By LAURIE COPANS
The Associated Press
Monday, May 8, 2006; 5:07 AM
YAFIT, West Bank -- Ilan Peretz is taking a gamble. Forced out of his home last summer when Israel left the Gaza Strip, he has moved to the Jordan Valley, along the eastern edge of the West Bank.
Given the area's strategic value, he doesn't think Israel will ever leave it.
But even when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert speaks of keeping the valley as Israel establishes its final borders, he refrains from mentioning Jewish settlements there. The Gaza experience has taught many Israelis that settlements don't necessarily add to security.
Olmert has announced plans to withdraw from much of the West Bank within the next four years. But with Hamas militants in charge of the Palestinian Authority, it appears increasingly likely that Israel will draw its borders on its own, keeping major Jewish settlement blocs to the west and the Jordan Valley as a security zone in the east.
That would leave parts of the center of the West Bank in Palestinian hands, but require an Israeli corridor linking the two sides it wants to keep. And that, say Palestinians, destroys any hope for the establishment of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state on lands captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast War.
The Jordan River, which forms the West Bank's border with Jordan, has great strategic importance. Since Israel captured the land nearly four decades ago, the country has invested in the area with a view toward keeping it for good.
Today 7,000 Jews live in 21 settlements there, among about 50,000 Palestinians.
Peretz, who is planning a cherry tomato farm in the hot, desolate area, hopes Israel will annex the valley as a security buffer.
"We know that Israel will evacuate other areas of the West Bank, and that's why we didn't choose to go there," Peretz said. "Here they will never evacuate."
When Israel started putting Jews in the valley in 1968, it saw them as a way to prevent Jordanian and Iraqi attack from the east. Peace with Jordan removed one threat, but the current war in Iraq has made it an unstable entity with the potential to infiltrate al-Qaida terrorists and other extremists into Israel.
The Hamas victory in Palestinian elections in January "has created an entirely new strategic reality for Israel which vastly increases the importance of the Jordan Valley for Israel's security in the near term," wrote Dore Gold, a foreign affairs adviser to the Israeli government, in a recent research paper.
While most Israelis now favor pulling out of the West Bank, support for keeping the Jordan Valley is high.
"This border will not belong to anyone else except Israel," said Housing and Construction Minister Meir Sheetrit, a key figure in Olmert's centrist Kadima Party. "We don't want a Palestinian army to control this region."
Palestinians say Israeli annexation would be a disaster, since the Jordan Valley, 45 miles by about 11 miles according to the current Israeli definition, is almost 15 percent of the West Bank.
"This is a very important area for the Palestinians," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who lives in the area. "This is the food basket for Palestinians and contains the eastern aquifer. This is also the Palestinians' passage to the east through Jordan."
Israel has given no indication what will become of the Palestinian farmers in the valley, or whether the corridor will become an impenetrable wedge dividing the West Bank.
But whether the Jewish settlements will stay is a different question. The 21 Gaza settlements were frequent targets of attacks and required huge defense allocations in budgets and manpower. Defending West Bank settlements also carries huge costs.
Sheetrit offers no guarantees to settlers like Peretz, saying: "Sometimes the settlements defend and sometimes they don't," referring to Israel's long-standing policy that Jewish settlements provide a security buffer to towns and cities inside Israel.