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Israeli Settlements: In the Jordan Valley

(Updated June 2014)

What is the Jordan Valley?

The Jordan Valley (also referred to as the Jordan River Valley) is a segment of the larger Jordan Rift Valley which runs along the entirety of Israel’s eastern border. The Jordan Rift Valley is part of the Great Rift Valley (Syrian-Africa Rift) which runs from Syria to the Zambezi River in Mozambique.

The Israeli Jordan Valley segment stretches from just below the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee to the northern tip of the Dead Sea and from the Jordan River in the east to the hills of Judea & Samaria in the West. The vast majority of the Jordan Valley lies within the “Green Line,” the semi-official boundary separating Israel proper and the West Bank.

Who Lives in the Jordan Valley?

Both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs live in the Jordan Valley. There are 28 Jewish villages in the region – including Mehola, Bekaot and Ma’aleh Ephraim – that comprise approximately 15,000 residents. The Palestinian inhabitants of the Jordan Valley live in 10 cities and villages – including Jericho, the administrative capital of the Palestinian Authority (PA) – that have a total population of approximately 50,000.

What is the History of Jewish Settlement in the Jordan Valley?

Following Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, the Jordan Valley was controlled by the Kingdom of Jordan, who forbade Jewish settlement in the region. Following the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel captured the Jordan Valley region along with the entirety of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Shortly after the Six-Day War, Israeli Labor Minister Yigal Allon drafted a proposal, now referred to as the Allon Plan, which sought to annex and settle the Jordan Valley area. According to Allon, Jewish settlement in the region would ensure that Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, would lie in a more centralized geographical position relative to the rest of the country.

Jewish settlement in the Jordan Valley followed three stages: from 1967 to 1970, six villages were established along the main highway; from 1971 to 1974, five settlements were built along the Valley’s western border; and, from 1975 to 1990, 17 final settlements sprouted across the region. Since 1990, settlement building has slowed if not stopped completely due to political concerns, though the population continues to grow, especially in the religious villages of Mehola, Hemdat and Rotem.

What is the Political Status of the Jordan Valley?

The Jordan Valley lies within the Palestinian territory of the West Bank, though the majority of the territory falls under Area C, an administrative division outlined in the 1995 Oslo II Accords granting Israel full civil and security control. The city of Jericho and its surrounding villages are Area A - full PA civil and security control; no Jewish settlements can be built nor are Israeli citizens allowed to enter this area.

In December 2013, the Knesset Committee for Legislation passed “The Bill to Apply Israeli Law to the Jordan Valley” in a vote supported by ministers from the governing Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu coalition. Much like the “Golan Height Law” (1981) and the “Administration Ordinance Law” (1967) which extended Israeli control to the Golan and East Jerusalem, respectively, the Jordan Valley bill seeks to officially annex the territory. The bill is opposed by Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and may go back to the Legislative Committee for another vote before being sent to the Knesset plenum.  

Does the Jordan Valley Hold a Strategic Importance for Israel?

Allon viewed the Valley as of vital strategic importance for Israel, most importantly by providing a buffer zone between Israel and its enemies to the east, much like the Sinai Peninsula in the west. Israeli military presence in the region would ensure the demilitarization of a future Palestinian state by stopping arms smuggling across the Jordan River. It would also provide Israelis with safe and secure access to the Dead Sea, Jordan River and Sea of Galilee.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu staunchly holds to this view and has repeatedly said that Israeli presence in the region is crucial to establishing and maintaining peace with the Palestinians. Uzi Dayan, former head of Israel’s National Security Council, believes that the Valley “envelopes” the State and extending Israeli sovereignty to the region is the only way to protect Israel from heightened terrorism.

In an era of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, however, many Israeli political and military leaders do not believe that any one parcel of land can hold enough strategic importance to legitimize continued occupation. Former Mossad Chief Meir Dagan, for example, has declared that “the Jordan Valley is not vital to Israel’s security” and the country can survive without it.

Are Any Plans Being Considered Over the Future of the Jordan Valley?

The future of the Jordan Valley remains an intractable and contentious issue in peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. There have been multiple attempts to leverage concessions from both sides to reach an agreement, however none has received multilateral support.

One option raised in past talks involved replacing the Israeli military presence in the Valley with the deployment of international peacekeeping forces. This route was firmly rejected by Netanyahu in June 2013 when he said that “Israel cannot depend on international forces for its security … they cannot be the basic foundation of Israel’s security.”

Another option reportedly offered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called for maintaining Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley for ten years following the signing of a peace accord during which time PA security forces would be trained to assume control over the region. PA President Mahmoud Abbas, however, rejected this plan and PA officials said the proposed arrangements were totally unacceptable.