Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that authorities demolished 172 Palestinian houses in the Jordan Valley in 2012. In fact, the 172 demolitions also included workplaces, communal buildings and livestock pens, according to a United Nations report.
EIN AL-HILWA, West Bank — Mahmoud Mohammed Kaabneh is at a loss. Israeli soldiers arrived with bulldozers last month and demolished his home. With little recourse, financial support or option to rebuild, he and his wife and 10 children are living with relatives for the foreseeable future.
“I have no idea what we will do. They destroyed six of our buildings, three where my family lived and three where my animals lived,” said Kaabneh, 43, a Palestinian herder who has spent most of his life here on this desolate hillside in the West Bank’s Jordan Valley.
Kaabneh and his family are among about 160 Palestinians in the region whose homes were destroyed in the first six weeks of this year by Israeli authorities, who control most of the valley and deemed the structures illegal because they lacked proper permits.
Israel carries out such demolitions throughout the parts of the West Bank that remain under its control, known as Area C. But human rights organizations say there has been a sharp increase in the tear-downs in recent months, especially in the Jordan Valley.
According to a United Nations report issued last month, demolitions of Palestinian houses in the valley reached a five-year high in 2013. In that year, 390 structures were torn down, leaving 590 people — more than half of them children — scrambling to find a new place to live. In 2012, 172 houses, workplaces, communal buildings and livestock pens were demolished, the U.N. report said.
The fate of the Jordan Valley — and its thousands of residents — is one of the core issues at the center of Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s effort to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. About 7,500 Jewish settlers and 10,000 Palestinians live in the Israeli-controlled valley, in small farming communities that produce dates, herbs, flowers and winter vegetables. Another 50,000 Palestinians are governed by the Palestinian Authority in the ancient city of Jericho.
Palestinians view the area, which borders Jordan to the east, as the key to economic stability in any future state, because of its fertile land and available water. Without this breadbasket, they say, a new Palestine would not be economically viable. The valley would also serve as Palestine’s border with Jordan and its access to the wider world.
For Israel, the Jordan Valley is a strategic, nonnegotiable territory, essential for securing its borders and protecting its population. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said repeatedly that he will not consider handing over security to any other entity, such as foreign peacekeepers.
In January, Israeli Interior Minister Gideon Saar inaugurated more construction in the Jordan Valley Jewish settlement of Gitit. Last month, he led a march of right-wing activists through the area, declaring that “Jewish settlement in the [Jordan] Valley will remain and prosper for generations to come.”
Activists who monitor alleged Israeli violations of Palestinian rights accuse Israel of using the peace talks as a cover to reduce the presence here of Palestinian farmers and Bedouins as part of a push to ensure that the area ultimately stays in Israel’s hands. They note that demolitions have increased by 43 percent since the negotiations began in July, according to U.N. statistics.
“The peace process should not be used as a cover for increasing violations of international law,” said Neill Kirrane, a policy and liaison officer at the East Jerusalem offices of the Swedish development organization Diakonia. Under international humanitarian law, he said, Israel is considered the occupying power of the West Bank and is therefore obliged to protect Palestinian civilians who live there, “ensuring that their rights and welfare are provided for.”
Maj. Guy Inbar, spokesman for the military-run authority that coordinates Israeli government activities in the West Bank, said Palestinians living in the Jordan Valley have the right to build if they can prove land ownership and if they gain the appropriate building permits.
Israel, he added, has also started drafting plans for new Palestinian communities in the area, at least five of which have been announced.
“Israel does recognize the need to create options” for the people living there, Inbar said.
Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for Israeli rights organization B’Tselem, said she viewed those plans with “cautious optimism” but noted that they have yet to receive final approval.
Meanwhile, building permits have proved nearly impossible to obtain, according to a recent B’Tselem report. More than 94 percent of 3,750 building requests submitted by Palestinians between 2000 and 2012 were rejected by Israel, the report said, leaving residents no choice but to build illegally and face possible demolition.
Michaeli said the main problem is that large swaths of Jordan Valley land are off-limits to Palestinians because the areas are closed military zones, protected nature reserves or zoned as part of an Israeli settlement.
Since Israelis and Palestinians signed the Oslo Accords in 1993, the West Bank has been divided into three parts. Areas A and B, about 40 percent of the West Bank, include major Palestinian cities and most of the Palestinian population; they are governed by the Palestinian Authority, which provides security. Area C, where the Jordan Valley lies, is fully controlled by Israel.
“Since the signing of the Oslo Accords and the division of the West Bank, it has been widely accepted by Israelis that areas A and B are owned by Palestinians, while Area C is still open to debate,” Michaeli said. “The problem is that the actions throughout Area C are forcing Palestinians to move closer to areas A and B.”
Back in Ein al-Hilwa, local council head Arif Daraghmeh said Israeli military patrols return daily to the village to make sure there is no rebuilding of the demolished structures.
“Look over there. That is the Israeli settlement of Maskiot,” he said, pointing to a cluster of red-roofed houses sitting neatly on the adjacent hillside — a former unauthorized outpost that the Israeli government approved in 2006. “They also started off with just a tent, but now they have proper buildings and water and electricity. We are not even allowed to put up a simple tent.”