BITTER FRUITS OF JORDAN VALLEY APARTHEID
Palestine Activists Expose Truth in UK Direct Action Trial
by Sarkis Pogossian
On Jan. 26, seven Palestine solidarity protestors from London and Brighton were acquitted of "aggravated trespass" charges for their Nov. 11. 2004 arrests in a blockade outside the UK headquarters of the Israeli firm Carmel-Agrexco Ltd, in Uxbridge, Middlesex. The protesters used wire fences and bicycle locks in their human blockade of the Agrexco distribution center, halting all vehicle traffic in and out of the building for several hours before being arrested. The defendants argued that they were acting to prevent crimes against international law. The judge in the case found that the evidence against the defendants was "too tenuous" to justify continuing with a trial.
Agrexco, which markets under the brand name of Carmel, is Israel's largest importer of agricultural produce into the European Union, and is 50% owned by the Israeli state. It imports produce from illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. The defendants argue that the Israeli state-sponsored settlements appropriate land and water resources by military force from Palestinian farming communities in violation of international law and convention. In a hearing in September, a judge ruled that Agrexco must prove that its business is lawful. Ironically, during the trial it was revealed that UK Land Registry documents showed that Agrexco UK had built both its entrance and exit gates on land the company did not own, and thus had no legal right to ask the protesters to leave.
Many of the defendants had served as volunteers with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), documenting human rights abuses by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in the West Bank, and taking part in non-violent civil resistance to the occupation organized by local Palestinian committees.
The campaign to boycott Israeli goods is growing across Europe. In December 2005, the Sor-Trondelag district of Norway voted to cut economic relations with Israel, and national Finance Minister Kristin Halvorsen of the Socialist Left party, a member of Norway's ruling coalition, is publicly backing the boycott. The US administration has threatened "serious political consequences" against Norway if the boycott becomes national policy.
Agrexco fruits and vegetables are marked "produce of Israel," with the company benefiting from European trade preferences for Israeli imports. However, much of the produce that reaches European supermarkets via Agrexco—which has its own specially-designed fleet of refrigerated ships, and markets under the trademarked slogan of "Ecofresh"—is grown in the plantations and greenhouses of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied Jordan Valley.
Miles east of the "Apartheid Wall" which has won international headlines—that is, on the "Palestinian" side—the Jordan Valley has nonetheless been subject to an escalating program of Israeli settler colonization of Palestinian lands and waters. The world has paid little note to this illegal resource grab, as Agrexco rakes in the profits, purchasing nearly all the produce grown in the valley.
In June 2005, the Israeli government announced a plan to increase the number of settlers in the Jordan Valley by 50% over the next year. Economic incentives and benefits will be offered to encourage settlement, with grants of up to $22 million available for agricultural development. In recent months, large areas of land in the valley have been enclosed by fences and declared "military zones." In a Jan. 6 broadcast on Israel's Channel two, chief diplomatic correspondent Udi Segal disclosed that former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had told him privately that he did not want to evacuate the Jordan Valley.
The approximately 7,000 settlers already in the valley live in 36 settlements which have already claimed large expanses of land, with the Israeli state utizling 95% of the valley's total territory.
Most of the 50,000 Palestinians in the valley live in poverty, increasingly denied access to land, water and housing. Thirteen Palestinian villages were declared "legal" by Israel in 1967. Lena Green, an ISM activist who recently volunteered in the Jordan Valley, writes that these villages "are visibly obvious, being the only Palestinian areas where most of the houses are made of anything more substantial than plastic, wood and a few sheets of scavenged metal. Outside of these areas concrete constructions are invariably destroyed."
Green describes how the landscape has been colonized by Israeli agribusiness interests: "Road 90, which extends the length of the valley parallel to the Jordan River, cuts between huge plantations of palm trees, grapes and banana trees, as well as greenhouses full of plants and vegetables for export. Such intensive agro-industry requires massive amounts of water, which is provided by wells four or five hundred meters deep. These [waters] are housed in cylindrical towers that sit on the foothills of the mountains separating the Jordan Valley from the rest of the West Bank. Underneath the towers it is often possible to see Palestinian communities living in their flimsy housing. They are denied access to the water above them, and have to take tractor carts to the nearest wells they are permitted to use, often a distance of more than 20 kilometers."
The 162 artesian wells in the Jordan Valley established by the Jordanians before 1967 have either been destroyed or have dried up and become salinated as the deeper settlers' wells have tapped the aquifer. In 2004, five people in the valley were prosecuted for "stealing" water from Israeli farms and settlements. All of the settler plantations are surrounded by electric fences.
The Jordan River itself, the most obvious source of water in the valley, is also cordoned off by an electric fence that extends from the Green Line in the north to south of Jericho. This fence encloses 500 square kilometers of land once used by local Palestinians for agriculture. Unlike the more famous "Apartheid Wall" to the west, it is not marked on the maps produced by the UN.
Green writes that Palestinian farmers are effectively if unofficially prevented from selling to Agrexco. They are also effectively barred from selling to markets within the Occupied West Bank by the IDF checkpoints that restrict access and egress in the valley. "Entire vegetable crops have been left to rot in the ground or used to feed sheep and goats."
In addition, because produce from the Jordan Valley settlements can be driven straight to Palestinians cities like Ramallah on Israeli-only "aparthied" roads, generally closed to most Palestinian traffic, the settler produce undercuts Palestinian produce—which suffers from a higher markup as a result of the cost of transporting it through Israeli military checkpoints, unpaved roads not much better than donkey paths, and the "back-to-back" system, in which goods from one region must be transferred from the back of one truck to the back of another from an adjoining region at the IDF's arbitrary roadblocks. Palestinian consumers, a majority of whom live on less than two dollars a day, are faced with the dilemma of buying patriotic, or buying the produce they can best afford.
The traditional farming lands of several Palestinian villages to the west also extend into the Jordan Valley, and these villages are increasingly losing access to these lands by the "Apartheid Wall." In early January, the IDF announced the seizure of over 16 dunams of land (16,044 square meters) from Aqraba, a village east of Nablus. The Palestinian Grassroots Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign reported on its website that the seizure was made to build a sniper watchtower in the east part of the village, effectively barring Aqraba farmers from access to their lands in the Jordan Valley. In total, 2,000 dunams of Jordan Valley land will be cut off from the Aqraba villagers.
In a Jan. 14 story on Freshinfo, the international produce industry news service, Ori Zafir of Agrexco's UK sales team boasted that the "Israeli potato season" was off to a flying start, with high sales especially anticipated in the company's line of organic spuds. "Customers are appreciating the freshness and quality that we offer," he said. On Dec. 18, 2005, Agrexco general manager Amos Orr said he expected the company's European strawberry sales to increase by 10% in 2006. Apparently sanguine about the boycott threat, he said, "The only downside is possible problems about price," citing increased transport costs due to high fuel prices.
"Apartheid and Agrexco in the Jordan Valley," by Lena Green, Electronic Intifada, Sept. 4, 2005
"Continuing the Eastern Wall: Aqraba Left Isolated after Fresh Land Seizure," WAFA, Jan. 10, 2006
"Uxbridge 7 acquitted," Press Release, Jan. 27
For updates on the Uxbridge Seven, see Palestine Solidarity Campaign:
"Sharon's Strategic Legacy for Israel: Competing Perspectives," JCPA Jan. 12
See also our last feature on the West Bank:
"Holy Land or Living Hell? Pollution, Apartheid and Protest in Occupied Palestine," by Ethan Ganor
Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Feb. 1, 2006
Reprinting permissible with attribution