converted the Jordanian permit for the older well to an Israeli permit, and should also have applied for an Israeli permit for the new well.

The same day, Manasrah says, after the visit, he immediately went to file two separate applications: (1) a new one to the Israeli Civil Administration for the permits and licenses they say are necessary (application fees just over 400 shekels, the license cost to be determined if approved), for which an answer is still awaited; and (2) he followed up with the Palestinian Water Authority on a previously-filed license application, and it was finally issued (license cost: just over 4,000 shekels).

Manasrah said he had to prepare and submit two separate sets of maps, to meet the two different sets of requirements (Israeli and Palestinian). And, he said, the cost of the maps alone was over 11,000 shekels.

With his Israeli application is pending, Manasrah then suddenly received a demolition order from the IDF, setting the date for destruction of both the new well and the old well — and of several newly-built structures as well — within the week, unless he could “arrange things” in the meantime.

Manasrah said he is not sure exactly what it means to “arrange things”, and says he finds it confusing that the same Israeli office is both dealing with his application and simultaneously issuing demolition orders.

A World Bank report in April 2009, Assessment of Restrictions on the Water Sector, noted the “complete dependence of WBG on scarce water resources shared and largely controlled by Israel”.   The World Bank noted in the report, here, that it agreed to conduct this research as an “awareness-raising assessment that would document impacts on project delays”.

The report notes that water allocation to Palestinians and Israelis, respectively, were fixed by agreement at the beginning of the Oslo process in the mid-1990s, and have not been changed to this day: “Palestinians abstract about 20% of the ‘estimated potential’ of the aquifers that underlie both the West Bank and Israel. Israel abstracts the balance, and in addition overdraws without JWC approval on the ‘estimated potential’ by more than 50%, up to 1.8 times its share under Oslo. Over-extraction by deep wells combined with reduced recharge has created risks for the aquifers and a decline in water available to Palestinians through shallower wells … Palestinian abstractions have actually declined over the last ten years, under the combined effect of dropping water tables and restricted drilling, deepening and rehabilitation of wells. Water withdrawals per capita for Palestinians in the West Bank are about one quarter of those available to Israelis, and have declined over the last decade. By regional standards, Palestinians have the lowest access to fresh water resources”. [page 10 of the report].

A World Bank summary said that “because of the imbalance in power, capacity and information between parties, interim governance rules and practices have resulted in systematic and severe constraints on Palestinian development of water resources, water uses, and wastewater management. Furthermore, since 2000, the Israeli-imposed movement and access restrictions, consisting of physical impediments, but also of permitting and decision-making practices, have further impaired Palestinian access to water resources, infrastructure development and utility operations”. This is published here.

Attorney Sani Khoury, Nazareth-born and based in East Jerusalem, filed a petition against the demolition orders on 24 July at the Israeli military’s “Civil Administration” office in Beit El, just next to Ramallah-Al Bireh, which was “immediately rejected, as expected”, Khoury said, on the day the IDF demolitions were scheduled to take place. This leaves as the only apparent legal option going to the Israeli Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, multiple contacts and legal consultations have succeeded in giving the properties a temporary reprieve, and intensive efforts are underway to see if the matter can be arranged informally. But, the demolition threat could still be carried out at any time.

Another well was built without any apparent problem near the Manasrah date palm farm — but it was constructed for private use at the vacation home of a well-connected Ramallah resident.

The situation is legally chaotic and unclear, to the detriment of Palestinians who are living under direct Israeli military control.

It seems that Israel in any case has final authorization over any arrangements that the Palestinian Water Authority [PWA] may approve — though the PWA is apparently supposed to coordinate the whole package of permits.

While it has some not-fully-stated claims on the West Bank, where some 500,000 Israelis live in guarded settlements, the Israeli government has never [at least, not yet] annexed the entire West Bank [see next paragraph below]. Therefore, Israeli law does not apply there — except, by various protocols in the Oslo Accords, to Israeli citizens, and in some cases to Israeli “property” in the West Bank — and the entire West Bank is actually ruled by the Israeli Minister of Defense under a combination of British Mandatory emergency regulations, Jordanian laws, and its own military decrees issued through the last 43 years.

[Israel did extend its laws and administration, in 1967, just a few weeks after its conquest in the Six-Day war, to some 65 square dunams or so of the West Bank in an arc from Ramallah in the north to Bethlehem in the south, surrounding [to the east] the Old City of East Jerusalem. This crescent of land was then added to Israeli West Jerusalem, and the whole new agglomoration was then called the “Greater Jerusalem Municipality”. The UN Security Council and General Assembly and other organs and bodies have all declared this move, which is tantamount to annexation, “null and void”. The general position of the international community now is that they will accept only what the two parties both agree to, preferably through direct negotiations.]

Complicating the matter even further, Israeli maps show the wells and some of the new structures at the farm to be in Area C, a zone comprising some 60 percent of the West Bank, where Israel is in full charge of both civilian matters — including licensing and zoning procedures — and security control, according to the Oslo Accords negotiated in the mid-1990s between Israel and the PLO.

The Israeli military has high-resolution maps from satellite photos that Palestinians are not permitted to see.

The Israelis seem quite sure of their position, and insist that the wells and adjacent structures come under their jurisdiction, so the proper licenses should have been obtained from them. They also seem sceptical of Manasrah’s statement that he did not know at all that the wells were in Area C (meaning that he had to get Israeli permits for these wells) — as the Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank did state in response to his 2008 appeal.  But, Manasrah, as already noted, has an official, stamped map from the Palestinian Water Authority which shows the wells to be in Area A (and subject to Palestinian licensing and permissions procedures), in which he says he placed faith.

The Palestinian Governor of Jericho, Majed Fathiani, suggested that the map coordinates could be changed from one side to the other “if there is an earthquake”. He suggested that the demolition of other Palestinian water wells throughout the Jordan Valley, from Al-Awja to Fasayel to Al-Nusayrah and elsewhere, has been justified by similar Israeli claims about the classification of their respective geograpic locations [Area C, under Israeli control, rather than Area A, under Palestinian control]. The Israelis “have a reason”, Fathiani said, and “they are not giving permission for Palestinians to rectify artesian wells in the whole area”. Palestinians are not allowed to dig wells deep enough to reach the acquifer, he noted, so the quality of the water coming from the Palestinian wells is poor and rather saline. Meanwhile, the large enterprises run by Israeli settlers in the Jordan Valley are able to dig deeper wells, and get much more and better water, with which they are running large-scale irrigation systems for their agriculture there.

The Jericho Governor added that “we are not getting our share of water from the Jordan River, either”, while Israel is removing larger quantities.

He said he was sure that Dr. Shaddad Attili, head of the Palestinian Water Authority, was doing his best to work things out with the Israelis. Attili, who has been contacted by this journalist several times this week, has promised to return the calls, but has not done so.

One of his colleagues indicated that Dr. Attili preferred to talk about the overall situation in the West Bank — specifically mentioning the recent destruction of the wells in Al-Nasaryah in the northern West Bank, affecting some 500 people he said, and of wells in or near Hebron in the southern West Bank — rather than the looming imminent threat to demolish Manasrah’s wells.

Long-standing Palestinian jealousies, which have hampered a number of other attempts at economic and political development, may be involved in compounding Manasrah’s difficulties. He was summoned on short notice last week to Ramallah by the Tax Department of the Palestinian Authority’s Finance Ministry, to respond to accusations that he had purchased some of the supplies for his farm from Israeli settlements in the West Bank — which would have been a grave violation of a recent PA boycott law.

A beleagured but furious Manasrah was able to produce all the paperwork and invoices needed to demonstrate to the PA Tax Department that the supplies were not purchased from an Israeli settlement, but from an Israeli company in Israel itself.

In fact, as it turns out, the supplies in question — mesh or net bags that are tied around the bunches of dates while still hanging on the trees, in order to keep the ripe fruit from falling to the ground — were imported from China.

Nevertheless, though disproven, the untrue rumors continue to circulate.

It now looks like a deliberate attack. If true — which they are not — the accusations would be damning indications of unprincipled “corruption” and even collaboration. But, they are not true, and have been refuted. Their persistence suggests a slanderous campaign specifically aimed at eroding support for Manasrah’s already-threatened date palm enterprise in Jericho.

These kinds of difficulties have come to be almost normal, in what is a completely abnormal situation. The result is to overwhelming discourage Palestinian initiatives. Nobody knows exactly where he or she stands, where the next criticism will come from or what the penalty will be, or who to trust. In this environment, many Palestinians say they would rather not have a state of their own.

Meanwhile, no Palestinian official — not President Mahmoud Abbas, nor his chosen Prime Minister Salam Fayyad [who also heads the Finance Ministry, and who has been developing plans to prepare for sustainable Palestinian statehood], have said anything about the specific threat to these water wells and the date palm operation in Jericho, or in defense of Manasrah’s investment and efforts to build what could be a key Palestinian agricultural enterprise.

Part of the irrigation infrastructure, as dates ripen in bags on trees - Photo by Mohamed Jaradat

Jamal Zakout, political adviser to Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, said that he had not known about the threat to Manasrah’s wells until this journalist brought it to his attention. But, he said, this story “is a good advertisement for a businessman”. Zakout insisted that the Prime Minister is concerned with the overall problem of water, which is why he recently visited Salfit (in the northern West Bank) where other water wells had been demolished by Israel forces according to Israeli orders. “The Prime Minister’s visit sent a strong message to the Israelis”, Zakout said.

He also pointed out that organizations like the World Bank would never had made reports about the water problem if the Palestinians had not brought it to their attention. Otherwise, Zakout said, the Prime Minister had no time, at the moment, to comment on this situation.

The PA Economy Minister Hassan Abu Libdeh [who chaired the Palestine Investment Conference in 2007 and who recently held a press conference just before the start of the month of Ramadan when household food consumption rises and is one of the families’ top priorities, announcing, for an undefined period, the lowering of a price of a kilo of bread from 4 shekels to 3.5 shekels, and a proposed new campaign to reduce water charges] — spoke out in lofty generalizations recently, according to an article published by Ma’an News Agency, based on reporting by the Agence France Presse [AFP], here.

According to this article, Abu Libdeh said that “If Israel were to lift only 10 percent of its restrictions on the Palestinian economy, it would represent an income higher than our monthly needs … [If] Israel lifted its restrictions on agriculture, the contribution of agriculture to national income would be multiplied by eight”.

Instead, there has been a focus on the worrying range of risks to donor aid — from the global financial crisis to reprisal cut-offs if Palestinian leaders actually move to seek member state status at the United Nations in the coming months — aid on which the PA has become largely dependent.

Abu Libdeh told journalists in early August that while “the PA’s economy was small, isolated and had weak foreign trade, and so it was not directly affected by the global crisis … [But] the economy was at risk of losing donor aid as governments tightened their budgets [although] Israel’s occupation remained the biggest obstacle to the growth of the Palestinian economy”, according to an article published in the Bethlehem-based Ma’an News Agency, here.

For Manasrah, the immediate priority now is to save his date palm trees. The threat of destruction to the water wells would cause great, perhaps irredeemable, damage to this new enterprise which already provides jobs to 35 Palestinian workers, according to a report published by the Jordan Valley Solidarity campaign here.

By the middle of August, Manasrah will no longer be able to obtain any more water from his agricultural neighbor, because it will all be needed at that time for irrigation of the neighbor’s own crop.

One of the Manasrah farm’s structures, also under threat of total demolition, is a three-sided shelter for the computers that manage the irrigation system. It has a corrugated tin roof covering a sophisticated and impeccably-clean computer installation that regulates mixing of the combined water with fertilizers and other needed chemicals, and provides a calibrated supply of the required nourishment and care of the fledgling date palm trees.

The computerized irrigation shelter at the Manasrah date palm farm in Jericho – photos by Mohamed Jaradat

Another of the structures, built and then expanded for the use of the farm workers, contains kitchen and toilet facilities, and rest areas. It is now under threat of partial demolition — affecting about half of the of building, the newly-built rooms added to expand its capacity, while the Israeli military’s “Civil Administration” apparently considers the older part of its construction as “legal”.

Meanwhile, adding to the difficulties, Palestinian Water Authority officials apparently temporarily suspended participation in a joint Israeli-Palestinian water commission, to protest the recent IDF destruction of other Palestinian water wells, on 12 July, in the northern Jordan Valley villages of Al-Nasaryah, Al-Akrabanyah, and Bet Hasan, all apparently classified by the PA as Area A [under full PA control].

This destruction was reported by the Jordan Valley Solidarity campaign, here.

Palestinians note that the Jordan Valley is one of the most strategic areas of the West Bank, a key to future Palestinian economic development. Palestinians who live there also note that the city of Jericho — which, at some 10,000 years of age, is one of the places of longest human habitation in the world — and the nearby Dead Sea area, have some very unique climatic and atmospheric conditions. including a higher concentration of oxygen in the air there, apparently due to its low altitude, some 300 meters below sea level.

But, an official in the Palestinian Authority’s Jericho Governorate recently estimated in a conversation with this journalist that Israel controls some 83% of the land in the Jordan Valley, including Israeli settlements which engage in large-scale agricultural activities, and “security perimeters” — as well as very large areas reserved for Israeli military use and training. Palestinians are restricted or excluded from these areas.

In an opinion piece published recently on the Al-Jazeera English website, Israeli activist and journalist Jillian Kestler-DAmours wrote that “in March of this year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated on a tour of the region that ‘without Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley, a truck will be able to travel freely from Iran to Petah Tikva … Israel’s line of defence begins here’, Netanyahu said. ‘If rockets and missiles break out here, they will reach Tel Aviv, Haifa and all over the state’.”

Netanyahu adviser Dore Gold, and the Jerusalem Center for Policy Affairs that he heads, have argued recently, in an expansive logic, that what UN Security Council resolution 242 really means when it calls for negotiated borders is that Israel is “entitled” to new borders. The JCPA has put out position papers saying that Israel’s security needs require Israeli retention of the large Maale Adumim settlement, in the middle of the West Bank midway between Jerusalem and Jericho, in order to prevent the future Palestinian firing of rockets [possibly from a relinquished Maale Adumim].

The Jordan Valley recently came back into the political spotlight when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu specifically mentioned the need for a long-term Israeli military presence there, during an exchange of speeches in May as U.S. President Barack Obama was trying to coax Israel to put forward some specific ideas for a possible peace settlement.

A few years earlier, the U.S. Administration under President George W. Bush had actively opposed Israeli plans to extend The Wall it is building for security purposes down through the Jordan Valley, and the idea disappeared. Israeli subsequently faced financial difficulties in completing The Wall elsewhere in and around the West Bank, but work on what Israeli officials prefer to call the “Separation Barrier” is nevertheless steadily continuing.

Obama said in May that the U.S. believes talks should resume on the basis of the June 1967 borders — with agreed swaps. He was then pushed, in a second speech, into indicating some support for a formula first devised in 2004 by the administration of former President George W. Bush, in order to satisfy Israeli reservations to the Road Map, and expressed in a letter that acknowledged “existing demographic realities on the ground” — a formula that European members of the Quartet say they could not accept (unless, of course, the Palestinian leadership agreed to it…)

Palestinian leaders — who have said that negotiations are their first, second, and third choices — nevertheless maintain that they do not see any indication that the Israeli government is serious about negotiations, and they also say that they do not want to re-enter negotiations while Israel continues to expand its settlement activity.

A recent UN report, prepared in August 2011 by the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs [OCHA], says that restrictions in Area C which are being issued by the Israeli military’s “Civil Administration” in the West Bank, are hampering Palestinian development and undermining Palestinian livelihoods, thus forcing Palestinian residents to move out of large parts of the area. This report is posted on the internet here.

These restrictions affect everyone, but has a disproportionate impact on the poor and most vulnerable.

The UN-OCHA report notes that its field interviews and observations “show the way in which settlement activity is central to the hardships facing Palestinian communities in Area C”.

In her article for the Al-Jazeera English website, Jillian Kestler-DAmours noted that “Only six months after Israel began occupying the West Bank in 1967, it began building Jewish-only settlements in the Jordan Valley. At the same time, an estimated 100,000 Palestinians fled the area. Today, the Palestinian population of the Jordan Valley is about 64,450, spread throughout 29 communities, and a further 15,000 Bedouin live in dozens of small villages. Approximately 9,300 Israeli settlers also live in the area. But this reality is not well-understood within Israeli society. According to a public opinion survey carried out by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) on May 31 and June 1 of this year, 64 per cent of Jewish-Israeli respondents didn’t know that the Jordan Valley was an occupied territory. Eighty per cent of those surveyed also believed that Jewish Israelis made up the majority of residents in the Jordan Valley”. Her piece can be read in full here.

Kestler-DAmours also quoted from a recent multi-part report by B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights information center which states that “Israel has restricted Palestinian access to water sources such that, in some Palestinian villages, water consumption is minimal and comparable to that of disaster areas. Israel also restricts Palestinian movement and prevents Palestinians from building and developing their communities. It has also taken control of the tourist sites and enables private [Israeli] enterprises to exploit and profit from the minerals in the area … The World Bank estimated that, if Israel were to permit Palestinians access to 50,000 more dunums of land in the Jordan Valley and to its water sources, they would be able to develop a modern agricultural industry, including food-manufacturing plants, that would generate about a billion dollars a year”.

Instead, Kestler-DAmours writes, the B’Tselem investigation found that: “Israel’s exploitation of the area’s resources to a greater extent than its exploitation in other sections of the West Bank indicates its intention: de facto annexation of the area.”

This B’Tselem report, published in May 2011, is posted here.

Kestler-DAmours reported that “Palestinian residents of the Jordan Valley profoundly suffer under these myriad Israeli-imposed restrictions. Limits on freedom of movement and access to land and water, and the distance between communities and large Palestinian centres such as Jericho, have led to a systematic lack of employment opportunities and have made the local Palestinian agricultural sector flounder. Many Palestinians are therefore forced to work in Israeli settlements [[n.b. – including Maale Adumim]] for extremely low wages and under dangerous conditions”…

The Palestinian Authority wants to ban Palestinians from working in the Israeli settlements, though for most Palestinians in the West Bank, barred from seeking employment inside Israel, and without the education and above all the social and political connections to get one of the coveted [though not necessarily high-paying] jobs in the Palestinian Authority — and without new enterprises like the Manasrah date palm operation — there are few if any ways [other than working in settlements] to earn money to take care of their families and survive…

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