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World

Rift runs through Jordan Valley's future

The northern stretch of the Jordan Valley, past the Dead Sea, is coming to grips with the idea that it may be cut off from the West Bank and placed under Israeli control, as part of a future US-brokered peace deal.

"To leave your home, what you build up with your own hands - it's sad, but we will if we have to," the valley's regional mayor David Elhaiini, who is Israeli, has resigned himself to the possibility of the area being annexed. "If that's what the Israeli people vote for, then we will accept it."

But Elhaiini remains strongly opposed to the proposal to annexe the valley, in much the same way Gaza was annexed from the West Bank in 2005.

It is just one of the proposals in the recent talks initiated by US Secretary of State John Kerry and designed to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

In December, eight Israeli government ministers backed a parliamentary bill to cut off the Jordan Valley. At the time, the bill's sponsor, Miri Regev, said backing it sent a message that the Jordan Valley was an important strategic and security asset of the state of Israel.

Israel wants to maintain a military presence in the area and Kerry insists it must remain in place for at least a decade. Defence force officials say all they want is a 40-mile (64 kilometer) stretch of land between Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Vocal opposition

Jordan Valley mayor copyright: Blair Cunningham, DW

Elhaiini is concerned for his valley

But Elhaiini, an animated, passionate mayor, who's been in the area for 30 years, is worried for the economic stability and viability of the entire country if the valley is annexed.

"Jordan Valley is Israel's success story. Jordan Valley is all about the economy. They say it's about security - but we say it's about the economy."

Elhaiini said the 21 communities throughout the Jordan Valley Regional Council's catchment are spread over 860,000 dunams (212,510 acres) and every day 6,000 Palestinians work the crops and the greenhouses.

"The relationship with the Palestinians is more than good," Elhaiini said.

The area's main crop is dates - 40 percent of the world's date exports come from the Jordan Valley. Capsicums, grapes and fresh herbs, such as basil, oregano and thyme, can be seen growing together in small areas near the Jordan River.

The area is rich in agriculture, yet it is dry and arid and the hard clay is impossibly tough to cultivate.

Elhaiini said it has taken him and others the last 20 years to figure out what grows best in the area, to understand the climate and the soil.

Agricultural success story

One of those Israeli farmers who arrived in the area with nothing was 54-year old Inon Rosenblum in the small community of Naama. Now he exports his produce all around the world, including Europe, the US and Russia.

He said he was just 24-years old when he, his wife and a group of friends took on the land, when they were told by locals they wouldn't be able to make a go of it, they wouldn't be able to grow anything.

Greenhouse copyright: Blair Cunningham, DW

It's taken Inon Rosenblum years to cultivate the land

"We came for something new and we lived in old caravans. My wife came from the country, I came from Haifa - I was a city boy."

He said he has watched as the areas around him have grown in numbers.

"They (the Palestinians) see it as a quiet place. They've established themselves here without trouble and they've been joined by their families."

He said he now employs anywhere between 20 and 40 Palestinians every day, depending on the demand and the two cultures work well together to cultivate the land. "We have the same connections. We live on the land and we work the same work. We all export. Jordan Valley is something exceptional."

Military backing

Standing atop one of the hilltops, high above the valley and the depleted Jordan River, Uzi Dayan, the former deputy chief of staff for the Israel Defence Force, explained his support for annexation.

When DW met with him, the location he chose was just 200 meters away from three large Israeli military communication towers.

man being interviewed copyright: Blair Cunningham, DW

Dayan says the valley is crucial to Israel's security

"Annexing this," he said, pointing out over the valley, "is the only way to effectively fight terrorism. This is the only way to do it and the only place to do it is here in the Jordan Valley."

According to Dayan, creating a military buffer in the Jordan Valley to counter the dangers from Syria, Iraq and Jordan is the only chance Israel has of maintaining security.

"I understand the difficulties settlers will face and I see the problems but I hope people will understand. Yes the economy is very important, but not as important as defensible borders."

Dayan said the Jordanians needed to be on board with the idea, saying the country needed to support the move.

"We've got to get serious about our defensible borders. We want our children to grow up in a Jewish democratic state."

Jordan Valley's mayor, David Elhaiini, agrees there needs to be a military presence if there's ever to be the creation of a Palestinian state.

"If we were there without a community and without military, we'd be, how do you say it, sitting ducks."

Back in his fresh basil greenhouse, Inon Rosenblum is adamant he didn't settle in the Jordan Valley to end up living in a Palestinian state, but he acknowledges an agreement is needed and said he would not leave if the area was annexed.

"We will accept everything - but we will struggle. I'm not an army man, I'm not a politician - I'm just a farmer, but I can see this area is important."

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