Settlements in Focus: Vol.1, Issue 11 - Eastern Strip of the West Bank

Settlements in Focus

Eastern Strip of the West Bank (Vol.1, Issue 11)
A publication of Americans for Peace Now

What is the difference between the Jordan Valley and the "Eastern Strip"? Why is this important?

The Jordan Valley technically refers to a very specific area: the area at the bottom of the mountain ridge (the valley) abutting the Jordan River, which runs from the north to the south, connecting the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. However, when people talk about the future of the Jordan Valley - whether Israel should retain control over it, or the expansion of settlements in it, or the positioning of military assets in various locations there - they are generally talking about a much broader area of land - an area bordered to the north and south by the Green Line, to the east by the Jordanian border, and to the west by Route 80, known as the Allon Road. The area includes the Jordan Valley itself, as well as the coastline area of the Dead Sea, and the mountain ridge's eastern slopes.

How many settlements are located in the Eastern Strip?

There are 27 settlements and 5 military outposts (known as "Nahal outposts") located in the eastern strip of the West Bank. Settlements in this area are classified by Israel as falling under three different region councils, akin to "counties" or "parishes" in the United States. These councils are: the Jordan Valley ('Arvot Hayarden Regional Council), the Central West Bank (Binyamin Regional Council), and Northern Dead Sea (Megillot Regional Council).

How many settlers live in the area?

According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, as of December 31, 2004, there were 8854 settlers living in the Eastern Strip, distributed among the various settlements as follows:

Greater than 1000 residents: Mizpe Yeriho (1469), Ma'ale Efrayim (1456), Kokhav Hashahar (1365)

500-1000 residents: Rimmonim (536), Shadmot Mehola (517)

200-499 residents: Mehola (360), Tomer (296), Qalya (260), Peza'el (215)

150-299 residents: Mizpe Shalem (192), Argaman (166), Wered Yeriho (161), Gittit (161), Beqa'ot (152)

100-149 residents: Almog (142), Yitav (141), Massu'a (140), Gilgal (132), Netiv Hagedud (132), No'omi (127), Hamra (125), Hemdat (120), Mekhora (119), Ro'i (115), Yafit (101)

1-99 residents: Bet Haarava (69), Niran (53)

0 civilian residents (i.e., Nahal outposts): Maskiyyot, Rotem, Bitronot, Elisha, En Hogla

Do any of the settlers in this area want to leave now?

The economic crisis which the Jordan Valley region had been going through in recent decades (caused mainly by the fall in prices of agricultural products) was exacerbated by the outbreak of the second Intifada in 2000. As a result, part of the area's settler population has already left.

In addition, observers note that very few of the young people who grow up in the area's settlements seem to return to live there after they complete their military service. According to Peace Now's Settlement Watch Director Dror Etkes, "The general feeling which one hears from many settlers in the area is that 'it is just a question of time until the Jordan Valley will be evacuated.' Many of the settlers reflect this feeling by expressing their desire to be compensated in order to move and live within the borders of the state of Israel." There is no official number of how many of the Jordan Valley settlers want to or are willing to be relocated, but it is expected that the Gaza pull-out will strengthen the demand of the people who want to leave but for financial reasons cannot afford to do so.

How many Palestinians live in this geographic area?

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, as of mid-year 2005 the Palestinian population in the Eastern Strip was around 53,000 people (this includes the all the villages in the Jericho governorate, as well a handful of villages from the governorate of Tubas and Nablus). The population is broken down as follows (numbers are rounded off): Jericho/Auja area (including Aqabat Jabr refugee camp): 35,000; Jiftlik area: 6700; North Jordan Valley: 3150; Nablus/Tubas area (i.e., the eastern slopes of the mountain ridge): 7700. In addition, the area is home to an unknown number of Bedouins (probably a few thousand) who maintain a semi-nomadic lifestyle.

The Eastern Strip is home to extreme climate and geographic conditions. A report by the Israeli human rights group B'tselem noted that: "Due to these conditions, only limited Palestinian communities developed in this area. The Palestinian population is relatively sparse, and lives in three areas: the city of Jericho and the Auja area north of Jericho, which were transferred to the control of the Palestinian Authority (Area A) in 1994; the villages in the Jiftlik area (Marj An-Na'aja, Zubeidat, Qarawa Al-Foqa); and a number of villages in the north of the Jordan Valley, including Bardala and 'Ein el-Beida. There are no permanent Palestinian communities in the Judean Desert and Dead Sea areas." (B'tselem, Land Grab)

When and how were settlements in this area first established?

Settlement of the Eastern Strip began almost immediately after the June 1967 War, led by then Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon. In July 1967, Allon unveiled to then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol his plan to consolidate Israel's hold on what he believed to be crucial areas of the West Bank. The "Allon Plan" called for Israel to retain the Jordan Valley and the eastern slopes of the mountain ridge running through the West Bank (an area sparsely inhabited by Palestinians), in order to protect against an Arab attack from the east. The plan also called for establishing Israeli settlements in these areas as a way of defining the land that would eventually be annexed to Israel. (Note: While people generally refer to this as early settlement of the Jordan Valley, they again are referring to the larger Eastern Strip; for example, this period includes the 1971 establishment of Mitzpe Shalem, located far south along the banks of the Dead Sea, as well as numerous settlements on the eastern slopes.)

While the Allon Plan was never formally adopted by any Israeli government, it nonetheless became the framework for Labor Party policy vis-à-vis the West Bank. In 1968, then-Prime Minister Eshkol declared, "The Jordan River is the State of Israel's security border." Between 1967 and 1977, 21 settlements were established in the Jordan Valley and its western slopes, all under the leadership of Labor governments. The first settlement, Qalya, was established in 1968 as a security outpost, called a "Nahal" outpost ("Nahal" is a Hebrew acronym for "Pioneering Fighting Youth" - a term that dates back to pre-1948 Jewish militia terminology and has been adopted by the IDF. Among their other activities, Nahal units are responsible for creating military outposts in the West Bank). Qalya and other "Nahals" were later transformed into civilian settlements, in what became the model for settlement development in the Jordan Valley. In 1976, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin toured the Jordan Valley and stated, "These settlements are here to stay for a long time. We don't establish new villages only to pull them down later."

The settlement boom in the Jordan Valley cooled somewhat after 1977, in large part due to an Israeli Government policy shift to permit settlement in areas of the West Bank previously considered off-limits (see Volume 1, Issue 10 of Settlements in Focus for details of this policy shift).

Are there any new settlements being established in the Eastern Strip?

On September 21, 2005 the Israeli press reported that settlers evacuated from the Gaza Strip settlement of Shirat Hayam are planning to move to Maskiyyot, a Jordan Valley Nahal outpost established in 1987 (this transformation of a Nahal outpost into the civilian settlement is consistent with the historical pattern of settlement in the Jordan Valley, discussed above). Approximately 20 families are reportedly planning to move to Maskiyyot sometime after the 2005 High Holidays (i.e., after October 2005). It has been reported that some 20 prefabricated structures, recently removed from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank, will be moved to the site to accommodate them in the short-term. In the longer-term the families are reportedly expected to receive permanent housing and land for agricultural use.

This transformation of Maskiyyot into a permanent civilian settlement represents the first new settlement established in the Jordan Valley since the mid-1980s, and would appear to conflict with the Government of Israel's longstanding commitment not to establish any new settlements as well as its commitments under the Road Map. However, it is already being argued by some Israeli officials that this does not represent a new settlement, but rather expansion of any existing settlement.

From the mid-1980's to the present, no new official settlements have been established in the Eastern Strip, although as noted earlier, a handful of outposts has been established in recent years. During this period the population of the existing settlements has stayed relatively stagnant and in some cases declined.

Are the Eastern Strip settlements growing?

In June 2005 it was widely reported in the Israeli press that the Israeli Minister of Agriculture, Yisrael Katz (who has been an outspoken supporter of settlements) had launched an initiative to double the number of Israeli settlers living in the Jordan Valley area over the next two years. The plan reportedly includes large increases in agricultural subsidies and development of additional tourism facilities in the area. Press reports indicated that the plan had been coordinated with the office of Prime Minister Sharon and had already been approved by the Ministry of Finance. The plan will reportedly cost around $32 million dollars. Katz was quoted as saying, "Abu Mazen (Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas) and the leaders of the terror organizations will look out the Muqataa (leadership compound) window every morning and see the Israeli Jordan Valley flourishing."

In addition, there has recently been notable growth in some settlements in the Jordan Valley (notable in percentage terms, rather than absolute terms, since these are very small settlements to begin with). This growth correlates to an ongoing program of the World Zionist Organization's Settlement Department that provides offers incentives to young Israeli couples if they move to the area (for details see Settlements in Focus, Volume 1, Issue 9).

Are there outposts in this area?

West Bank outposts are established primarily at the initiative of the religious-ideological wing of the settler movement, whose primary focus is creating a strong Jewish presence throughout the mountain heartland of the West Bank. Thus, most outposts are established in this area.

The Eastern Strip has not historically attracted a large number of religious-ideological settlers or aroused their ideological passions (although that may be changing, as the number of religious settlers in the area increases). As a result, only a few outposts have been established in the area in recent years. These are:

  • "Sharei Yericho," located north of Jericho on the road leading to Ramallah and establishing control over the northwest exit from Jericho;

  • "Mul Nevo," an undeveloped, isolated outpost which is mostly uninhabited, located east of Jericho;

  • "Givat Salit," located in the very northern tip of the Jordan Valley, east of the settlement Mehola. This outpost was established following the Sept. 2001 shooting and killing of a local settler, Salit Shitrit.

  • "Ma'ale Shlomo," located south of the settlement Kokhav Hashahar;

  • "Mitzpe Kramim," located east of Kokhav Hashahar

In addition, a series of outposts has been established in recent years east of the settlements of Shilo, Itamar and Elon Moreh. The purpose of these outposts is to connect isolated mountain ridge settlements to the Jordan Valley. As noted in the previous edition of the Round-Up, some settlers and their supporters hope that Israel will retain not only the Jordan Valley, but will extend "fingers" into the West Bank heartland to incorporate these veteran ideological settlements as well. As Israeli map expert Shaul Arieli wrote for the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in August 2004: "Their [the settlers'] assumption is that the lightly populated Jordan Valley, which constitutes Israel's 'eastern security region' in the 'essential interests map' approved by the Israeli government under former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, can remain under Israeli control for the foreseeable future. The settlers therefore seek to strengthen the communities along the Allon Road, which runs on the Jordan Valley-eastern Samaria border southward to Jerusalem, and create a contiguous strip of communities from 'parent' settlements in the elevated areas to the Allon Road by erecting dozens of outposts. For example, seventeen outposts are located between Ariel and Mevo Shiloh approaching the Allon Road, six outposts are designed to connect Itamar eastward to the hill range, and fourteen outposts connect Ofra and Beit El to northern Jerusalem." (See the full Jaffe Center report here).

For more details about these and other outposts, see Peace Now's Outposts List.

Is there anything that can be called a settlement "bloc" in the Eastern Strip?

The Jordan Valley settlements are occasionally referred to as the "Jordan Valley bloc," generally in the context of arguments that favor keeping the area under Israeli control. However, objectively speaking, the settlements of the Eastern Strip are not a "bloc" in the same sense as any of the other West Bank settlement blocs (like the Ariel bloc, the Gush Etzion bloc, or the Modiin Illit bloc). In all of those cases, the settlements are anchored by one or more very large settlements; they are located in relatively close proximity to one another; they share major infrastructure; the social/economic lives of the settlers and settlements are intertwined; and the cluster of settlements represents a large settler population.

None of these things can be said about the Jordan Valley. There are no large settlements in the Jordan Valley area (the largest settlement has less than 1500 people). In general the settlements are isolated, remote from one another, and spread out over a vast area - for example, the distance between the northernmost settlement of Mehola and the southernmost settlement of Mitzpe Shalem is 56 miles, nearly the full length of the West Bank's border with Jordan, including the Dead Sea (this is the shortest, as-the-crow-flies distance; the driving distance between the two settlements is even longer). The settlements do not share infrastructure other than the main road that passes through that entire stretch of the West Bank, the social/economic lives of the settlers are only minimally intertwined, and the settlements do not represent a large settler population, even when taken as a group.

Moreover, even leaving off the Jericho area, the Palestinian population of the Eastern Strip is substantially larger than that of the settlements, despite the massive subsidies and other incentives offered for the past 38 years to entice Israelis to live there.

How is land in the Eastern Strip administered by Israel?

Israel has administered land in the Eastern Strip in a different manner than the rest of the West Bank. Virtually all of the land in this area, other than the built-up areas of the Palestinian population, has been placed under the jurisdiction of the settlement regional councils in the area ('Arvot Hayarden and Megillot). This means that land not defined as belonging to a specific settlement is still under the control of the settlements regional council (and off-limits to the Palestinian), and in some cases is actively farmed by settlers.

B'tselem noted in 2002 that, "On the declaration of the establishment of 'Arvot Hayarden Regional Council, the then-commander of IDF forces in the West Bank, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, signed the map showing the area of jurisdiction of this council, which is allocated the entire Jordan Valley, except for the Palestinian communities mentioned above. The immediate ramification of this declaration was to close this area to Palestinians, preventing the possible use of the land included in the area of jurisdiction by the Palestinian population for the expansion of agriculture.In total, the municipal boundaries of the settlements in the Eastern Strip encompasses approximately 76,000 dunam [30 sq. miles] of which approximately 15,000 [about 6 sq. miles] are developed.most of the undeveloped areas within the borders of the settlements are used for agriculture or earmarked for such use in the future. The areas of the regional councils outside the municipal boundaries encompass some 1,203,000 dunam [465 sq. miles]."

Where does this part of the West Bank stand in the context of final status agreements?

The Jordan Valley has always enjoyed special status in regard to political arrangements. Traditionally, Israel has viewed it as a buffer against aggression from the East (Jordan and Iraq). Many argue today that this is no longer relevant, given the peace treaty with Jordan and the elimination of the military threat from Iraq. In any case, some prominent Israeli figures - like former Likud Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu - still attribute security importance to the Jordan Valley and mention the Jordan Valley settlements as a settlement bloc that should be retained in the context of political arrangement.

The Jordan Valley came into play more recently with regards to Israel's West Bank security barrier (fence/wall). In March 2003, during a cabinet ministers' tour of the route of the separation barrier, Prime Minister Sharon declared that he intended to build an eastern separation fence to "keep" the Jordan Valley outside the territory to be bounded within the separation fence. This new section of the fence would be some 300 kilometers, running from the Green Line in the north, along the Jordan Valley and the Allon Road, and ending in the southern Hebron hills.

The original map with the route of the barrier issued by the Israeli Ministry of Defense in October 2003 appeared to include the first stage of this plan, depicting a barrier running close to the Green Line along the northern end of the West Bank, and also including a section jutting out from the main barrier running south along the central mountain ridge. Faced with international and internal opposition, Israel dropped the plans for an eastern barrier, at least for now.

During the 1999-2001 final status negotiations, initial Israeli proposals placed the Jordan Valley under various levels of Israeli control, with part of it annexed to Israel and other parts left under Israeli control via long-term lease arrangements, with the understanding that such areas would eventually come under full Palestinian sovereignty. These proposals were rejected by the Palestinians, who view the Jordan Valley as the only land reserve that could be used by a future Palestinian State to absorb large population increases expected from natural growth and refugee absorption. Additionally, Palestinians view control over their own borders as an important attribute of sovereignty.

At some point during the final status negotiations Israel gave up its demand for control over the Jordan Valley. When this happened is the subject of some debate, with some negotiators (like U.S. Special Middle East Coordinator Dennis Ross) pointing to oral Israeli proposals made at the end of the July 2000 Camp David summit. Others (like Israeli negotiator Shlomo Ben-Ami) point to the Clinton parameters, presented by President Clinton in December 23, 2000 and accepted by Israel, which called for Israeli annexation of 4%-6% of the West Bank, and amount inconsistent with Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley.

Finally, the Geneva Initiative designated the Jordan Valley as part of a new Palestinian State, but left it as the last area from which Israel withdraws. In addition to the deployment of international forces on Palestine's borders, the Geneva Initiative states, "Israel will maintain a small military presence in the Jordan Valley under the authority of the [Multinational Force] and subject to the [Multinational Force's Status of Forces Agreement] as detailed in Annex X for an additional 36 months." (Geneva Initiative, Article 5 - Security, Evacuation, section iv).

What is the religious orientation of the Eastern Strip settlers?

Non-Religious: Almog (kibbutz), Argaman, Beqa'ot (moshav), Bet Haarava (kibbutz), Gilgal (kibbutz), Hamra (moshav), Massu'a, Mekhora, Mizpe Shalem (kibbutz), Niran (kibbutz), No'omi (moshav), Peza'el, Qalya (kibbutz), Rimmonim, Ro'i, Tomer (farming community), Wered Yeriho (moshav), Yafit (moshav), Yitav (Russian immigrants)

Religious: Hemdat (modern orthodox), Kokhav Hashahar, Mehola, Mizpe Yeriho, Shadmot Mehola (moshav)

Mixed (growing religious population): Ma'ale Efrayim, Gittit (moshav), Netiv Hagedud

What kind of infrastructure do the settlements entail?

There are two main roads running in the area running on a north-south axis: Route 90, running parallel to Jordanian border, and Route 80 (the Allon Road), running midway between the top of the West Bank mountain ridge and the Jordan Valley's floor. Most of the settlements and outposts are located along one of these two routes. In addition, there are two roads in the area running along an east-west axis and connecting Route 90 and Route 80. All settlements in the area have independent water and electricity infrastructure. And in this sense they do not differ from all other settlements in the West Bank. All the settlements are surrounded by fences (most of which are electronic) and guarded by the IDF.

An analysis conducted by Peace Now of the 2001 Israeli budget concluded that, not including security costs, the Government of Israel was paying around $500 million per year extra for settlers, who numbered at the time around 206,000 (not including Jerusalem) - i.e., the Government of Israel was providing an annual subsidy of around $2400 per settler in addition to the costs of services provided to citizens living within the Green Line, not including security costs. With a current population of around 8854, this means the Government of Israel provides an annual subsidy of more than $21 million per year for settlers in the Eastern Strip area (in addition to security costs).

How do these settlements impact the civilian/economic life of the Palestinians?

The Eastern Strip settlements, and the fact that virtually all the land in the area falls under the jurisdiction of the settlers' regional council, has a serious impact on the Palestinians. In 2002 the Israeli human rights watchdog B'tselem wrote in Land Grab: ".the main infringement of Palestinian human rights relates to the restriction of opportunities for economic development in general, and for agriculture in particular; to a lesser extent, opportunities for urban development are also reduced."

With respect to agriculture, B'tselem wrote: "As proved by the settlements located along the Jordan Valley, and despite the harsh climactic conditions, the land in this area permits the development of diverse agricultural spheres through irrigation technology. The fact that Palestinian agriculture did not develop in this area prior to 1967 on a more significant scale is due to the lack of know-how and resources that would enable exploitation of the underground water basins. The water consumption of the population of the Jewish settlements in the Jordan equivalent to seventy-five percent of the water consumption of the entire Palestinian population of the West Bank (approximately two million people) for domestic and urban uses."

Regarding tourism, B'tselem wrote: "Just as the inclusion of most of the Jordan Valley in the area of jurisdiction of 'Arvot Hayarden Regional Council denies the Palestinian population the possibility for agricultural development, so the inclusion of the Dead Sea shore and Judean Desert in the area of jurisdiction of Megillot Regional Council denies valuable possibilities for industrial and tourism development."

Regarding urban development, B'tselem wrote: "The enclave handed over to the control of the Palestinian Authority in 1994 includes the city of Jericho. and the Auja area.the two sections are linked by a narrow corridor surrounded on all sides by settlements, NAHAL outposts and IDF bases, preventing any possibility for significant urban development outside the boundaries of the enclave."

Produced by Lara Friedman, Government Relations Director, Americans for Peace Now &
Dror Etkes, Settlements Watch Director, Peace Now (Israel)