ANNEXATION AS PRESENT REALITY: TAKING STOCK OF THE COLONIAL PLANNING REGIME IN PALESTINE'S JORDA
Photo of a makeshift structure in the Jordan Valley, 2015.
In the summer of 2015, through a visit coordinated by Ma’an Development Center¹, I had the opportunity to meet with Bedouin herders and farmers in the Jordan Valley (in the eastern part of the occupied West Bank) and learn about the challenges that colonial occupation presents for their everyday lives. The challenges they cited ranged from the ongoing demolition of makeshift dwellings, an inability to access the main water reserves or to build wells, the expropriation of land used for grazing animals, and ongoing threats from nearby armed Israeli settlers. Indeed, while the Jordan Valley represents some of the most fertile land in the West Bank, it also represents some of the most surveilled, as the herders spoke of regular military and settler presence in their communities as well as drones flying overhead to capture remote sensing imagery of their movements or actions (e.g. attempts to dig wells). The occupying authority’s reach in this region has been - and continues to be - significant.
For this reason, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s announcement of a plan to annex the Jordan Valley region in September 2019 did not come as a surprise. The annexation was scheduled to begin July 1, 2020, and while this start date has been postponed, the plan is still on the table. If it moves ahead, the Valley would be formally under Israeli sovereignty and the entirety of the West Bank would be encircled by Israeli territory (see map below). Such a move would be in violation of international law, and organizations such as the U.N. have raised concerns that annexation could lead to the application of two tiers of laws within the same territory and the creation of a “Palestinian Bantustan”. Yet, through a complex regime of military controls and dispossession, the Israeli government has been extending its jurisdiction and instituting such a system in the Jordan Valley for decades. This brief article provides a glimpse of the current planning landscape to show that annexation already exists and the proposed plan would merely formalize the Jordan Valley’s colonial present.
Planning on the ‘Colonial Frontier’
After the 2015 visit, my regular summer visits to Jericho (the major Palestinian city in the Jordan Valley) via the shared van service (el fu’urd) would take me through circuitous routes that veer around settler enclaves and often going past signs that read “This Road Leads to Area “A” Under The Palestinian Authority. The Entrance for Israeli Citizens Is Forbidden, Dangerous to Your Lives and Against Israeli Law”. The signs would serve as a stark reminder that there are different sets of laws within the Valley – indeed throughout the West Bank – for the Israeli settlers and the Palestinians, with the latter cordoned into different ‘classes’ of enclaves (Areas A, B and C) that dot the West Bank, each with their own set of laws. While Area A is ostensibly governed by the ruling Palestinian Authority, Area B involves shared Israeli and Palestinian governance, and Area C is fully under Israeli military and administrative control. These classes of governance emerged from the Oslo II Accords (the second set of Israeli-Palestinian accords that were signed in 1995). These governance arrangements were part of a plan for phased autonomy for the Palestinians. However, it must be recognized that ultimately Israel can exert control over the entire West Bank, and that the military has entered Area A at will to apprehend Palestinians or confiscate materials.
The Jordan Valley region accounts for a significant portion of the West Bank, encompassing nearly one third of its total surface area. It is adjacent to the Jordan river and the northern section of the Dead Sea, and hence runs along the border with Jordan. Of the nearly 65,000 Palestinians who live in the Valley, most are concentrated in the conurbation of Jericho (classified as Area A). However, there are smaller towns dispersed across the Valley as well as Bedouin herding and farming communities. The Jordan Valley is also home to roughly 11,000 Israeli settlers.
To date, the vast majority of the land in the Jordan Valley, nearly 87%, is classified as Area C, meaning that it is under full Israeli military control. About 7% is classified as Area B and roughly 6% is Area A. The Israeli Civil Administration (CA), the part of the Israeli military that is tasked with overseeing civil affairs in the occupied territories, controls all planning in Area C. Although the CA is required by international law to plan for development, it has only drafted plans for less than 1% of Area C land, without ever consulting affected communities and falling short of international planning standards, according to B’Tselem (the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories). Palestinians - whose population size has doubled since 1995 - are sorely in need of homes, schools, infrastructure and medical institutions in Area C but are regularly denied permits; between 2016 and 2018, 99% of the applications submitted were rejected. As well, any structures that are built and considered ‘illegal’ by the CA can be demolished. Between 2006 and 2017, for instance, at least 698 Palestinian residential structures, housing over 2900 people, were demolished.
However, the colonial set of planning restrictions are not limited to (the lack of) building permits. Many Palestinians are also denied permits to move from one area to another, often barring them from accessing their own fields or visiting family members. Restrictions on movements to other parts of the West Bank, as well as within the Jordan Valley, are further intensified by the smattering of military checkpoints across the West Bank.
Land use is another critical site of control, as the Israeli government has often used the creation of ‘nature reserves’ on land in Area C, including privately-owned Palestinian land, as a way to obstruct Palestinians’ use of the land for farming or development purposes. Also, all of Area B (i.e. ‘joint-controlled’ area) was designated as natural reserve land in 1998 and unavailable for further development. This form of greenwashing is exacerbated by a recent announcement of the expansion of already existing reserve sites. As well, nearly half of the lands in the Valley are classified as ‘firing zones’, areas that can be used for military training exercises. Farmers have had their fields destroyed, been denied access to their land or asked to leave their homes (for hours or days) when training has been in session. In the early 2000s, Palestinian land was expropriated in the northern part of the Valley for construction of the 8-9 metre high concrete barrier (also known as the Apartheid Wall) that Israel began constructing in 2002, serving as another means of cutting-off Palestinians from their land and families.
One of the most critical means through which colonial planning is manifest is water access. Although the Jordan Valley is home to major water aquifers and the Jordan River, which flows into the Dead Sea, Palestinians have limited access to this water. Most of the water in the region is appropriated by the Israeli water company, Merkot, which has dug wells and installed water pipes (often replacing Palestinians’ pipes) throughout the region and diverted their flow to settlements. In many cases the company’s wells are leading to the drying up of Palestinian wells and springs. Palestinians are increasingly reliant on rainwater, which is insufficient, and cisterns to collect rainwater are regularly confiscated. Thus to meet their needs, Palestinians must purchase water, often at high costs. There is also an issue of water quality. When Palestinians are permitted to dig wells, they are not permitted to dig as deeply as the Israelis to access freshwater, and open water springs are at risk of contamination, e.g. sewage water from the settlements. Israel also controls the Dead Sea, which serves not only as a source of water but also of tourist revenue, both of which are denied to Palestinians. On average, Palestinians consume one-quarter the amount of water that Israelis do, and at quantities well below those recommended by the World Health Organization.
An open water spring. Jordan Valley. 2015.
As noted, within the Valley, there are 30 Israeli settlements and 18 Israeli outposts. These settlements and outposts are in contravention of international law.² However, they are on lands that the Israeli government deems as ‘state land’, i.e. land that encompasses nearly half of Area C and which is ‘leased’ by the CA. The settlements are governed by local committees and higher-order regional councils (the Aravot HaYarden and Megilot Regional Councils), which are considered official local Israeli government bodies and provide municipal services through their rights to zoning, urban planning and tax levies. Planning and development authority comes from the CA. While Israelis living in these settlements in Area C are tried in civil courts and in most cases (e.g. Education, Health, etc.) subject to civil law, Palestinians in Area C are subject to military courts and law. While Palestinians are regularly denied construction permits, the construction within settlements and those of new settlements has continued unabated, underwritten by the Israel government’s residential subsidies, and has heightened since the 2019 proclamation. And recent research shows the complicity of the regional councils in land expropriation, the issuance of fake permits for buildings and infrastructure, and the retroactive ‘legalization’ of illegal structures - to be compared with the wanton destruction of Palestinian-built homes or infrastructure.
Fenced off water management system serving Israeli settlements in the Jordan Valley, 2015.
At present, the jurisdiction of the regional councils covers the majority of the Jordan Valley land area. Here, settlers possess large tracts of farming land through which to grow their agricultural exports (often laboured by Palestinians who cannot access or afford to operate their own farms). The settlements are situated in close proximity to Palestinian communities and fields, and Palestinian farmers and herders are frequently attacked and harassed by Israeli settlers, who are allowed to carry arms, exacerbating the already violent conditions faced under military occupation.
The restrictions already in place, compounded by the disparate access to resources, have severe impacts for Palestinians, forcing many of them out of the region altogether. These conditions affect not only those residing in Area C but also Palestinians in Areas A and B who have either farmland or relatives in Area C. The different areas – A, B, and C – do not operate in isolation. They are ecologically and socially contiguous areas and the use of a colonial planning regime to sever such connections destroys the economic and social livelihoods for Palestinians throughout. This is a situation that is likely to be exacerbated, but in practice not fundamentally altered, by an annexation that formalizes an apartheid set of planning practices.
The Plan for Annexation
An earlier vision for the current-day annexation plan can be found in the Allon Plan of 1967. On the grounds of ‘security’, the plan was put forward by an Israeli minister, after Israel’s seizure of West Bank land in the 1967 war, to ensure that a future Palestinian state there (envisioned as a set of enclaves) would be fully encircled by Israeli territory. More recently, the idea has been popularized with Trump’s 2020 ‘deal of the century’ peace plan, which places the Jordan Valley area as well as West Bank settlements (outside of the Valley) squarely within Israel’s borders.³ The plan, overseen by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, was released not long after Netanyahu’s own annexation proclamation but it has been in the works for years. It builds on a long and sustained U.S. history of financial and political support for Israel⁴ - as well as the U.S.’s experience with internal colonial practices - and underscores how Palestine’s colonization is at once a transnational and local imperialist affair. Included in this transnational enterprise is the government of my country of residence, Canada, which, in addition to furthering its own colonial practices, has remained silent on Israel’s plan (as well as other human rights violations in Palestine) and complicit through its ongoing free trade agreements with Israel.
More specifically, the annexation plan stipulates that Area C, including 47 Palestinian communities, as well as all the illegal settlements and outposts, will be under full Israeli sovereignty. A recent report indicates that sixteen dispersed Palestinian communities, situated within areas that presently classified as A and B and represented by green dots on the map above, as well as Jericho (also in green) would remain under the rule of the Palestinian authority and connected to one another by access roads. All of the individual communities would be completely surrounded by annexed territory. And while the final borders and plans are to be determined by the Israeli government in collaboration with the Trump administration, if current practice is any indication, this plan is likely to fortify restrictions and forms of land expropriation that already exist in Area C, while further extending them to sections of what is presently classified as A and B, and thereby solidifying the ungovernable patchwork of isolated and policed enclaves. In other words, annexation would render ‘official’ a de-facto annexation that has been underway for decades.
The Jordan Valley – Also A Story of Decolonial Resistance
The 2015 organized visit to the Jordan Valley, as well as other personal visits, would not only shed light on the struggles that Palestinians face but also their steadfastness (‘sumud’ in Arabic) in opposing colonial dispossession. Resistance occurs in myriad ways, but a particularly prominent group challenging the colonial regime is the Jordan Valley Solidarity (JVS) committee. The JVS is a network of grassroots Palestinian organizations as well as international supporters that documents human rights abuses in the region and tries to build international awareness of the conditions in the Jordan Valley. In defiance of Israeli bans, JVS also supports local communities in construction projects: residences, schools, roads or water pipes. To do so, they rely on natural materials and resources, using mud bricks (see image below) and generating fuel from waste. With respect to resistance, Palestinian scholar Nuha Dwaikat Shaer, who has conducted extensive research on the Jordan Valley, has highlighted the central role of women in construction efforts. She argues that women are disproportionately impacted by house demolitions and thus heavily engaged in acts of ‘everyday resistance’ through their individual efforts to re-build home.⁵
Mud bricks used by the Jordan Valley Solidarity campaign to construct structures in the Jordan Valley. 2015.
As progressive and radical planners, we recognize how planning has been instrumentalized for dispossession, exploitation, oppression and profit in ways that instill or entrench racialized, gendered and class-based (among other) exclusions. Colonial planning is part of the field’s sordid history and present. The question is whether we have the will, political or otherwise, to contest such practices and support bottom-up, planning struggles to remake spaces of oppression.
Members of the international community can get involved by contributing to groups such as the Jordan Valley Solidarity committee, calling out the complicity of governments in the Global North, and joining the international campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), a call put forward by 170 Palestinian civil society organizations in 2005 asking the international community to take action to end international complicity and pressure Israel to comply with international law. Pro-active involvement would strengthen a growing movement to fight not only the creeping annexation of the Jordan Valley, but also the colonialization of Palestine, more generally, including the siege and bombardment of Gaza - which is ongoing as I write.
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Norma M. Rantisi teaches in the Department of Geography, Planning & Environment at Concordia University and is presently living in Tiohtià:ke/Montréal, unceded Mohawk territory. Norma is a member of the Progressive City editorial collective and the Planners Network Steering Committee. The views reflected here are her own and all photographs were taken by her.
¹The visit was organized as part of the International Conference on Critical Geography
²The settlements are in contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention that stipulates the responsibilities of an occupying power in relation to occupied territories. ³Even mainstream outlets such as The Economist have called the plan ‘the steal of the century’. ⁴Israel is one of the top recipients of U.S. aid, most of which is targetted for military expenditures, and the U.S. government has been a stalwart supporter of Israeli policy in international arenas such as the U.N.
⁵Dwaikat-Shaer, N. (2019) “Palestinian women resisting home demolition (domicide) and forcible displacement in so called area C through everyday practices” Presented at the Planners Network conference, June 21. Concordia University, Tiohtià:ke/Montreal.