Thursday, July 14, 2011

Watch on the Jordan

The Israeli Knesset has adopted a new law making it illegal to advocate a boycott of Israeli settlements in the post-1967 occupied territories, and their products. This suggests that the boycott which Israeli peace campaigners have been waging is more effective than people thought. Groups like Gush Shalom say the new law also shows that the 44-year long military occupation which denies the rights of Palestinians, also menaces the democratic rights of Israelis themselves.

The law comes after a report by the civil rights group B'Tselem, Dispossession and Exploitation detailing the way successive Israeli governments have treated the Jordan valley and Dead Sea regions, as a strategic zone, exempt from any negotiations.

'From 1967, when the Allon Plan was presented to the government, to 1977, the government initiated the establishment of 19 settlements in the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea area. The prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, wrote that these settlements would reflect the “political and security conception with respect to the peace borders in the Mideast.” '

In September 1977, following the rise of the Likud to power, Ariel Sharon, as head of the Ministerial Committee for Settlement, presented a plan that referred to the Jordan Valley as “the eastern security zone” and proposed expanding the chain of settlements in the area. From 1978-1992, under Likud-dominated
governments, 11 more settlements were built.

'Following the beginning of the Oslo Process in 1993, Israel’s government, headed by the Labour Party, undertook not to establish new settlements and not to expand existing settlements. However, it did not consider the undertaking to apply to the Jordan Valley. In his speech to the Knesset on approval of the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement (Oslo II), Prime Minister Rabin explained clearly that “the security border to protect the State of Israel will be set in the Jordan Valley, in the broadest meaning of this term.”'

In early 2011, there were 37 settlements in the area, including seven unauthorized outposts. The two largest outposts are Mevo’ot Yeriho, which lies east of Jericho, and Giv’at Sal’it, which is situated in the northern
Jordan Valley. Four of the settlements are Nahal encampments that were turned, without government
decision, into civilian communities in recent years. (Nahal is an army corps originally formed to enlist youth movement members, combining military service with pioneering frontier settlements). The most recent one – Maskiyot – became civilian in 2008. It is now populated by Israelis who were removed from the Shirat Hayam settlement in the Gaza Strip.

'In addition, the Jordan Valley Regional Council and the coordinator of the Tasks Department in the Kibbutz Movement, Yoel Marshak, are working to establish a new settlement next to the Yitav settlement north of Jericho, on land of an evacuated military base, and to establish a few settlements in the area'.

Many Palestinians became refugees when Israeli forces took the area in 1967. B'Tselem's report describes how their land was seized, sometimes for military use, sometimes for supposed nature parks - from which people were excluded from grazing their animals or using wells. Palestinians have had restricted access to what is a diminishing resource in the region, particularly without the advantage of a state to look out for them.

"The Friends of the Earth – Middle East estimates that the water enterprises of Israel,Syria, and Jordan have diverted more than 98 percent of the historical flow of the Jordan River that crossed the southern part of the Jordan River Basin. The river’s annual flow dropped to 20-30 million m3 a year, compared to flow that reached 1.3 billion m3 in the 1940s. The river lost more than one-half of its biological diversity due to the loss of habitats and waste that flowed into the river from towns and villages and from fish ponds inside Israel, which polluted it. Large sections of the river are now in danger of drying up".

"Restrictions on movement severely harm Palestinians living in the area, who are completely dependent on services available outside the Jordan Valley. Hospitals and most educational institutions are located outside the area, and anyone wanting to reach them must pass inspection at a checkpoint. The restrictions on movement also apply to ambulances, which are not permitted to enter the Jordan Valley. Sick and injured persons have to go to the checkpoint on their own, or with the aid of an Israeli rescue vehicle, where they are transferred to a Palestinian ambulance".

Needless to say, these restrictions also interfere with Palestinians' economic activity, while those forced to take employment on Israeli settlements are exploited free of safety and labour laws.

Before the occupation there had been some development of irrigation and modern farming by Palestinians in the Jordan valley near Jericho (Musa Alami's project), and people have also made use of Dead Sea salts for soaps and cosmetics, but this was on a small scale compared to recent Israeli exploitation and marketing.

"Despite international law’s prohibition on exploiting the natural resources of occupied
territory, for decades Israel has allowed Israeli private entrepreneurs to profit from the resources ....The Dead Sea Cosmetics concern, better know by its brand name “Ahava,” is located within the Mizpe Shalem settlement. The business is the best known Israeli enterprise that uses the plentiful black mud on the shores of the Dead Sea to manufacture a variety of products. The mud has a rare high concentration of minerals – magnesium, calcium, sodium, and potash, which soak up water and maintain a liquid state, becoming a natural moisturizer. Throughout history, this natural mud has been thought to contain almost mystic therapeutic qualities, especially for persons with skin and joint ailments. The enterprise praises itself, on its website, as “the only cosmetics firm in its natural environment,” ...

"The company was founded in 1988. It is owned by the Mizpe Shalem and Qalya settlements and by Israeli firms controlled by Gaon Holdings. The company does not provide figures on its sales turnover, the number of employees, or exports, but a press report valued the company in 2008 at $72 million. The report stated the company had 200 employees and operated a chain of shops marketing the Ahava brand in 29 countries".

It is not only Israeli companies at work in the area. B'Tselem refers to the waste disposal sites used by a subsidiary of the French company Veolia.

The Israeli rights group report concludes that:
'Given the illegality of the settlements, and the cumulative and continuing human rights violations they cause to the Palestinians living there, B'Tselem urges Israel to evacuate the settlements in the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea area in an orderly manner and in coordination with the Palestinian Authority. In so doing, the settlers’ rights must be protected, including payment of compensation. In addition, in accordance with international law prohibitions on exploitation of the natural resources of occupied territory, Israel must allow Palestinians access to all the areas that have been closed to them, and to allow them use of the water sources. Israel must also cancel the restrictions on movement and enable building and development in the Palestinian communities. Lastly, Israel must close the enterprises that profit from the area’s minerals and other natural resources, as well as the Israeli waste-disposal sites'.

This should come as a boost to campaigners here who caused Ahava to move from its Covent Garden premises, and are looking now at the way Veolia is entrenching itself in local government services and utilities in Britain. An Israeli "security zone" in the Jordan valley effectively encircles and isolates what is left of Palestine Authority territory, and constitutes a barrier to any real step to peace. Whatever the arguments about a general boycott of Israel, the targeted anti-settlement boycott is both justified and effective.

Israelis who have supported this boycott say they will continue and defy the law. We don't face any such restriction yet (apart from Britain's laws that could prevent industrial 'blacking'), though to hear some of Israel's guardians talk you'd think even discussing any boycott was a crime. Let's use our freedoms while we can.

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