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Gov’t pressured to take action on Baqoura, Ghumar lands

By Maram Kayed - Oct 21,2018 - Last updated at Oct 21,2018

AMMAN — The controversial issue of the Baqoura and Ghumar lands has been the focus of public opinion and protests for the past couple of months, with the government remaining silent on the issue despite parliament and the public’s persistent demands for “a clear, official statement on the issue”.

Under the 1994 Wadi Araba Peace Treaty with Israel, Jordan has to decide whether or not to renew an agreement that placed thousands of dunums in Baqoura, in the north-western corner of the Kingdom, and Ghumar, south of the Dead Sea, at the disposal of Israeli farmers. In the former, Israeli citizens have “ownership rights” that date back to 1926, when Russian Jewish engineer, Pinhas Rutenberg, who was a co-founder of the terrorist Haganah Jewish militia, obtained a concession for production and distribution of electric power.

The annexes in the peace treaty concerning the two areas do not mention the term “lease”, despite the prevailing “public perception”.

The dilemma lies in the Baqoura case. As put by former premier, Abdul Salam Majali, in a recent TV interview, Jordan may have to buy back the land from owners, or just hope that the Israeli side will return it to Jordan free of charge. 

After Majali’s interview sparked a debate in Parliament, Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said during a Lower House oversight session on March 25: “Under the peace treaty with Israel, the two parties agreed that the areas will be under Jordanian sovereignty with Israeli private land-use rights. These rights include unimpeded freedom of entry to, exit from and movement within the area, as well as not being subject to customs or immigration legislation.”

According to Safadi, these rights were due to remain in force for 25 years and will be renewed automatically for the same period unless either country wishes to terminate the arrangement, in which case consultations will be held.

“We were fooled into thinking it was a lease to be terminated after 25 years, but now we know that there is no lease, and that we were actually under what qualifies as Israeli occupation and exploitation all this time,” President of the Professional Associations Council Ibrahim Tarawneh stated.

With the validity of the treaty’s annex ending on October 25, debate over the land, the treaty and the government’s decision resurfaced after 25 years.

Activists have been asking the government not to renew the agreement and to annul Israel’s ownership of Jordanian lands. President of the Jordan Bar Association Mazen Irsheidat said: “Jordanian land sales to Israelis should be annulled since Jordanian laws do not allow land sales to Jews.”

For researcher Shaker Jarrar, regaining sovereignty is possible. “Per the terms of the treaty, Jordan can inform Israel within the next year that it does not intend to renew the lease for those two regions and will reclaim control over them,” he said in a study on the issue, explaining that the term “special regime” was used in the treaty instead of “lease” because, in the case of Baqoura, the lands were technically Jewish property even before the treaty.

However, historians and political analysts have claimed that “the annulment is easier said than done”.

The history of the area confirms that on March 5, 1926, the leadership of the British mandate granted the Palestine Electric Company, which was chaired by one of the leader of the Zionist movement, Pinhas Rutenberg, a concession to generate hydroelectric power using the Jordan and Yarmouk rivers.

Two years later, the concession was ratified for a period of 70 years, which meant the approval of the sale of 6,000 dunums to Rutenberg’s company. 

Researcher Khaled Habashneh said Rutenberg sold the excess land to the Jewish Agency, making it Jewish land. He stressed that the contracts of the original land sale stipulate that Rutenberg did not relinquish ownership of the land to any other party.

In the case that Rutenberg did not transfer ownership of the land to any other party, the land would, by law, revert back into the possession of the Jordanian government.

The complexity of the situation is claimed by Majali as “not to be comprehended by the Jordanian public”.

However, citizens, political figures and activists have been standing firm with their stance of not renewing the agreement. 

Over 80 MPs recently signed a memorandum calling for the implementation of the parliament’s recommendation to the government to cancel the agreement.

Deputies also called on the government to hold a general discussion session to listen to its intentions and what it intends to do in this regard so that members of Parliament “can take the constitutional procedures that the House is entitled to if the government does not cancel the agreement and restore Jordanian sovereignty over the land of Baqoura and Ghumar”.

The Jordanian National Forum also organised a protest march on Friday, after holding a symbolic sit-in in the area of Baqoura a few days before, rejecting the government’s delay in taking a decision.

According to Irsheidat, “it is not constitutional to relinquish sovereignty over any part of Jordanian territory to any party”.

Furthermore, around 1,351 Jordanian activists have handed over a petition to Prime Minister Omar Razzaz asking him to end the agreement. 

For its part, the government has remained rather silent on the issue, with only Razzaz pointing out in a youth meeting on Thursday that “the issue of Baqoura and Ghumar is a matter of foreign policy, and no decision has been taken until now. The government is listening to the pulse of the street and promises that the deadline will not come before a clear action is taken”.

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