“Israeli Settlers Make a Living Out of Our Suffering,” Says Palestinian Activist

The Jordan Valley lies on the eastern part of the West Bank, occupied by Israel in 1967, and shares a border with Jordan. The Israeli government, with the blessing of Donald Trump, is hoping to annex the Jordan Valley. This plan has drawn international condemnation, from Germany and France as well as from Israel’s Arab neighbors — Egypt and Jordan — with whom it shares borders and a peace treaty. The Israeli nongovernmental organization B’Tselem states that the Valley, which constitutes roughly 30 percent of the West Bank, is home to 10,000 Israeli settlers and about 65,000 Palestinians. Thousands of Palestinians have been protesting against the annexation plan.

The July 1 annexation target date has passed, and according to The Times of Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week said that the plan is being held up by the U.S. administration, although annexation is not off the table.

Israel has viewed the Valley as a buffer zone between itself and the broader Middle East for decades; as early as in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, Israeli labor minister Yigal Allon devised a plan to annex the Valley in order to provide Israel with a strategic depth against a potential future invasion. Indeed, Israel has insisted many times on keeping its armed forces in the region even if an independent Palestinian state were to be established. Many observers, including supporters of Israel, believe that annexing the Jordan Valley would make a future two-state solution impossible.

A melon vendor operating within a tent in late May 2020. Israel does not allow Palestinians to establish a shop in the area so they built a tent from which to sell instead. The army confiscated all of the melons in the Bardala village in the northern Jordan Valley and they demolished this shelter.

So far, Israel has no plans to provide citizenship for the Palestinians living in the Jordan Valley if and when it annexes the land. Israel has recently been active demolishing Bedouin tents and solar panels, quite possibly so that they will be forced to relocate. That Israel has carried out these actions prior to its annexation may reveal it has designs for the area in question. Israeli settlers have welcomed the annexation plans; indeed, the Trump peace plan effectively allows Israel to go ahead with annexing the area, even though recently White House officials had some misgivings about the timing. However, a U.S.-Israel committee whose purpose was to decide which areas Israel was to annex has seen its work come to a halt due to the outbreak of COVID-19.

The situation in the Jordan Valley is one that resembles apartheid in its most stark condition. Barren land, lack of water, Bedouin tents demolished by the Israel Defense Forces. Water wells are destroyed and trees are cut down by the same armed forces. Freedom of movement of peasants to their agricultural lands is forbidden — but only, of course, if they are Palestinian. Israeli villagers get not only free movement, they also get free land — free because it is stolen, and because of subsidies for agricultural development thanks to the Israeli taxpayer. It pays to be an Israeli in the Jordan Valley. To be Palestinian is to live a life of countless suffering there. No wonder, then, that a slogan developed by the Jordan Valley Solidarity group is “To exist is to resist.”

I knew the Jordan Valley well. I served there in the Israeli armed forces between 2001-2002. We put Palestinians under siege, did not allow them to reach their agricultural lands, stopped and detained people randomly. Physical violence was used against Palestinians at the checkpoints on occasion. Homes and schools were searched. Children’s studies interrupted by soldiers entering in with guns. That was nearly 18 years ago. But now a change to the status quo may be coming.

Sireen Khudairi is a long-time Palestinian activist and teacher who resides in the Jordan Valley. She spoke to Truthout about the upcoming annexation and how the Israeli occupation of the Jordan Valley is a business occupation.

Joshua Tartakovsky: Can you please tell me more about yourself — where were you born, where do you live, what do you do for a living?

Sireen Khudairi: I have been a volunteer with the Jordan Valley Solidarity Campaign since 2005. I led the learning center for youth in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp, near Bethlehem, a camp that is recognized by [the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)]. I worked in the reservation department at a hotel in Bethlehem. Several years ago, I was kidnapped by Israeli forces while I was walking on the street from my university to my home. Subsequently, I was placed in solitary confinement for a period of two months. Following this period, I was told in the Israeli court that I was arrested due to my political activity on Facebook that posed a threat to the security of the State of Israel. While I was born in Nablus, I grew up in the Jordan Valley.

Ein al-Hilweh, north of the Jordan Valley, is an empty area. There is a water spring there where Palestinians come to provide water for their flock. The Israeli military stated the area must be used for military training purposes. It is forbidden for sheep and people to enter the area now.

What do residents expect regarding the upcoming annexation plans? Have they been approached regarding this plan by the Israeli occupation authorities who run the affairs of the Jordan Valley?

The people are expecting that the Bedouin community will be removed, and that the villages in the valley will be isolated, with freedom of movement taken away. This will have an immediate effect on the areas of access to education, health and economic opportunities. Villagers in Fasayil and al Zubeidat have been approached by Israel, who demands that they pay for electricity. Until now, they managed by connecting cables to electric power sources. The electricity is free for settlers in the Jordan Valley and also in other areas such as the South Hebron Hills. [Settlers] are benefiting from living on stolen land and using stolen water and are doing business on the suffering of the people in the Jordan Valley.

I think the occupation of the Jordan Valley is a business occupation. They do business from everything they can. From the land, the stolen water, the projects they do with the settlers, to the demolition of Palestinian homes. Before they demolish a home, the Israeli authorities confiscate things inside that belong to Palestinians, and then tell them that if they want these things back, they have to pay. For each tank of water they confiscate, they ask people to pay $1,160 (in U.S. dollars).

The Israelis are benefiting economically as long as they are controlling the land and the water of the valley. More than a million palm trees belong to the settlers who have 36 agricultural colonies in the valley. The settlers benefit from the labor of Palestinian workers who work without permits. They are paid 60 percent less of what Israelis would have been paid in the same position. They do not have health insurance and take on dangerous work. Four hundred women and children work in the Israeli settlements in the Jordan Valley.

Some people believe that if Israel annexes the Jordan Valley, due to international pressure, it may be compelled to give citizenship to Palestinian residents of the valley over the long run. They argue that the number of Palestinians in the valley are not that big, and that Israel can deal with this from a demographic perspective due to its emphasis on the need to keep a Jewish majority. What is your response?

I think that Israel’s annexation plan evades international law. We don’t want an Israeli nationality. What we want is our rights.

Ein al-Hilweh, north of the Jordan Valley. Although Palestinians have been living there since before the 1967 Six-Day War, the Israeli declared this space a military training area in 1993.

How do you view the Israeli soldiers occupying you? What have they recently been up to in your area?

The soldiers are inhumane and … they are active in the demolition of homes, cutting down trees, cutting off water pipes, kidnapping and killing people, running over and killing sheep. On July 1, 2020, Israeli soldiers destroyed four homes in the village of Fasayil. Eighty five olive trees were cut down by the Israeli army in the Bardalla village, located in the north of the Jordan Valley, in June 2019. As we like to say, in the Jordan Valley, to exist is to resist.

What is the relationship between Palestinians and Bedouin in the Jordan Valley?

The relationship between the farmers and the Bedouin is good. After all, we are all Palestinians. We are all struggling for the same aim. We all share good memories of living together in the same land.

How do most Palestinians earn their living in the Jordan Valley?

Most of the people living in the valley are shepherds who raise sheep or are farmers who produce dates. That’s how they earn money. In the city of Tubas, which lies west of the Jordan Valley and is under Palestinian security control, there is a yogurt and cheese factory, a food factory and a factory producing soap.

Bardala village in the northern Jordan Valley. This land belonged to Sireen Khudairi’s family. Her father left the area after the water was confiscated by the Civil Administration in the West Bank [Israel] following the 1967 Six-Day War.

How do Palestinians deal with the water shortage in the valley?

Palestinians deal with the shortage of water by using water only for our main needs, such as watering agriculture. Palestinians mostly plant plants that will grow in the winter season. Each square cubic meter of water costs $7.20 (in U.S. dollars), and … people have to go 12 miles to arrive at a water source that is not controlled and 12 miles to get back. Even getting there, Palestinian residents need to pass by a checkpoint manned by Israeli soldiers. Three Palestinian communities are locked by a gate manned by Israeli soldiers. Residents cannot go in or out without passing through their careful scrutiny. Palestinian residents in these three communities need to drive through a mountainous road to bypass the Israeli soldiers. If they are caught by Israeli soldiers unexpectedly, they are detained and accused of illegally passing through a military road and a firing zone.

The aim of the Israeli occupation authorities is that the Palestinians will leave the area. They are trying to put pressure on the people, so that they will decide on their own to leave the area. They make life hard for the people, so people will not be able to live without electricity, without water, and they have to pay a lot of money as well.

You know, before the occupation of the Jordan Valley by Israel in 1967, 200,000 Palestinians lived here. Imagine if this many people stayed in the Jordan Valley, how many people there would have been living here by now? Now there are just 56,000 people. This is because of Israel’s policy. They put a lot of pressure on people, so that people will leave the area.

Bardala village in the northern Jordan Valley. This land belonged to Sireen Khudairi’s family. Her father left the area after the water was confiscated by the Civil Administration in the West Bank [Israel] following the 1967 Six-Day War.

Are the Medjool dates from Palestine in Turkey or Germany from Palestinians, or from Israeli colonialists?

Before 1967 my father told me that they used to export the product to Lebanon and Jordan. Nowadays they export but less than before. And it is controlled by two Palestinian companies. And unfortunately, these two companies have their business with Israeli companies as well…. Israel lost $29 million in 2013 because of [the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement]. And after that, [according to] a documentary made by Al Jazeera, one settler from Mehola settlement said that they started to write on their products “Made in Palestine” instead of “[Made] in Israel” because of the boycott movement….

I think that’s why Israel … arrested me at that time. They were crazy about all activists who were active with the boycott movement. And who were writing reports about what was happening in the Jordan Valley. And how Israeli economic projects were affecting the lives of Palestinians in the Jordan Valley.

Sireen Khudairi and her husband.

What happened to you in prison? What did they accuse you of? Did you have a trial or did they detain you without a trial?

What is more important than the situation of being in jail, was after being released, I was so weak. Hopeless. I kept myself in my room.… I worked a lot on my character to move on after this horrible experience. That’s why I joined a theater … In that time, [for] two months, I was not allowed to see a lawyer, not allowed to talk to my family. After a week, they took me to a trial. The judge was giving reasons why they put me in jail. They said it was because [I was] threatening the security of Israel. No details, nothing.

Did they provide any evidence that you were “threatening the security of Israel?”

There are some details, maybe people don’t know about it. For example, when they search the prisoner without clothes, with nothing, it’s horrible. The way they do it is really horrible. They didn’t allow me to change my clothes for two months. After a week, I wanted to see my face. I wanted a mirror. There are small details…. I was allowed to take a shower once every three days and for five minutes.

They did not provide any evidence, nothing. That is why I was released later. They were always telling me to give us information. And they were pressuring me to even invent things. They wanted any information. To give a reason for them to keep me in jail.

How long were you in prison in total?

In total, four months, and another three months home jail. Not allowed to talk to my friend, not allowed to use the telephone. Not allowing anyone to visit me.

They [also] used dogs. And that’s the most horrible thing that has happened to me.… They beat me. They tied my legs and my hands. And the captain who was asking questions … he started to shout at me; he said to me, “You have to respect the state in which you live — Israel, which is the only democracy in the Middle East” … I said to him, yes, it is a democratic state, so your state, they use democracy to vote in the Israeli Knesset, the parliament, to destroy 300 houses in the al Naqab [Negev desert]. So yes, you use your democracy to destroy others’ lives.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.