TEL AVIV // By exploiting the land, water resources and tourist sites of the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea areas, Israel is trying to annex the territory, an Israeli human rights group said yesterday.
Such exploitation of the strip of land on the eastern part of the Israeli-occupied West Bank helps Israel maintain its authority over the area's borders and prevent them from falling under the control of the Palestinians, according to the group, B'Tselem, and other analysts.
"The issue is who controls the borders of the future Palestinian state," said Neve Gordon, a political-science professor at Israel's Ben-Gurion University. "Israel does not trust the Palestinian Authority to control the area and ensure that arms or people from Iran or Afghanistan don't enter."
Mr Gordon said that Israel's expansion of settlements in the area and its increasing use of its agricultural resources was aimed at encouraging Palestinians to leave.
B'Tselem said: "Israel has instituted a regime that massively exploits the resources of the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea, far more than elsewhere in the West Bank, demonstrating its intention: to de facto annex the area."
According to B'Tselem, Israel violates international law by taking over most of the water sources in the area and allocating them to Jewish settlements. The group said that international law prohibits the exploitation of natural resources in occupied territory.
Israel controls 78 per cent of the area, including major tourist destinations such as the northern shores of the Dead Sea. The area under Israeli control includes private Palestinian land that it seized and declared as closed military zones, nature reserves and state land.
About 65,000 Palestinians and 9,400 Jewish settlers live in the region. The settlements pump 45 million cubic metres of water - most of it for agricultural use - compared with 31 million by the Palestinians.
"Due to the water shortage, Palestinians have been forced to neglect farm land that used to be cultivated and switch to growing less profitable crops," B'Tselem wrote in the report "Dispossession and Exploitation" that was released yesterday.
The Israeli actions are hampering Palestinian leaders' economic plans for the area. The Palestinian Authority views the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea as a key commercial and transportation centre with Middle Eastern countries, according to B'Tselem. It added that Israel also wants the area to become a centre for agricultural exports.
B'Tselem quoted a World Bank report that said that if Israel allowed the Palestinian Authority to use additional water resources in the West Bank, then the share of agriculture, the main sector of the Palestinian economy,- would rise to 22 per cent of gross domestic product from the current 12 per cent.
Israel occupied the Jordan Valley along with the rest of the West Bank after it conquered the territory in the 1967 Middle East War. It has since allowed the construction of some 120 settlements in the area, drawing anger from Palestinians and condemnation from the international community. Palestinians want their future state to include the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as well as the Gaza Strip.
Successive Israeli governments have considered the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea as areas over which the country must keep its control, mainly for security reasons, the report said.
Israel's view of the region's importance emerged from a plan submitted by a senior government minister after the 1967 war. The plan called for the Jordan river to serve as the strategic buffer zone between Israel and the so-called Eastern Front, a potential coalition of the Syrian, Jordanian and Iraqi armies, BTselem said.
The area's Jewish settlements were to serve as "permanent advance-position lookouts" that could alert the military to a sudden attack and even attempt to delay the enemy's advance, the report said.
Governments from both the Israeli right and centre-left have opposed withdrawing from the Jordan Valley. The current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, declared during a visit to the area in March that the army "must remain along the Jordan river in any future agreement".
The Palestinians have rejected that idea and have suggested an international force establish a presence in the area.
The Israeli foreign ministry declined to comment on the report. B'Tselem said that it had also submitted a copy of the document to the justice ministry, which also declined to comment.