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Jordan Valley could be a sticking point in peace talks

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By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 2, 2009

MASKIOT, WEST BANK --

The backhoes are busy on housing plots for this new Israeli settlement in the Jordan Valley, and young families, under army guard and toting M-16s, have begun cultivating dozens of acres of land with dates, olives and other crops.

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To the south, a water pipeline from Jerusalem has let veteran farmers double the land irrigated for date trees to 9,000 acres, with a second pipeline and more farmland expansion planned.

As the United States tries to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the Jordan Valley is emerging as a key point of contention: Palestinians envision it as a core part of a future Palestinian state, and Israeli officials forcefully assert a longstanding claim that control over the area is vital to their security.

The new settlement of Maskiot and the expansion of farmland are just two tangible signs of tension over the area. When Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad issued a two-year development plan, he said he wanted to place a Palestinian-controlled airport in the Jordan Valley, and he recently said that any state that does not include it would be "Mickey Mouse."

Israeli officials and others close to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu have been saying that the Jordan Valley should remain in Israeli hands, encircling any Palestinian state to the east and controlling the international border with Jordan -- steps needed, they say, to make sure militant groups don't infiltrate.

The Jordan Valley, which makes up about 25 percent of the West Bank, is almost entirely under Israeli control, with an electronic fence running the length of the eastern border facing Jordan.

It is an argument that recalls Israel's initial occupation of the West Bank after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when the Labor Party government viewed the Jordan Valley as a security buffer against an Arab invasion and began authorizing the first settlements to create what was intended as a permanent Israeli presence.

'Something worrying'

Visions of a million Israelis living in the area never materialized -- about 8,000 live there. But Palestinians say they see a similar logic at work -- whether it is the spurt of building at Maskiot, expansion of farmland by the roughly two dozen kibbutz and moshav farming communities in the region, or an upswing in the demolition of Palestinian homes and other structures built outside the narrowly defined areas allotted them.

While the city of Jericho is under Palestinian control, permission for Palestinians to build, irrigate fields or sink water wells elsewhere in the Jordan Valley is tightly proscribed; travel by Palestinians from outside the area is restricted.

In contrast to the construction at Maskiot, where an embryonic settlement of eight families is due to expand to 100, Palestinians say that even small shelters added onto cramped family compounds to house adult children are being demolished, as are Bedouin encampments. In some developed areas, service from the Israeli water network is limited to every fourth day.

"There is something worrying," Fayyad said at a recent news conference in which he spoke in detail about what he sees as a developing fight with Israel over "Area C" -- the approximately 60 percent of the West Bank that, under the Oslo Accords of the early 1990s, is under full Israeli civil and military control.


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