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After 25 years, Jordan declines to renew Israel’s access to the ‘Island of Peace’

An Israeli soldier closes a border gate on the Israeli side of the border at the Jordan Valley site of Naharayim, also known as Baqura in Jordan, east of the Jordan River on Nov. 10, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP Via Getty Images)

ISRAEL-JORDAN BORDER — Shay Haddar has always had easy access to Naharayim, a hilly strip of land between the Jordan and Yarmouk rivers that belongs to Jordan but, by both custom and treaty, has been used by Israelis for decades.

Haddar swam here as a child and in recent years even had his own key to the border gate that allows farmers and tourists to enter what came to be known in both countries as the “Island of Peace.”

But on Monday there was a new lock on the gate, put there the day before by the Jordanian army. After granting Israel access to the land as part of the 1994 peace treaty, Jordan declined to renew the agreement. The move, allowed under terms of the treaty, is the latest sign of the ongoing friction between the two countries and the end of a long tradition of local cross-border openness.

“We’ve been good neighbors to each other,” said Haddar, shaking the massive lock and looking through the fence at the slopes and waterfalls that days earlier had accounted for 80 percent of the tourism business of the kibbutz where he works. “We’re just the little people who always pay the price.”

Israel, Jordan sign treaty ending 46-year hostility

Jordan announced a year ago its intention to end Israel’s use of Naharayim, located just below the Sea of Galilee, as well as Tzofar, another strip of borderland south of the Dead Sea. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed concerns about the move, saying relations between the two countries remained strong.

But little progress has occurred since, as Israel has struggled through two inconclusive elections and a year of political gridlock. A regional official at Tzofar told local media the loss of the cropland would be a “death sentence” for 35 area farmers. Residents at Naharayim complained they have almost no communication with the Israeli government about the fate of the lands. Haddar said he only learned the agreement would formally end from a Jordanian border guard.

Netanyahu’s office declined to respond to a request for comment.

Analysts in Amman described Jordan’s action as a populist move at a time of mounting tension with Israel on issues ranging from the economic to the ideological.

Cooperation has stopped on key water projects, including a canal that was to resupply a dwindling Dead Sea. Israel has restricted the import of Jordanian goods into the West Bank, a substantial market next door. Jordan recently recalled its ambassador over the detention of two young Jordanians on suspicion of working with militant groups on a visit to the West Bank.

Although of little strategic value, the farming areas of Baqoura and Al Ghamr, as they are known in Arabic, have become a symbol of unfulfilled hope and rising frustrations with Israel, particularly the 25-year-old treaty that many Jordanians and Israelis say has brought little more than a “cold peace.”

“Not allowing Israel to continue to utilize the two pieces of land or doing Netanyahu any favors was not only logical, but became an urgent public demand,” said Jawad Anani, former director of the royal court and a lead negotiator for the 1994 Jordan-Israel peace treaty.

On Sunday, with the front pages of Jordan’s four daily newspapers trumpeting “Jordanian sovereignty restored,” King Abdullah II announced the final decision in his televised speech opening parliament.

“Today, I announce the expiration of the peace treaty annexes of Al Ghamr and Baqoura and the imposition of our full sovereignty over every inch of those lands,” the king said, sparking a standing ovation.

More than politics, some insist the move is also personal. Abdullah reportedly does not get on well with Netanyahu, who he views with suspicion and reportedly blames for torpedoing the entire peace process, the legacy of his father, the late King Hussein.

“There is no chemistry,” one former official said, while another close to the palace likened Abdullah and Netanyahu, whose personal relationship goes back to the 1990s, as “frenemies without the friendship.”

Israel has been largely silent on Jordan’s decision. The Foreign Ministry on Sunday released a short statement expressing regret about the move but saying Amman had agreed to let farmers harvest their remaining wheat and other crops. Jordan said it would “respect private property rights” but Israelis would need to obtain visas to enter the area.

Scholars say carving out access to the two lands happened at all because of the personal relationship between then-King Hussein and then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who negotiated the 1994 treaty. There is no such comity between the country’s leaders now, analysts say. Netanyahu and Abdullah have reportedly not met face-to-face since June 2018.

“This is certainly one of the lowest points that I can remember in Israel-Jordanian relations,” said Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to Jordan and senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies. “The major problem is that there is no dialogue between the number one on the Jordanian side and the number one on the Israeli side.”

The plots have had a mixed record as a place of peace since they were established by the treaty. For Israelis, both pieces of land were initially seen as a symbol of the newly established friendship between the former enemy states. The area in the south saw gatherings of Israeli scouts waiting to meet with their Jordanian counterparts.

But in 1997, Naharayim became the site of a deadly terrorist attack when a Jordanian soldier opened fire on a group of Israeli schoolgirls. Seven students were killed, prompting Hussein to make an unprecedented trip to Israel to visit the home of each victim. The soldier spent 20 years in prison but was released after Jordanian lawmakers petitioned on his behalf.

In the years since, the area has become popular for tourists, with walking tours, visits to waterfalls and riverbank picnics. Haddar, who managed the program until its abrupt end, was in near daily contact with the Jordanian guards who controlled access. He would tell them how many buses, trucks and tractors needed to enter, seldom with any complications, he said.

When it became clear his access to the land was going to end, he had an emotional goodbye with the Jordanian guards he had grown close to, hugging and kissing them goodbye.

“In Arabic, they say ‘Inshallah,’ God willing,” Haddar said. “We said ‘Inshallah, it will all work out for us.”

Luck reported from Amman, Jordan, and Eglash from Jerusalem.

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