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Mulit-purpose peace park planned to straddle Jordan River

By Amelia Thomas  Posted by Joan Brunwasser (about the submitter)     Permalink
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Old Gesher, Israel - At the hot, dusty tourist site of Old Gesher, a few kilometers below the Sea of Galilee in northeastern Israel and just meters from the barbed-wire border with Jordan, a unique project is underway, which aims to allow Jordanians and Israelis to meet on common ground - without the restrictions and stresses of visas, permits and border crossing - for the very first time.

Currently, Friends of the Earth Middle East, the only tripartite organization in the region, encompassing offices in Tel Aviv, Bethlehem and Amman, is working on the first phase of this plan, involving the creation of a "Peace Park" in the historic Jordan Valley area, to serve not just one but a variety of purposes.

The plan for the Peace Park is the culmination of a project begun with the publication of the Friends of the Earth report entitled "Crossing the Jordan". In it, the group detailed both the "natural wonders" of the Jordan Valley and the challenges facing it. The biggest such challenge, says Gidon Bromberg, director of the Israeli branch of Friends of the Earth, is the reduction of water levels in the Jordan River to little more than a trickle.

"There used", he explains, "to be around 1.3 billion cubic meters of water passing through the river annually. Now, the level has dropped to between 50 [million] and 150 million only. This means that 95 percent of the river's water has been diverted. The combined Israeli, Syrian and Jordan governments continue to get away with this", he continues, "because the public doesn't know. Most of the river valley is a closed military area, so people have no access and can't see how badly the River Jordan has been affected."

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Thus, one key purpose of the planned Peace Park is to allow civilian visitors to walk right down to the depleted Jordan's riverbanks, to see for themselves what damage has been done, and put pressure on their respective governments to begin rehabilitation of the area. In the 1994 peace treaty signed between Jordan and Israel, notes Bromberg, joint responsibility for the maintenance of the river was a key issue, and yet was never tackled by either side.

"The situation", he says, "has only gotten worse". The river, adds Bromberg, where further downstream lies the equally neglected historic site of Jesus' baptism, is no longer even fit for humans to wade in. Polluted by raw sewage and industrial waste, researchers must don protective suits in order to enter the river to measure its depth.

The second reason for the opening of the park is to allow greater access to the rich cultural heritage of the area, now known as Old Gesher. Three bridges - a 2,000-year-old Roman bridge, an Ottoman era train bridge and a third dating from the British mandate period - all span the river at this point, providing an historic insight into how the two riverbanks, and the Roman cities around them, were once connected.

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Moreover, the discovery of a 1930s bus station, a Mameluke caravanserai dating from the fourteenth century BC and the opening up of the historic hydroelectric plant at Naharayim, which in the 1920s supplied around 30 percent of the energy needs of British mandate Palestine, all make the area of particular interest to visitors.

But the park's most unique feature, if the project goes ahead as planned, will be to allow access to both Israeli and Jordanian visitors into a neutral zone where dialogue will be possible, allowing people, says Bromberg, "to get to know each other without the harsh realities of border crossings".

Friends of the Earth proposes that visitors from both sides will be allowed to gain access to the site simply by showing their regular ID cards, while foreign citizens will be able to enter with their passports. There will be low-key security, checking for arms and other weapons, as well as ensuring that citizens of both sides are not able to exit the site on the 'wrong' side. "These measures", says Bromberg, "exist already, so it won't need any unique new kind of surveillance or security".

So far, the project is still in the early planning stages, but is rapidly gaining momentum. It has received the support from the local municipalities on both sides of the river, and the blessing of the Israeli minister of tourism. Friends of the Earth are currently awaiting an answer from the Jordanian ministries of tourism and the environment, whom they hope will both also back the plan. Once this national support is ensured, the next stage will involve the execution of a detailed plan, in July, which will define the exact boundaries of the park, entry procedures and access to the river itself. At this point, experts from UNESCO and the World Conservation Union (IUCN) will be brought in to assess the site and aid its creation.

The major hurdle facing the project, explains Bromberg, is the approval of the plan by both the Israeli and Jordanian governments. "The defense ministries", he says, "are very wary of relaxing security and control measures". However, a precedent has indeed already been set for this type of venture, so hopes are high that they will overcome this obstacle.

Firstly, he relates, the current Old Gesher site, operated by the neighboring kibbutz, already allows civilians from the Israeli side to make their way down to the river, through a gate in the military fence. This, says Bromberg, is in itself a tremendous achievement. "Now," he adds, "we just have to allow Jordanian citizens to do the same".

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Second, during the 1990s a go-ahead was given in the industrial sector, which allowed for a similar intermingling of nationalities at the border point. Permission was granted for an economic zone, spanning both sides of the river and accessible by a private bridge, which would allow Israeli and Jordanian citizens to work together without the need for crossing the official border. Although the companies involved subsequently went bankrupt and the plan never came to fruition, "there's no reason", says Bromberg, "why tourism and nature can't get the same permission, especially when there's not a great deal else being done to bring people together".

According to head of the Jordanian branch of Friends of the Earth, Munqeth Mehyar, "the river touches the hearts of Jordanians ... We carry the name of the river and it's uncomfortable to know that it's polluted and dry." Similarly, both Israelis and Palestinians have tremendous cultural and historic links to the river, which the organization hopes will help promote change "from the bottom up".

Although currently Palestinians have no access to the area, and, if security restrictions continue, will not be able to visit the Peace Park, the group hopes that one day all three nationalities will be able to meet together at the Old Gesher location.

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