Israeli-Palestinian Relations Trump's 'Peace Plan' Sows Confusion and Dismay

U.S. President Donald Trump's plan to end hostilities between Israelis and Palestinians has raised more questions than it has answered, not least in Jerusalem and Ramallah. In the Jordan Valley, which would be hard hit by the proposal, Palestinians and Israelis alike are venting their frustration.
Israeli soldiers face off against Palestinian protesters in the Occupied West Bank.

Israeli soldiers face off against Palestinian protesters in the Occupied West Bank.

Foto: ALAA BADARNEH / EPA-EFE / REX

The morning after Donald Trump announced his "deal of the century," Orit Artsiely is standing on the muddy, black banks of the Jordan River, contemplating what the deal would mean for her. It had rained throughout the night and into the morning and the sky is just beginning to clear up. The air is warm and humid and flies have already discovered the box of dates Artsiely put out for her guests.

Artsiely is the secretary of finance of the Jordan Valley Regional Council (JVRC), an umbrella organization for Jewish settlers here. She had spoken the night before to her boss, who was on a trip to Washington with an Israeli delegation. His name is David Elhayani, but most people here refer to him as the Mayor of the Jordan Valley. He recently stood in a room with Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The American president talked a lot, but the mayor had difficult time getting a grasp of what it all might mean for the Jordan Valley.

"He told me: We need details," Artsiely says.

When asked whether Elhayani clapped along with the others present for Trump's speech, she just shrugs.

Artsiely says she saw the images from Washington of the press conference with Trump and Netanyahu. Trump announced that Jerusalem would remain the undivided capital of Israel. His plan also foresees the Palestinians claiming East Jerusalem, which lies behind Israel's border wall, as their capital. The holy sites on the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif, would be administered by Israel. As compensation for their losses in the West Bank, the Palestinians would receive parts of the Negev Desert. Meanwhile, Israeli settlements would remain untouched.

Natanyahu could hardly stop smiling during the press conference in Washington. A few hours later, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called Trump's plan a conspiracy against his people.

So much for the American plan.

The Israeli and American presidents, Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump, at a press conference in Washington

The Israeli and American presidents, Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump, at a press conference in Washington

Foto: MICHAEL REYNOLDS / EPA-EFE / REX

Many Unanswered Questions

Originally, Netanyahu had planned to have his cabinet vote Sunday on the annexation -- or as he puts it, the sovereignty -- of the lands in the West Bank. Now it doesn't look like that will happen, at least not for the time being. The Israeli interior minister was here a few days ago, but all he said was that they were getting the paperwork in order.

"It took us a long time to understand how to make the land fertile," says Artsiely, who has lived in the Jordan Valley since 1982. "The soil is very salty. We grow dates, peppers, grapes and mangos. If I understand the interior minister correctly, it's not farmers who are in demand now, but lawyers." The ground doesn't belong to the farmers. They just use it.

Artsiely has a lot of questions. Who's going to replace the military that currently controls the area? Is the valley going to need new administrators?

"And who are our partners? If the Palestinians don't go along with it, we can forget about the grand peace plan," she says.

There are 27 Jewish settlements in the Jordan Valley, which was occupied by Israel in 1967 after the Six Day War. Today, around 9,000 Jews live there. They're responsible for farming most of the land, even though there are far more Palestinians living there -- at least 65,000. Their most popular export is dates. Bell peppers are another popular crop. These are mostly sold to Russia, which is boycotting European peppers. Just as Europe boycotts some of Israel's grapes and herbs.

'No Water, No Palm Trees and No Arabs'

Ziva Gilad, who is responsible for research and development at the JVRC, has lived here for 40 years. She came as a young woman, with a degree in plant science from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a baby. Back then, she says, she had ideals. She wanted a new, just and prosperous Israel. She voted for the Labor Party, just like her parents. Today, she has four daughters and a diploma, but fewer ideals.

She listened to the press conference in Washington in her car, but eventually she had to turn the radio off. She doesn't trust politicians, least of all Netanyahu. But when asked what the country in which she lives would look like without her and the other settlers, she says: "Like Gaza. Desolate and barren. When we left, they destroyed our greenhouses."

It's not their land, but without them it wouldn't be as green.

Yaakov Elbaz, who runs a date farm with 8,000 palm trees, says there was only sand when he first arrived here 30 years ago. "There was no water, no palm trees and no Arabs."

He now employs around 50 Palestinians. Good people, he says. They also just wanted to live in peace and provide for their families. He's even friends with some of them. But that doesn't stop him from sleeping with a gun under his pillow, he says -- or an M16 rifle beside his bed. The Jordanian border is only a few kilometers away.

Unbreakable

Elbaz points to the mountains shimmering in the midday sun. He told most of his workers not to come in today since it had rained in the morning. Three Palestinians squat in an old container nestled between the palm trees. They say they don't want to talk because it never does any good anyway.

One of them apparently changes his mind and gets up. His name is Tarek Hossni. He lives in Nablus and has been working on the farm for five years. Elbaz is a good boss, he says, and the pay is good, too. He wears a sweatshirt with the word "Unbreakable" emblazoned across the front in big letters. But Hossni doesn't really give the impression that this word applies to him.

Salem Ghrouf, on the other hand? Talk about unbreakable. He's the mayor of Jericho, a Palestinian city in the Jordan Valley. If Trump's peace plan is implemented, Jericho would become a Palestinian island in a sea of annexed land.

Ghrouf has a serious look on his face. He sits between pictures of the former and current Palestinian presidents, Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, and in front of one of the Dome of the Rock. When the mayor of Jericho speaks, it's of Jerusalem, the holy city that had been declared by Trump only the day before to be the undivided capital of Israel. "In Jerusalem, our blood was shed," Ghrouf says. "Our martyrs died there. We will never give up this city."

There are large ashtrays and glasses of sweet tea on the table. As he talks about the history of Palestine, Ghrouf goes all the way back to 1917, the year of the Balfour Declaration, with which the British government asserted its support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine -- and when the whole misfortune began. "The problem is not the Jews, but Zionism," the mayor says.

Rights for People Who Have None

After the Oslo Accords, Ghrouf says, the Palestinians were left with only 22 percent of their land. And now they are supposed to relinquish 40 percent of it again. "Where's the deal?" Ghrouf shouts. "We reject this plan. It's unfair. It gives rights to people who have no rights."

He describes a city that would be cut off from the surrounding countryside. That's according to a plan, he says, which is less a plan and more a "project," one that would ruin economic and social relations, destroy families and separate Jericho from the "breadbasket" of the rest of the country. Ghrouf says the valley would be carved up into pieces. It was originally intended to be a home for the Palestinians living in the diaspora. Thirteen million were supposed to live here one day. That was the plan. Their plan.

Trump's plan, however, is not the beginning but the end of the two-state solution, he says. That's why Ghrouf and others say they will fight him with all means necessary.

Didn't they call for "Days of Rage?" Jericho seems strangely peaceful, almost sleepy.

"The news from America yesterday was like an electric shock. People need time to process it," the mayor says. He's waiting for marching orders from Palestinian leaders. "We don't have any weapons and we don't want a third Intifada." He pauses. "But."

But?

"If you back a dog into a corner, it will bite you," he says.

Gifts from Jericho's sister cities hang on the wall in his office. There's a picture of a fjord in Norway and an engraving of the Town Hall in Wiesbaden, Germany. This is the world the mayor feels connected to. Everyone must return to the negotiating table, he says. The mayor goes on and on. It's easy to imagine him continuing to talk even as the water rises around his shrinking island.

DER SPIEGEL 6/2020
Foto: DER SPIEGEL

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 6/2020 (February 1st, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.

Unfair Treatment

Ismail Daiq is a successful Palestinian date farmer in the Jordan Valley. He explains what the area could look like in the very near future. He pins a map of the valley to a wall.

Two-thirds of the plantations he manages fall within the area that would be annexed under the so-called peace plan. Daiq, who once served as agricultural minister for the Palestinian territories, says the future can be divined by looking to the past.

"The last time this happened was after the construction of the wall, when Palestinian farmers were gradually separated from their land." Access has become increasingly difficult and waiting times at the borders longer. They are made to fill out special papers and there is often harassment. Some Palestinian farmers have given up.

"If we could farm all the land we own, we wouldn't need the $50 billion that this alleged deal offers us," Daiq says.

As the sun goes down behind the mountains of Jerusalem, Daiq laments the sleepless nights he suffers and the injustices of his Israeli neighbors. The Jewish settlers receive subsidies from the Israeli government. The Palestinians, on the other hand, recently had 120 tractors confiscated. They weren't told why, only that if they wanted their machinery back, they would have to pay a fee.

He points to a spot in the distance where the tractors are being held, but the sun is too bright to see them. It will be dark soon. As the day fades, Daiq tells the story of Queen Esther from the Old Testament, who saved the Jews from mass murder at the hands of the Persians. He mentions an ancient script, written on donkey skin, which he says proves that the Palestinians were cultivating dates on these lands some 3,000 years ago.

Trump boasts of a "deal of the century." But for Daiq, the date farmer from the Jordan Valley, 100 years aren't nearly enough.