Israelis blocked as enclave deal with Jordan expires

Israelis prevented from entering Jordanian border enclaves of Ghumar and Baqura, after Amman announced it was ending their renewable lease following tensions with Tel Aviv.

BAQURA - Jordan's king announced Sunday that two pieces of land leased by Israel would be returned to the "full sovereignty" of Jordan as the two countries marked a chilly 25th anniversary of their landmark peace agreement.

Reports on Sunday said Israelis were prevented from entering the Jordanian border enclaves on Sunday after a deal allowing farmers to work land there expired.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz, however, reported that Amman had granted farmers in the more southern land parcel another six months of access to the land.

Since the two countries signed the deal in 1994, Jordan has allowed Israeli farmers access to the territories of Ghumar in the north and Baqura in the south under a renewable 25-year arrangement. In October last year however, Jordan's King Abdullah said his country had notified Israel that it wants them back.

Even amid the growing mistrust between the states and a looming deadline, Israel was hoping a solution could be found. But King Abdullah II's announcement to parliament seemed to put an end to that and Jordan is set to reclaim full control of the areas this week.

"I announce the end of the annex of the two areas, Ghumar and Al-Baqura, in the peace treaty and impose our full sovereignty on every inch of them," the King said.

An AFP journalist in northern Israel on Sunday said the yellow gate to a bridge over the river dividing the two countries, long the portal for Israeli farmers to access Baqura, was locked.

Baqura, known in Hebrew as Naharayim, lines on a spit of land where the Jordan and Yarmuk rivers meet. Ghumar, deep in the Negev desert south of the Dead Sea, is known in Hebrew as Tzofar. The lands have been privately owned by Israeli entities for decades, but the 1994 deal saw Jordan retain its sovereignty there.

Baqura/Naharayim, located along the Jordan River in northern Israel, had become a popular tourist site. It includes a small park and picnic area, the ruins of a historic power station and the "Island of Peace," where Israelis can briefly enter Jordanian territory without having to show their passports.

But the site has a painful history: in 1997, a Jordanian soldier opened fire at an Israeli crowd, killing seven schoolgirls on a class trip.

Since the heady days of Israel's second peace treaty with an Arab state - after Egypt - relations with Amman have been strained.

Following up on a historic interim peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians a year earlier, Israel's then-prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin and the late King Hussein of Jordan signed a peace agreement on Oct. 26, 1994 with President Bill Clinton in attendance and all three leaders delivered moving speeches promising warm relations and a better future. 

The accord remains a vital strategic asset for both countries, who maintain tight security cooperation and joint economic projects.

But with little progress toward a Palestinian state, the close contact hasn't trickled down to the average citizen — especially in Jordan, where most people have Palestinian roots. Israel's colonialist policies in occupied east Jerusalem, where Jordan has custodial rights over Muslim holy sites, have also raised tensions.

Opinion polls have repeatedly found that the peace treaty with Israel is overwhelmingly opposed by Jordanians, who have witnessed multiple examples of the animosity between the two countries throughout the years.

In 1997, following the shooting of the Israeli schoolgirls by a Jordanian soldier at Baqura/Naharayim, then-King Hussein travelled to Israel to conduct condolences visits with the victims' families, an act for which some in Israel remember him fondly.

In 2017, an Israeli embassy security guard in Amman killed two Jordanians, before receiving a hero's welcome from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once Jordan agreed to return him to Israel. The incident prompted protests and infuriated the Jordanian public.

Three years earlier, an Israeli soldier at a border crossing had shot dead a Jordanian judge he deemed a threat.

Just last month, Amman recalled its ambassador from Israel over the prolonged detention without trial in the Zionist state of two Jordanians. The ambassador returned after the two were released.