‘Annexation will suffocate us’: Jericho’s Palestinians fear being cut off

Jericho-Ariha city center (Peter Musolino)

Rosie Scammell & Sufian Taha

The Guardian  /  July 1, 2020

Residents await Israel’s next move, concerned they could be isolated from the rest of the West Bank

he The future of Palestinians in the city of Jericho is suspended in uncertainty and fear as they wait for Israel to decide when and how it will annex vast swathes of the land that surrounding them, a step outlined in a US peace initiative which could leave residents isolated from other parts of the West Bank.

“Annexation will suffocate us,” said Aisha Subeh, selling grape leaves on a street in Jericho.

The 54-year-old usually takes a shared taxi from Bethlehem to sell her produce, but fears such a journey could become impossible if Netanyahu presses ahead with his plans.

“If Netanyahu annexes the Jordan Valley and the West Bank it will be very hard for me to come here,” said Subeh as she sorted through bundles of leaves.

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had promised to start cabinet discussions on annexation from 1 July, but his plans have been set back by disagreements within his own government.

Alternate prime minister, Benny Gantz, has argued that annexation should wait while Israel tackles the coronavirus, and there are also reports that the US is pushing Netanyahu to make concessions to the Palestinians.

The US peace initiative, published in January, included maps showing settlements and the Jordan Valley becoming Israeli territory.

But West Bank cities such as Jericho, which sits in the fertile valley near the Jordanian border, would remain under Palestinian control. Such a proposal is untenable for Jericho residents, as they risk being separated from their land and isolated from a future Palestinian state.

Sitting outside a cafe in the city, Nofan al-Barrah said farmers may need an Israeli permit to go and cultivate or irrigate their land.

“It will affect everyone’s life,” said the 68-year-old, as cars streamed past.

Palestinians living in the Jordan Valley would meanwhile be cut off from the city, he added, without being given an alternative as they will not be offered Israeli citizenship.

“For people who live in the Jordan Valley, the market is Jericho. It will be very difficult for them to come to shop,” said Barrah.

Israel has occupied the West Bank since the 1967 six-day war and views annexing the Jordan Valley as essential to the country’s security.

But Barrah and others in Jericho argue such a step will prove self-defeating for Israel as it may spark unrest.

In the city’s central square, 18-year-old Osama Sidr said the Palestinians’ reaction could lead to “chaos”.

“People will not tolerate it and maybe this will lead to demonstrations,” said the teenager, who studies electrical engineering.

Protests against annexation have failed to draw significant numbers in recent weeks, which Sidr put down to the lack of firm steps taken by the Israelis.

“They haven’t done anything on the ground. When they see something on the ground people will react,” he said, standing under the shade of palms trees.

Sidr’s view chimes with that of the United Nations and Jordan, which have warned annexation could prompt conflict.

Amman has threatened to downgrade ties with Israel while other Arab states and the EU have voiced opposition, although it remains unclear whether they will take retaliatory measures.

Subeh was doubtful that foreign governments would step in to support the Palestinians.

“Nobody feels like helping us,” she said. “Will anybody care?”

But Netanyahu may tone down his ambitions, opting instead to delay annexation of the Jordan Valley.

The premier could instead focus attention on settlers, who are broadly keen for their homes to be annexed despite having reservations about Washington’s initiative.

In settlements such as Ateret, north of Ramallah, posters reading “no to a Palestinian state” voice residents’ key criticism of the US plan.

But they are well aware that annexing settlements, which are viewed as illegal by most of the international community, will become considerably tougher if US president, Donald Trump, is booted out of office in the November election.

“We want it to happen before elections in the United States,” said Chanan Damri, a 36-year-old Ateret resident.

He described the US initiative as a “very good start”, but wanted changes to be made to the plan such as scrapping a freeze on settlement expansion for years after annexation.

“God willing, this summer we will start to build here, where we are standing,” he said, surrounded by scrubland filled with chirping crickets at the edge of Ateret.

“We cannot stand still from a building perspective,” added Damri, one of some 450,000 settlers living beside more than 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank.

Some settlers are also concerned about the US maps, which show some isolated communities being connected to Israel on roads carving through Palestinian territory.

“They’ll be no proper territorial continuity between the community,” said Meri Maoz-Ovadia, a spokesperson for the Binyamin regional council, which represents several dozen settlements.

“We hope that sovereignty will happen, but I think some more answers need to be given to us in order to understand if this plan is the right opportunity for that to happen,” added the 33-year-old, who was born into a settlement community.

For Palestinians, the fragmented territory tabled by Washington would make a viable state impossible. The offer of limited autonomy falls far short of Palestinian aspirations and is widely seen as putting them in a weaker position than the Oslo peace accords of the 1990s.

In Jericho, Sidr is too young to have witnessed the collapse of those negotiations and is uncertain what impact the latest peace initiative could have on his life.

“I hope the future will be better for all of us,” he said. “I want to stay in Palestine, it’s my country.”

Rosie Scammell is Middle East editor

Sufian Taha in Jericho/Ariha