For years the southern Jordan River region has been a closed military zone. The local wildlife has only benefited from this, but will this tranquility continue?
By Zafrir Rinat | Oct. 30, 2013

Areas in which humans have caused great damage and even spilled blood can, over time, become sanctuaries for nature. Precisely in places that warring peoples have closed off, wild animals can find a relatively quiet and protected shelter. Such has been the fate of the territories along the southern Jordan River that to this day are still designated closed military zones.

The Israel Defense Forces recently agreed to allow controlled visits to the area between the Allenby Bridge and the Jordan River estuary into the Dead Sea to the south. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority plans to allow groups to enter these areas, some of which had been declared nature reserves during the British Mandate, and get acquainted with vistas that for decades had been seen mainly by soldiers. This writer toured the area last week with Moshe Mintz, the regional inspector for the INPA and the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria.

During the decades preceding the 1967 Six-Day War the southern Jordan River region was humming with activity. This is where the first installations of the Dead Sea Works were built, and members of Kibbutz Beit Ha’arava used the river water. Palestinian farmers cultivated farmland near the Allenby Bridge, and masses of pilgrims visited the many churches and monasteries near the baptismal site in the Jordan River. There was considerable traffic between the West Bank and Jordan over the Abdullah Bridge.

The Israeli communities and industrial enterprises were abandoned during the 1948 War of Independence. After the Six-Day War, the military removed the Palestinian farmers from the area. During the War of Attrition that followed the Six-Day War the entire region became a military zone. The Abdullah Bridge was left destroyed and the churches and monasteries were abandoned.

After the peace agreement with Jordan 19 years ago, Christian pilgrims gradually returned to the historic baptismal site and the army began to withdraw from the outposts it held in the area. The area remains closed to Palestinian farmers, however, and they will not be able to see it during the organized visits being planned.

The Abdullah Bridge still stands crumbling, as if it were only yesterday that the IDF waged war against the Jordanian army. Near it stands a broken and neglected monument in memory of a soldier who fell in the army’s operation against the PLO camp at Karameh in 1968.

Along the river one can see the pumps that had been used by Kibbutz Beit Ha’arava, and to the south of them are the remains of pools that were previously used by the Dead Sea Works. Almost the only activity to take place there recently was the clearing of some of the many minefields.

Protected as it had been for decades from hunters and other disturbances, the area’s wildlife had a safe habitat across a fairly wide area. At the beginning of the tour with the INPA inspector an impressive male gazelle emerged from the bushes and then leapt away. The animals have many places to hide and rest in the natural vegetation adjacent to the Jordan River and in the marlstone hills. The area also has a number of springs that serve as an accessible water source.

One species that has exploited the region’s geopolitical changes is insect-eating bats, which have found hospitable lodgings in the abandoned army structures. Upon entering one of these buildings with a flashlight, one immediately spots a group of small lesser mouse-tailed bats hanging from the ceiling, in the way of these mammals.

The river’s appearance is not at all encouraging. Only a very small amount of water flows here due to both countries’ heavy use of it for human needs. The Jordan flows slowly toward the Dead Sea, creating two curves as it enters the sea, while in the background one sees the open view of the arid Arava area connecting Jordan and Israel. The landscape in this place is ever-changing because the Dead Sea is gradually receding.

The future of the southern Jordan River region remains unclear. As pilgrimage tourism grows, and assuming the border remains peaceful, various entities, particularly in Israel, are liable to demand that at least some of the land be utilized for development and tourism projects. This would be diplomatically problematic, since this is occupied territory whose future has not been definitively decided. From an ecological perspective, it’s quite clear that the current situation allows all types of creatures to flourish in relative peace.