Until 2011, the baptism site on the Jordan River known as Qasr el-Yahud (“Castle of the Jews”) was a closed military zone, accessible only to rare groups with special permission who coordinated with the Israel Defense Forces. Today, the dusty area that’s dotted with churches built in various eras and belonging to different denominations is the focus of attempts to rekindle interest in the site that has a played an important role in Jewish and Christian history.

Recently, on the Hebrew date of the 10th of Nisan—the date when according to the book of Joshua, the Israelites are believed to have crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land (Joshua 4:19)—17 bus-loads of eager Israelis from all over the country converged on the bumpy, single-lane road leading past endless date-palm plantations to commemorate the day.

“It’s a very special day and a very special place,” Maj. Gen. (ret) Uzi Dayan told journalists. “Maybe the most important historical event of Israel took place here,” he claimed. Dayan, who says he’s not religious and not secular, but “just Jewish,” referred to God’s promise to Joshua (1:2) that the Israelites would cross the Jordan and inherit the land. Many Christians believe that the site is where John the Baptist baptized Jesus.

Dayan, former head of the IDF Central Command, IDF deputy chief of staff and national security adviser to several prime ministers, is part of a group of Israeli civic leaders who are pushing to emphasize the importance of both civilian and military presence in the Jordan Valley. Reinstating a Jewish presence in Qasr el-Yahud is a significant part of that initiative.

Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Metropolitan Theophilos (center) leads a ceremony at the baptismal site known as Qasr el-Yahud on the Jordan River near the West Bank city of Jericho, Jan. 18, 2010. Orthodox Christians flocked to the Jordan River to celebrate the feast of the Epiphany at the traditional site where it is believed John the Baptist baptised Jesus Christ. Credit: Abir Sultan/Flash 90.

Situated on Israel’s border with Jordan, the Jordan Valley—a long and narrow rift valley that largely follows the course of the Jordan River—is considered by Israeli leaders to be an important strategic region to protect the country’s eastern flank. Under the 1993 Oslo Accords, most of the Jordan Valley is part of Area C, where Israel maintains full civil and security control. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly stated that the region would remain under Israeli control in any possible future peace deal with the Palestinians.

According to Dayan, plans call for the area to be cleared of the hundreds of mines that were placed in and around the churches and the baptismal site after the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israeli security forces determined that terrorists dispatched by the Palestinian Liberation Organization were infiltrating the border and hiding out in the churches.

Once the mine-clearing is completed, the IDF will hand over control of the site to the Civil Administration and the Israel National Parks Authority, and Dayan expects “up to 2 million tourists per year” to visit, with expanded tourist facilities in the works.

At the 10th of Nisan gathering, a formal ceremony featured a Jewish male choir and an impassioned speech by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, chief rabbi of Tel Aviv and former chief rabbi of Israel, who spoke from a podium set up in front of one of the churches at the site.

‘It’s the ideal region to defend ourselves’

The ancient biblical city of Jericho is less than five miles away from the Jordan River. Since the signing of the Gaza-Jericho Agreement of 1994, Jericho has been classified as Area A, under full Palestinian security and civilian control, which Israeli citizens are forbidden to enter.

Dayan and his colleagues succeeded in persuading the authorities to allow Israelis to enter Jericho for one day each year: the 10th of Nisan, and a convoy of those bullet-proof buses led by a military escort drove into the city to visit several sites, including the archaeological site of Tel Jericho, where layers of the 10,000 years of history at the world’s oldest continually occupied city may be seen. Remains of the ancient fortifications of the city are visible. Cable cars taking visitors to the nearby Mount of Temptation hover over the archeological park and guides note that the majority of tourists in Jericho these days are evangelical Christians who revere the mountain as the place where Jesus was tempted by the devil during his 40-day fast.

The Israeli convoy made one other stop in Jericho: at the Shalom al Yisrael Synagogue.

According to the Gaza-Jericho Agreement, Jewish sites in Jericho were designated to be protected and accessible, but the synagogue, thought to have been built in the late sixth- or early seventh-century C.E., and graced by elegant, ornate mosaics, is only intermittently open.

On the way out of Jericho, past the U.S.-sponsored Presidential Guard Training College built to train Palestinian security personnel, windows were shattered on one of the Israeli buses as young Arabs standing brazenly by the side of the road hurled large rocks towards the convoy.

Driving through the lower part of the Jordan Valley, Dayan explained the strategic importance of the area. “From the topographical point of view, it’s the ideal region to defend ourselves,” he noted. The distance to the Mediterranean is just 40 miles, and from north to south the valley forms a natural border with Jordan, beyond which lies Iran and Iraq. The notion of Israel having defensible borders is predicated on the Jordan Valley remaining in Israeli hands.

One of 22 communities securing a Jewish presence in the valley is Moshav Na’ama, an agricultural village of 50 families founded in 1982. Today, their main crops are organic herbs, grapes and Medjool dates. Like almost all the Israeli communities in the Jordan Valley, almost all the workers in the fields and greenhouses at Na’ama are Arabs from surrounding towns and villages.

According to Inon Rosenblum, owner of the Na’ama herb farm, “they prefer to work here. They earn twice as much as they would working in Jericho.”

The Jordan Valley—replete with religious, strategic and economic significance—looks set to be the next frontier for Israeli development.