“Are you lost?” asks the man driving the dilapidated tractor. Khaled is one of the 1,700 Palestinians who live in Fasayil, a small Palestinian village in the occupied Jordan Valley of the West Bank. I nod my head to let him know that I was not lost.
I came to the Jordan Valley in the wake of the announcement by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his political rival Benny Gantz that they intend to annex the Jordan Valley to Israel. I wanted to hear what the Palestinian residents who live in the area think about plan Israeli leaders have in store for them.
When I tell this to Khaled, he bursts out laughing. “Do you see my tractor?” he asks. “It’s an Israeli tractor. I’m on my way to work on a date palm grove in an Israeli settlement for an Israeli employer. Ya’ni, Israel has been here for a long time, with or without annexation.”
“I support annexation,” Khaled continues. “Not everyone has the courage to say so, but I do. I’m for it.”
I wasn’t expecting to hear such an unequivocal answer. “I make 100 shekels a day,” he explains. That’s approximately USD 29 a day. “Ninety-nine percent of the men in Fasayil work in Tomer, the nearby settlement, and make a small daily wage like mine. I work from 5 a.m. until two in the afternoon. I barely live.”
“You know, I’ve been working for the same farmer for 15 years and not once have I ever received a pay slip. I have no labor rights. He pays me in cash. In Israel, an Arab farmer makes NIS 250-300 [$72-87] per day. They live well. If we are annexed, I’ll receive citizenship or residency, and I’ll be able to demand a minimum wage. Today, anyone who makes demands is fired.”
“I do not hate Israelis,” Khaled adds. “When someone in our community dies, the folks from Tomer come to console, and when someone there dies, I go to Tomer. We live together. That’s the reality. But we don’t have equal rights.”
When I ask him whether annexation won’t bring about the end of the two-state vision, Khaled answers: “This land isn’t built for two states anyway. It is one territory. I want it to be equitable and shared by Israelis and Palestinians.”
The hope of annexation
Khaled speaks with a sense of urgency. He tells me about his four children, how they don’t have enough money to send them to university, and how his wife is unemployed. After 53 years of military rule in the occupied territories, the West Bank’s economy is at an all-time low, and the current reality, says Khaled, cannot continue. Annexation could bring with it a hope, albeit faint, for some kind of change.
Down the road I come across an elderly woman sitting on a plastic chair. Small children run about trying to get her attention. Yet she continues staring ahead, as if looking at a world that is being revealed to her alone. Her name is Yusra. As I draw closer she offers me a cup of tea. Without asking, she tells me about her son who died the week before. He got up in the morning, drank coffee, and died.
“He was healthy. He had 10 children,” Yusra says, pointing at the grandchildren running around us. Afterward she grows silent. Her second son, Thair, the family’s remaining breadwinner, sits next to me. Like Khaled, Thair also works on the groves in Tomer where he picks dates and earns NIS 90 [$26] a day. He follows the internal Israeli conversation surrounding annexation of the Jordan Valley.
“It’s not like anyone is asking my opinion, right? But if they did, I would be the first to agree to annexation,” he tells me. “Israel occupied us, that is the situation. But if I am already occupied, I’d rather have rights.”
Like Khaled, Thair describes a grim reality of worker exploitation in the settlements in violation of Israeli law. “During your first five years of work you make 70 shekels [$20] a day. After that it goes up to 80 [$23]. Those with families earn 90 [$26]. This salary is preferable to what I can make in the West Bank, but it is still far from allowing me to live or provide for all these kids.”
“The Palestinian Authority does not help me in any way,” Thair continues. “When I went to the Ministry of Labor in Ramallah they told me that they refuse to represent or help Palestinians who work in settlements. That is a political decision that was made there. They do not recognize the settlements. In their eyes, my work in Tomer is considered normalization. But what can I do? This has been the reality on the ground for years.”
Less than a minute’s drive from Fasayil is the settlement of Tomer, established in 1976 by the Israeli Moshavim Movement, which historically established agricultural settlements on both sides of the Green Line. Twice as many Tomer residents voted for Gantz over Netanyahu in the last election.
I spent three hours with residents there — on the street, in the grocery store, and in the moshav offices. I am surprised to hear that unlike Khaled and Thair, not a single resident expressed a desire to be annexed to Israel.
“As long as no one is talking about giving back the Valley, I have no problem with the current situation, says Yaffa, one of Tomer’s founders. “I am tried in an Israeli court, I pay taxes, I receive fines — as if I live in Tel Aviv. What do I need annexation for?”
“You came to a secular settlement that was established by moshavniks from the Labor Party,” says Osnat, a self-described leftist who serves as the treasurer of Tomer. “We are not mitnahlim [the term commonly used to refer to West Bank settlers], we are mityashvim [the term used to refer to the pre-state settlers inside 1948 lines]. You can take this moshav and put it anywhere in this country — you wouldn’t notice a difference. The residents don’t talk about annexation when they hang out at night. Only politicians are interested in this,” she says, “we’re interested in the weather and dates.”
I head for Tomer’s date orchards and pineapple fields to look for Israeli farmers, only to find workers from Fasayil. It’s 3 p.m. and most of the Israeli farmers had gone home. One of the Palestinian laborers gives me his manager’s phone number. Yair answers my call immediately, and like Khaled speaks with great urgency. Unlike Khaled, however, Yair is staunchly against annexation.
“Nothing good will come out of this,” he tells me. “If they annex us, the farmers will have a harder time marketing their goods outside of Israel because of the boycott movement. It will draw fire, and the Jordanians could annul the peace agreement. And what about the Palestinian workers on the moshav? We should annex Arabs who will walk around here with blue ID cards just like in East Jerusalem?”
I tell Yair that the Palestinians in Fasayil believe annexation will allow them to demand a minimum wage. “It won’t change a thing,” he responds. “As far as Israeli courts are concerned, you are already obligated to pay them a minimum wage. Even in the future, if annexation does take place, you will be able to continue paying them 100 or 120 shekels [$30 or $34]. The fact that they will make demands… even today they make demands. So what? Agriculture cannot pay that much.”
“Forget it, no one is going to annex,” he says. “If Israel wanted to annex it would have already done so. It’s simply pre-election populism. It’s better for everyone if the current reality remains as is. Even in 100 years.”
Beyond Yair’s arrogance and racism, it is worth reflecting on the reservations expressed by the residents of Tomer over changing the status quo. After all, according to official Israeli policy, the military regime in the West Bank is considered temporary and will come to an end when the fate of the territories is decided upon. According to the Israeli left, that will occur following the evacuation of all or parts of the West Bank. The right believes it will happen after full or partial annexation of the area. The residents of Tomer know full well that all of it is nonsense. The discussion over annexation or evacuation is used as cover for the ugly truth: Israel’s military occupation is the end goal itself.
‘Israel wants the land without the Palestinians’
In August 1967, the Israeli government gathered to discuss the fate of the territories that had been occupied just a few months earlier. According to protocols of the meeting, the government came to the same conclusion as Yair: although it is clear as day that Israel wants to hold on to the West Bank forever, it should maintain a façade of impermanence rather than making any public declarations.
Zerach Warhaftig, who served as Israel’s minister of religion at the time, put it as follows: “Should the UN Security Council convene and say: Israel has announced that it holds all the territories and does not intend to return anything, people will say — and what do the poor Arabs want? After all, there’s nothing to talk about with the Israelis. Any such declaration means eliminating all the love that exists in the world for us, which is so very needed right now. That is why I am against declarations and in favor of action.” The rest of the government members, from both Labor and Likud, agreed with the minister.
More than 50 years have passed since, and Israel has indeed made few declarations while implementing policy. “In 1967, 7,000 people lived here,” says Halusi, a resident of Furush Beit Dajan, a village slated for annexation. “Today we are only 1,000. Only the elderly remain, such as myself. All the young people have left for the big cities because they won’t be able to build a house here. Everything we build in the village — Israel demolishes. They refuse to provide us with a master plan. There is no water, no infrastructure.”
That is the reality for the majority of the Palestinian villages in Area C of the West Bank, which is under full Israeli military control. Between 2016-2018, Israel denied 98.6 percent of the 1,500 building permit requests by Palestinians there. For Palestinians in Area C, annexation is not only viewed as a theoretical scenario that may take place in the future, but rather a gradual process that is already taking place. This is a colonial process whose goal is to lay the foundation for the day of official annexation by denying master plans and infrastructure and forcing residents to leave the village.
Israel has twice destroyed Halusi’s home; now he is building it for a third time. When I ask him about his thoughts on annexation, he doesn’t bat an eyelid: “I’d prefer to live in a tent than be annexed to Israel.”
But couldn’t annexation improve your situation, I ask, telling him about the Palestinians of Fasayil. He responds angrily: “How can you say such a thing? How? I will never be annexed. Maybe you didn’t speak to the right people. You should have spoken to educated people.”
I ask him why he’s opposed. “It will choke us,” he responds. “I spend half of my day in Nablus. My entire family was forced to leave our village and move there. How can I be sure that they will let me go to Nablus after I am annexed to Israel? Look at what’s happening [to Palestinians] in Jerusalem. They were annexed. So what? You think their homes aren’t being destroyed? You think they have it good?”
The room gets quiet. The tea he prepares us has been heating up for 20 minutes on a stack of logs but never boils. There is no gas or electricity. “Actually,” he tells me after a while, “it is irrelevant to ask if there are benefits to annexation. I do not ask myself this question at all. For me it is very simple. I oppose annexation because I am a Palestinian. I object to annexation because Israel wants the land without the Palestinians living on it. That’s the issue at hand. With or without annexation — that will remain the case.”
This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.