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Israel tightens grip on West Banks Jordan Valley
Mideast Valley Of S 6236892
Palestinian Jasser Daraghmeh walks on his land in the village of Farsiyeh in the Jordan Valley, Monday, Aug. 11, 2008. Israel has cut off water to Daraghmeh's 10 parched acres of the Jordan Valley land and threatens to tear down the shack housing his family of eight. Israel wants to keep the valley as a security buffer with neighboring Jordan, and the Arab world beyond, in any future peace deal. The Palestinians say it's their breadbasket and the only area to settle returning Palestinian refugees. - photo by Associated Press
    MASKIYOT, West Bank — They live just a couple of miles from each other along a country road winding through parched fields, but they are worlds apart.
    Avinadav Vitkon, an Israeli freelance writer, is putting down roots in this strip of West Bank land known as the Jordan Valley, helping to establish a new Jewish settlement with his government’s backing. Palestinian farmer Jasser Daraghmeh is barely hanging on to the 10 acres he says have been in his family for years.
    Vitkon, 29, lives in a trailer, but will eventually move with his wife and four young children into one of 20 homes to be built on an adjacent hill. Daraghmeh, a 34-year-old father of six, expects the Israeli military to demolish his family’s wooden shack because it was built without a permit.
    Their differing fortunes are the product of a struggle for control of this valley alongside the Jordan River — biblical terrain which Israelis and Palestinians both say they need for national survival.
    Human rights groups say Israel has systematically fostered Jewish communities at the expense of Palestinian growth in several areas of the West Bank it wants to keep, and the Jordan Valley is among the hardest hit. Israelis move freely through the valley, while Palestinians are hampered by building restrictions and roadblocks, one of which even keeps them from nearby Dead Sea beaches.
    The West Bank was captured by Israel from the kingdom of Jordan in the 1967 war. The Jordan Valley is ill-defined geographically, but by some measures is roughly one-fourth of the West Bank. Palestinians regard it as the breadbasket of the state they hope to achieve, and the only place big enough to absorb large numbers of refugees.
    Israel says it needs the Jordan Valley as a buffer against Arab attack.
    Today, the valley has a distinctly Israeli feel, with Jewish settlements, Hebrew billboards, war memorials and a Jewish seminary lining a sleek highway packed with Israeli motorists.
    Some 6,000 Israeli settlers live in 25 communities sprinkled across the area, whose West Bank sector stretches about 60 miles north to south, ending at the Dead Sea.
    Dubi Tal, a settler leader, says Israelis in the region are confident enough in the future to be investing in date palms, which take years to bear fruit.
    Still, the fate of the settlements is on the table again in peace talks. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat says Israel appears willing to cede the settlements while keeping troops in the area, possibly to be replaced by international border monitors.
    ‘‘They don’t want to keep the Jordan Valley, but they want certain arrangements,’’ Erekat said of his Israeli counterparts, who would not speak publicly about plans for the region.
    After the 1967 war, Israel adopted the view that the valley was vital to deter Arab attack from the east. But today Israeli strategists are divided.
    Proponents of compromise note that Israel and neighboring Jordan have been at peace for 14 years and that Iraq is not the formidable foe it was under Saddam Hussein. Besides, they say, the bigger threat comes from ballistic missiles, not the conventional ground forces that fought in 1967.
    Also, any peace deal would entail a land swap, and given how small Israel and the West Bank are to begin with, the valley may be too large to trade.
    However, some warn that giving up the strategic area and with it direct control over the West Bank’s border crossings would allow weapons and militants to reach the Palestinian territories, as happened after Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005.
    ‘‘In all likelihood, were Israel to abandon the strategic barrier of the Jordan Valley, shoulder-fired missiles capable of taking down a 747 jumbo jet would soon appear on high ground in the West Bank that dominates (Israel’s international) Ben Gurion Airport,’’ said Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations.
    All the same, peace is preferable, counters Shaul Arieli, an Israeli former negotiator.
    ‘‘Strategic depth is very important for Israel, but Israel can have better security with a peace agreement than by keeping the West Bank,’’ he said.
    Israel hasn’t built a settlement in the valley since the 1980s, according to the Israeli settlement watchdog group Peace Now. So why build Maskiyot?
    Some think it has less to do with security than with internal maneuverings between the Israeli government and the powerful settler movement now that peace talks with the Palestinians have resumed.
    At the moment, talk of peace sounds wishful because leadership is lacking on both sides.
    Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is largely paralyzed by his rivalry with the Islamic militant Hamas, while Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, plagued by corruption scandals, says he will step down next month.
    Vitkon and his family headed to Maskiyot, 25 miles south of the Sea Of Galilee, after being evacuated from Gaza, along with some 8,500 other settlers, in 2005. In February, the Vitkons and eight other settler families, all but two from Gaza, moved into trailers at Maskiyot.
    Construction of permanent homes is to begin in the fall, said Tal, the settler leader. The government will pave an access road, and hook up the homes to water and electricity.
    Just two miles away, Farsiyeh has dwindled from about 100 families before 1967 to about 20 living in far-flung shacks, according to Daraghmeh, the farmer.
    Some 53,000 Palestinians live in the Jordan Valley, about half in the ancient city of Jericho where Palestinians run their own administration. The rest live under full Israeli control, squeezed between settlements, military zones and off-limits nature reserves.
    Daraghmeh says it’s getting harder to water his crops. He points to a pile of black plastic pipes, remnants of his irrigation system. The Israeli military says it destroyed the pipeline running from a nearby spring to his fields because it was illegal.
    His legal aid lawyer, Abdallah Hamad, said farmers in the area have traditionally used the spring and are allowed by Israel to draw water but can’t use pumps and pipes.
    Daraghmeh said he is determined to stay because, with his siblings gone in search of better jobs, he’s the last of his family to farm the land. He said he is switching to crops he can grow with brackish water from nearby hot springs.
    The farmer unfolded a piece of paper — an order in Hebrew to demolish the shack he built two years ago.
    ‘‘People know that even if they apply for a permit, they won’t be able to obtain it,’’ said Hamad, his lawyer. ‘‘That’s why they keep building ... without applying for permits.’’
    Associated Press Writer Dalia Nammari in the Jordan Valley contributed to this report.

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