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In the Jordan Valley, Palestinians fear further displacement after Netanyahu’s annexation pledge

A Palestinian worker harvests dates in the Jordan Valley village of Jiftlik in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Wednesday. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)

AUJA, West Bank — Ibrahim Qtishat said he watched on live television as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unveiled his map for future annexation of large parts of the West Bank.

Blue shading marked the areas of the Jordan Valley that Netanyahu vowed to claim for Israel if reelected next week — areas where Qtishat, a 50-year-old date farmer, works the land that provides his sole livelihood.

“I saw the map in blue color on TV,” he said. “And I think life will be blue in the future.”

A week before a contentious election that appears likely to seal his political fate, Netanyahu made what he called a “dramatic” announcement about his settlement plans on Tuesday night. He doubled down on an oft-repeated campaign promise to extend Israeli sovereignty over large portions of the occupied West Bank — ostensibly with the blessing of the Trump administration, which is due to release its new Middle East peace plan after Israel’s Sept. 17 election.

Netanyahu's announcement made headlines in all the predictable ways. It drew the immediate condemnation of Arab leaders, including those of Israel’s regional partners Jordan and Saudi Arabia. It was also savaged in the Israeli press as a sign of his political desperation, an 11th-hour overture to right-wing voters.

But in the Palestinian communities on the map that Netanyahu presented, his words were not seen as a political game. They have been taken as a sign that life may get much worse, and fast.

Qtishat represents a case in point. Strictly speaking, he lives in Jericho, a West Bank city that was orange on Netanyahu’s map and that, much like this small nearby town, Netanyahu would leave under the control of the Palestinian Authority as a kind of enclave surrounded by Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was rushed off stage after rockets fired from Gaza triggered warning sirens. Israel retaliated with strikes Sept. 11. (Video: Reuters)

But his life and work may soon be separate: It was unclear whether all of Qtishat’s farming land would also fall within Netanyahu’s proposed Palestinian enclave, or whether some of it would likewise be annexed by Israel.

Hussein Atiayat, 65, the deputy mayor of Auja, described what could soon happen to this small farming community known for its bananas, oranges and melons.

“I’m a simple person, but my vision of what might happen is that we will be locked in our town. Literally it’s going to be a jail,” he said. “They’ll put up checkpoints, and if you want to go to Jericho, you have to cross a checkpoint. Life will be miserable. They will bring us back to the way it was under the intifada.”

The Second Intifada, between 2000 and 2005, was a bloody uprising by Palestinians against Israel, which responded with a brutal crackdown. Approximately 1,000 Israelis and 3,300 Palestinians were killed. The period was also marked by a heightened security regime throughout Israel and the occupied West Bank.

Atiayat expressed concern for farmers such as Qtishat, who often shuttle their produce to markets in the West Bank cities of Nablus, a 70-mile drive away, or Jericho, just over six miles away. Israeli sovereignty woven in and out of this area of the West Bank could impede commerce, he said.

“If checkpoints stop us, then where will we take our products to sell?” Atiayat asked.

In an agricultural community, there is also the question of access to essential resources, which Netanyahu’s plan could theoretically halt. “A very important thing for agriculture is water,” said Qtishat. “If Israel takes away all of this area, we won’t have access to the water.”

“Most of the people in this area are farmers. There’s nothing else here — no petroleum, no factories. Most will lose their jobs, not having access to the land. But the settlers will expand their settlements as they want.”

For Qtishat, there is no reason to believe Netanyahu was not serious about his plans, and the Palestinians have no means of countering any future attempt to execute that proposal.

“The whole world is supporting him,” he said.

“Netanyahu now tries to emulate Arab leaders, like Assad, who say it’s either me or no one else,” he said, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “What can the Palestinians do? Another intifada? What good will that do against an army? We are already destroyed — financially, spiritually, socially.”

For Yehuda Shaul, co-founder of Breaking the Silence, an Israeli group that gathers testimony from past and serving Israeli soldiers to shed light on the occupation of the Palestinian territories, Netanyahu’s pledge represents significant damage, even if not yet a reality.

“If it becomes real or if it doesn’t become real, it’s a red line that’s been crossed there,” he said. “For the first time ever, an Israeli prime minister put out a map saying that there is no Palestinian self-determination between the [Jordan] river and the [Mediterranean] sea. That’s the meaning of encircling the Palestinians 360 degrees by Israel.”

“We know of two scenarios,” Shaul said. “One is that people are citizens of a country that rules them. They might be a minority and even discriminated against, but they’re still citizens. There’s another one, which is people govern themselves and have self-determination.”

“But this limbo where Palestinians are not citizens of Israel and not ruling themselves — it was supposed to be temporary, in theory,” he added. “And Netanyahu basically came out in his speech saying it’s not temporary.”

This was a sentiment that Atiayat, the deputy mayor, also expressed. He said things would actually be better if Palestinian communities like his own were under the full control of a single Israeli state than the current plan, which merely enshrines the isolation of a future Palestinian state surrounded on all sides by Israel.

“Everyone would get the same rights,” he said. “They would be obliged to take care of us.”

Sufian Taha contributed to this report.