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The Forcible Transfer of the Palestinian People from the Jordan Valley

[ ["Demolished in Al-Hadidya, Jordan Valley". Image by Keren Manor/Activestills.]

Forcible transfer and deportation are terms that commonly evoke images of people being loaded onto trucks or trains or violently driven away. Forcible transfer, however, may also take the form of involuntary or induced movement of people resulting from the creation of insecurity, disorder, or other adverse conditions for the purpose of, or resulting in, such migration. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits all forcible transfers. Only the security of the population of the occupied territory or imperative military reasons can exceptionally justify total or partial evacuation of an area under occupation. Those evacuated shall be transferred back to their homes as soon as hostilities in the area in question have ceased. 

A key criterion to assess the forcible nature of the displacement is whether or not the transfer is the result of the individual’s own genuine choice to leave. As developed in the case law of the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), forcible transfer is understood as the forced displacement of persons from where they reside to a place that is not of their own choosing and “includes threat of force or coercion, such as that caused by fear of violence, duress, detention, psychological oppression, or abuse of power against such person or persons or another person, or by taking advantage of a coercive environment.” The ongoing forcible transfer of the Palestinian people from or within the Jordan Valley in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) is a clear example of this kind of transfer (sometimes misleadingly called “indirect transfer”).

The facts speak for themselves. Although there is uncertainty as to population levels in the past, it is estimated that between 250,000 and 300,000 Palestinians lived in the Jordan Valley on the eve of the 1967 Israeli military occupation. After more than forty years of occupation, the Palestinian population in the area has been dramatically reduced to 56,000. However, the displacement of Palestinian people from their homeland is not a phenomenon relegated to the past, but an ongoing process, particularly in this resource rich and geopolitically strategic area.

During 2011, more than one third of all Palestinians forcibly transferred in the West Bank were residents of the Jordan Valley, nearly sixty percent of whom were children. If we consider that the area contains vast land reserves and abundant water resources, making it the most fertile region of the OPT, the estimates appear striking. How did this dramatic decrease in population occur?

The 1967 “voluntary” exodus

The circumstances surrounding the plight of the Palestinian people in the Jordan Valley during and after the 1967 War refute the widespread misperception that the 1967 exodus was largely “voluntary,” as compared to the forcible nature of the 1948 exodus.

Israel’s military strategy during, and just after, the 1967 War aimed to drive out tens of thousands of Palestinians from their villages, towns and refugee camps in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This was particularly the case for the Jordan Valley, where Israeli forces expelled eighty-eight percent of the area’s population eastwards, across the river to Jordan. The village of Jiftlik, for example, was razed to the ground, rural communities were depopulated, and virtually all residents of three 1948 large refugee camps surrounding Jericho fled or were expelled to Jordan. Despite not being the site of any major military battles during the 1967 war, the Jordan Valley suffered the highest population loss in the entire West Bank in the war and its aftermath.

Israel’s purposeful removing of the Palestinians from the area is confirmed by the measures it took to prevent the return of those who had fled during the war and the period that followed. These measures included the routine shooting of civilians trying to return, or “infiltrate,” to their lands across the Jordan River, as well as the inclusion of Jordan Valley landowners on a secret “black list” in order to deny their entry into the West Bank. At the same time, from 1967 to 1994, Israel undertook a mass withdrawal of residency rights from hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who travelled abroad during that period, effectively preventing them from returning to their homeland. Then, after the eruption of the intifada of 2000, Israel barred almost all Palestinians from returning to, or visiting, the areas.

The Palestinians remaining in the Jordan Valley would be, from 1967 onwards, subject to Israel’s policies aimed at minimising the number of Palestinians in the area, while maximising Israeli control over the land, water resources, and transport routes.

Deprivation of land and water resources

The policy to take control over the land included legal and administrative changes, financial incentives to settlers, and institutional coordination. Israel began by declaring in 1967 that nearly sixty percent of the Jordan Valley become closed military areas, effectively banning Palestinian access to, and development of the land. Through subsequent military orders, Israel seized control of the water resources of the OPT.

Israeli decision-makers saw Jewish civilian presence as a necessary element to guarantee and maintain control over the occupied land, and so the Occupying Power immediately began to transfer its own civilian population into the area; an action expressly prohibited by Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention, regardless of its motive. By the end of 1968, the Israeli military had established three military outposts in the Valley. The eventual shift from military outpost to predominantly agricultural colonies from the early 1970s in the Jordan Valley adequately illustrates the colonizing nature of the settlement enterprise, while refuting Israel’s alleged security needs to justify the occupation of the Jordan Valley.

The built up area and the land cultivated by the existing thirty-eight settlements take up a further ten percent of the Valley. Although the actual settler population in the area is quite small, most of the approximately 9,400 settlers are farmers who cultivate large tracts of land and use most of the water resources. This has rendered the Jordan Valley as the area of the OPT most relentlessly exploited by settlement agricultural production.

The deliberately discriminatory nature of Israel’s policies results in a striking inequality of access to water between Israelis and Palestinians in the Jordan Valley. Indeed, the water available to the Palestinians of the Valley falls far short of that recommended by the World Health Organisation. The situation is even worse for the Palestinians living in the rural communities of the Jordan Valley who are not even connected to the water network system.

Furthermore, the water extraction ratio in the Israeli settlements is the highest in the West Bank. The deep wells serving the Israeli colonies have dried up the Palestinian wells and springs in the area. The Israeli pumping stations, including those on or near the lands of Palestinian communities, are closed and fenced off. With no access to running water, in some cases the rural Palestinian inhabitants survive on water supplies that the World Health Organization classifies as an indicator of an emergency response situation. Palestinians have no choice but to buy their own water—water that they are entitled to extract for themselves under international law—from the Israeli water company Mekorot. They often have to buy water from mobile tanks that deliver water of dubious quality at much higher prices. 

Meanwhile, in the same area, Israeli settlers enjoy intensive-irrigation farms, lush gardens, and swimming pools. It should thus come as no surprise that the 9,400 Israeli settlers living in the Jordan Valley consume more than six times the quantity of water consumed by the more than 56,000 Palestinians in the area.

And the Oslo Accords came to life

Under the Oslo Accords, more than ninety percent of the Jordan Valley was classified as “Area C,” meaning Israel had full civil and military control extending to land registration, planning, building, and designation of land use. The 1995 Interim Agreement called for the gradual transfer of power and responsibility in the sphere of planning and zoning in Area C from the Israeli military’s “Civil Administration” to the Palestinian Authority (PA). Yet, this transfer was never implemented and Israel’s continued control over planning and zoning in Area C has, according to the World Bank, “become an increasingly severe constraint to [Palestinian] economic activity.”

Israel’s implementation of the Oslo Accords has consolidated its control over the Jordan Valley. It has used this control to effectively appropriate more Palestinian land and restrict Palestinian mobility and economic activity with disastrous effects for the Palestinian civilian population.

Approximately forty percent of the Jordan Valley’s population is comprised of semi nomadic Bedouin and herder communities that have traditionally grazed their herds throughout the area. Today, the local population is restricted to enclaves, surrounded by Israeli settler infrastructure on the one hand, and no-go areas on the other.

Moreover, although Palestinians can, in theory, cultivate what remains of their land, as part of its policy of minimising Palestinian presence and growth in Area C, the Occupying Power has imposed harsh restrictions on building and freedom of movement on the area: restrictions that apply only to Palestinians. Israel prevents Palestinians from constructing any infrastructure or implementing development projects such as water wells, reclaiming of agricultural land, opening agricultural roads, or extending irrigation networks. Thus, despite its vast agricultural potential, the Israeli restrictions on access to the land and its water resources have turned the Jordan Valley into the least-cultivated Palestinian area.

The final push

Palestinians cannot build or renovate homes or any other infrastructure in Area C without first obtaining permits from the Israeli military’s Civil Administration. These permits, however, are rarely issued.  The restrictions imposed on Palestinians force many of them to build without the required permits to meet their needs, despite the ever-present risk, and practice, of demolition.

The Palestinians’ inability to obtain permission for legal construction and Israel’s policy of demolishing their homes due to lack of building permits has lead to the displacement of hundreds of Palestinians in Area C. Systematic destruction of Palestinian infrastructure is particularly rampant in the Jordan Valley. Consider that in June 2009, the Jordan Valley registered a dramatic increase of demolitions in closed military zones, and in July 2010, the Israeli government instructed its military to increase demolitions of “illegal” Palestinian buildings in the Jordan Valley. As a result, approximately forty percent of the structures demolished during 2011 in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, were located in the Jordan Valley. These demolitions affected at least 2,000 Palestinians in the Valley, and more than 4,100 in the entire occupied West Bank.

The inability to carry out legal construction inevitably impacts the provision of basic services to, as well as livelihoods of, Palestinians in the Jordan Valley. The PA is unable to undertake any infrastructure projects in Area C without the approval of the Israeli military’s Civil Administration. Therefore, while the Interim Agreement saw the transfer of responsibility for the provision of education and health services in Area C to the PA, the virtual impossibility of obtaining building permits from the Civil Administration for the construction or expansion of public buildings, such as schools and clinics, makes the provision of these services practically impossible.

As a result of the Occupying Power’s illegal practices, the communities living in the Jordan Valley—considered a “high risk” area—represent some of the most vulnerable in the West Bank, and are regarded as priority groups for humanitarian assistance due to their lack of access to basic services (such as education and health) and infrastructure (including water, sanitation, and electricity).

In addition to severely limiting the amount of water available to Palestinians and denying them permits to restore old wells and build new ones, Israel has continuously destroyed water cisterns and the other basic rainwater collection systems that serve rural and herder communities. Moreover, during the summer months, the Israeli army has stepped up pressure on Palestinian herder communities to force them out of the Jordan Valley. The army not only confiscates the villagers’ water tanks, it also deprives the villagers and their flocks of water by restricting their movement in the area.

Palestinians in the Jordan Valley face additional daily challenges, such as restricted access to land for grazing and agriculture, violence from Israeli settlers living nearby, and regular harassment from Israeli soldiers. Tightened restrictions on access in and out the Valley, which is surrounded by checkpoints and roadblocks, have separated the area from the rest of the occupied West Bank. These restrictions have also exacerbated the hardship of the communities living there, contributing to the erosion of standards of living, increasing poverty, and growing aid dependency.


Not only did the Occupying Power expel the majority of the Jordan Valley’s population en masse during the 1967 war, it has also implemented measures effectively preventing displaced Palestinians from returning. Israel’s policies of extensive land appropriation, water deprivation, and the establishment of colonies have crippled the agricultural and herding economy of the Palestinian residents of the area, virtually depriving them of their means of livelihood.

Combined with movement restrictions and severe curtailment of the ability to build—thereby preventing Palestinian residents from having access to housing, health, and education—the Occupying Power’s policies in the Jordan Valley perversely force the transfer of the protected population from or within the area. Given the unbearable living conditions created by Israel’s policies, it is evident that Palestinian residents of the Jordan Valley do not exercise anything resembling a genuine choice when leaving their place of residence.

Article 49(1) of the Fourth Geneva Convention only exceptionally allows evacuation of an area if the security of the civilian population under occupation, or imperative military necessity, so demand. Imperative military necessity involves a very stringent test, and Israel’s alleged general security concerns do not justify its discriminatory policies in the area. There is no evidence that the declaration of the closed military zones, their large areas, or their outlines respond to military necessity.# Home demolitions and eviction of persons on the grounds that they live in “closed military areas” are unjustifiable. Indeed, there does not seem to be any security grounds justifying the occupying authority’s de facto deportation or transfer of Palestinians from the Jordan Valley.

Israel’s practices constitute internationally wrongful acts giving rise to state responsibility and individual criminal liability. The violation of the prohibition of forcible transfer amounts to a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention and, as such, it is encompassed by the war crimes provision of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The forcible displacement of the protected Palestinian population is closely linked to the Occupying Power’s unlawful transfer of its own civilian population into the Occupied Territory. Undoubtedly, the transfer of Israel’s own civilian population into the Jordan Valley entails severe consequences for the Palestinian protected population living there, threatening its separate existence. Furthermore, such transfer makes the return of people displaced from the area and the restitution of their property more difficult.

Israel’s aim of changing the demographic composition of the area in order to create or consolidate territorial claims is particularly evident in the Jordan Valley and plainly contravenes the purpose of Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Ultimately, the absolute prohibition of the transfer of the Israel’s nationals to the OPT strengthens the prohibition of using land belonging to the occupied territory or its inhabitants for the furtherance of Israel’s own interests. The transfer of Israeli nationals to the Jordan Valley serves economic, social, and strategic needs, primarily the colonisation and subsequent annexation of the area. Regardless of the motive, the transfer of Israel’s own civilian population into the OPT amounts to a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

The State of Israel is responsible for the commission of unlawful acts in violation of its obligations under international law. It must, therefore, bring these violations immediately to a halt. Israel is also legally obliged to restore the situation to the way it was before the unlawful acts were committed, which entails restoring the properties to their legitimate owners, facilitating the return of displaced individuals back to their homes, and making full reparation for the loss or injury caused.

Furthermore, international law on state responsibility sets out the rules on the obligations of third parties. Individual states have an obligation not to recognise illegal situations created or actions taken by the violating state, an obligation not to render aid or assistance and to cooperate to bring to an end the serious breaches of international law, such as Israel’s extensive unlawful appropriation of Palestinian land, the forcible transfer of the Palestinian population, and the transfer of its own population to the OPT. In this respect, the UN Security Council has expressly called upon all High Contracting parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention to ensure respect by Israel of its obligations under the Convention.

[This article was originally published in al-Majdal, Issue #49 (Spring-Summer 2012)]

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