Having rejected Trump's peace plan, Palestinians worry 'what will happen next?'
Plan would allow Israel to annex settlements, retain most of Jerusalem
Palestinian farmers who cultivate tomatoes and cucumbers in greenhouses in the Jordan Valley always keep one eye on their crops, which provide their livelihoods. But they also look toward the city they revere — and fear losing.
Massoud Abu Thabbet worries the peace plan put forward last week by U.S. President Donald Trump will mean he'll lose the land his family has farmed for generations.
He rejects Trump's promise that the deal would improve the Palestinian economy.
"Even if they paved these roads with gold, we will not accept. How can we have streets full of gold and then I cannot get to my Jerusalem to pray?" said Abu Thabbet.
Jerusalem is home to the third-holiest site in Islam, the Noble Sanctuary, where the al-Aqsa mosque sits. Known also as the Temple Mount, the site is considered the holiest place of worship for Jews.
For Palestinians, al-Aqsa is a national as well as a religious shrine. They insist that any future Palestinian state would have East Jerusalem as its capital and would include the mosque.
Palestinians say the status of Jerusalem is the main obstacle to their acceptance of Trump's plan.
There are other elements that it would be difficult for them to sign onto, including the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and the decision not to allow the return of any Palestinian refugees to their ancestral homes inside Israel.
But they say the most painful proposal is the decision to designate Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
This part of Washington's plan is not accepted internationally, as most countries, including Canada, consider that Jerusalem's status should be settled by negotiations between the parties.
The plan, which Trump has long called the "deal of the century," proposes granting the Palestinians limited self-rule in parts of the West Bank, while allowing Israel ultimately to retain the settlements it has built there and also to annex the Jordan Valley.
'Declaration of war'
The Palestinians rejected the plan outright, with President Mahmoud Abbas saying "1,000 times no" and PLO official Elias Zananiri declaring it "nothing less than a declaration of war on the Palestinian people."
Abbas had already broken off contact with this Washington administration when it recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2017.
After that, there was no Palestinian input into the negotiations for the Trump plan, and no Palestinian presence in the East Room in the White House when the plan was announced.
Some Israeli analysts have suggested that Trump's deal was in fact geared towards Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley and other areas of the West Bank.
Barak Ravid, diplomatic correspondent for Israel's Channel 13 news, argued this was the case because no Palestinian leader, no matter how moderate, could agree to Trump's terms.
"It's a non-starter. So you could infer that the aim of this plan is to enable Israel to annex the Jordan Valley and the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, while everything else stays the same," he said. "And that has been the response from many on the Israeli right."
The Jordan Valley is an arid region covering almost one-quarter of the occupied West Bank, bordering the Kingdom of Jordan. It's sparsely populated, with around 52,000 Palestinians and about 8,000 Jewish settlers, according to separate figures from Israeli and Palestinian official surveys from 2018 and 2017 respectively.
Israel argues that, as the gateway to Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, the region is of strategic importance.
Announcing his intention to annex it last month, Netanyahu said the Jordan Valley was vital to Israel's security.
"This is our essential safety belt in the east. This is the eastern defensive wall."
But Israel did not take this step at any time since it captured the West Bank in 1967 because of international opposition, including from Jordan across the border, one of only two Arab countries to sign a peace deal with Israel.
Amos Gilad, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence, declared Trump's plan to be the "best deal" any U.S. president has ever offered Israel.
"Israel should grab this deal with both hands," said Gilad, director of the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.
Both Israel's largest political parties, the right-wing Likud party and the centrist Blue and White party, have said they favour annexing the Jordan Valley, even before upcoming elections in March 2020.
Washington has so far put a brake on unilateral Israeli actions. Trump's senior adviser, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, said they did not want to see any annexations before the Israeli elections.
The Jewish settlement of B'kaot is perched on the ridge above the mosque in the village of Frush Bet Dajan, where Massoud Abu Thabbet's greenhouses are located.
Relations between Jewish settlers and Palestinian villagers, both mostly farmers, are complex.
Hazem Abu Muntaser sings the call to prayer at the mosque every Friday. He also runs a grocery store across the road. There's a TV in the corner, but no cash register. He collects the money in a drawer.
"The 'deal of the century' annexing the Jordan Valley will make a siege around us. Tomorrow, if it happens, they're going to say, 'You have to be back at 7 p.m.,' they're going to interfere in our life," said Abu Muntaser.
His son, Nur, agreed.
"Look what they do to us now. Imagine how it will be if we are part of them. There are Israeli soldiers patrolling here all the time and the settlers want our water and our land. They are already charging us for water now. What will happen next?"
Traditional diplomatic formula
Days after Trump unveiled his plan, the Palestinians called for an emergency meeting of the Arab League in order to respond to it.
Abbas spoke at length and said he knew he couldn't agree to the plan when Washington announced East Jerusalem was part of Israel. "It will not be recorded in my history that I gave up on Jerusalem," he said.
The Arab League fell in behind the Palestinians and unanimously condemned Washington's deal, reverting to the traditional formula of a peace deal based on the two-state solution.
Two days later, the Organization of Islamic Co-operation (OIC) also rejected the Washington plan.
Washington had been hoping that it had some Arab support, as ambassadors from Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates had attended Trump's news conference in Washington.
In off-the-record briefings, Washington officials criticized this "old-fashioned" thinking.
In the Palestinian village of Frush Bet Dajan on the first Friday after Washington released its plan, the number of worshippers at their small mosque was swelled by visitors from other towns.
Farrah Ghaleb made the 70-kilometre round trip from his home in Ramallah.
"This week I'm coming here, and many Palestinians are coming here, to let the world know that this is our Palestinian land and that Trump doesn't have the right to give it to Israel or to Netanyahu," Ghaleb said.
When he moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem in 2018, Trump said he had taken the issue of Jerusalem "off the table."
But the strength of Palestinian reaction to Trump's new deal, and the breadth of Arab support for the Palestinians, show how much the issue of Jerusalem remains at the heart of the conflict.
- An earlier version of this story stated that the Temple Mount is considered a holy site for Jews, when it is, in fact, the holiest site.Feb 06, 2020 3:40 PM ET