Israel 'has annexed Jordan Valley and shut out Palestinians'

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The Independent Online

Israel has in effect "annexed" the Jordan Valley, or eastern strip of the West Bank, by severely restricting the movements of Palestinians inside it, it was claimed yesterday.

The accusation was made by B'tselem, a leading Israeli human rights organisation, following investigations by B'tselem and the newspaper Ha'aretz which showed that some 200,000 Palestinian West Bank residents are systematically prevented from entering the Jordan Valley area, including farmers seeking to cultivate their own land and seasonal farm workers who used to work there regularly.

The Jordan Valley is politically highly sensitive because by remaining under Israeli control it would further substantially restrict the scale of any Palestinian state. Ehud Olmert, the acting Prime Minister, while being careful not to be specific about the fate of Israeli settlements in the area when he foreshadowed further West Bank withdrawals last week, has made it clear that Israel would maintain control of the border with Jordan.

B'tselem said the general prohibition on the entry of any Palestinians into the Jordan Valley apart from those officially registered as living there "severely violates the human rights of the Palestinian population" by severing what amounts to a third of the West Bank area from the rest.

Although the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) have progressively prevented Palestinians travelling on Route 90, the main road running along the valley, and set up seven checkpoints restricting easterly movement of Palestinians, B'Tselem said much heavier restrictions on movement through the checkpoints were introduced after March 2005, when Jericho was handed over to Palestinian control.

The IDF said the measures had been taken to protect settlers in the Jordan Valley area from "at least a handful" of terrorist attacks along Route 90 over the past six years.

Although the settlements in the Jordan Valley were created, like others, since the Six-Day War in 1967, the IDF pointed out that under the Oslo accords the area was classified as "Area C" under which it continued to be controlled by Israel. A statement said some workers with the right permits and "humanitarian" cases were allowed to travel into the area. Such workers are believed to number only in the hundreds.

But B'Tselem said that beside excluding many Palestinians bordering the area from their source of livelihood, the measures meant that residents of Palestinian villages north of Jericho were not able to host relatives or friends who lived outside the valley or in the city itself. Women who married residents of the valley but had not changed their ID or addresses were frightened to leave the area in case they were refused permission to return.

A 25-year-old Palestinian woman, Nafia Abu Musaed, died in hospital yesterday after being shot in the chest by Israeli troops near the Gaza border fence. IDF sources said that the soldiers involved had identified "movement of suspicious figures" 50 metres from the fence when the shots were fired. Palestinians sources said the woman was several hundred metres from the barrier.

In the West Bank, Mushir al Masri, a prominent Hamas member of the new Palestinian Legislative Council said the new prime minister after the Hamas election victory would be a member of the group.

This appeared to rule out the possibility of an independent or public figure only loosely connected with Hamas.

There has been speculation that this could be Ishmael Haniya, numberr one on the Hamas candidates' list in the elections and regarded as one of the more pragmatic Hamas leaders. But Mr al Masri refused to confirm that and other Hamas sources said a final decision had yet to be taken on who it would be.

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