Palestinian owners and tenant farmers in the West Bank town fear Israeli occupation authorities will take over their fertile farms, the last sizable Arab agricultural holdings in the Jorday Valley north of Jericho.
Since last year, occupation officials have destroyed, damaged or ordered removed tenant farmer lodgings in an ever greater area of the Fara Valley, according to Palestinian farmers.
Within the last 10 days, residents said an Arabic-speaking Israeli identifying himself only as "David" has spread anxiety by telling them they all must leave. tWithout tenant farmers, most of whom live in the cooler hills to the west during the sweltering summer, the Palestinians say their drip-irrigated land cannot be farmed efficiently during the fall and winter growing seasons.
A Palestinian woman stood in front of the three large red crosses she said David had made on the wall outside her war-damaged stone house and told of his June 20 visit:
"He pointed in both directions and ordered me to tell everyone their homes were going to be destroyed. If I didn't, he threatened to put me in prison."
The Palestinians' concern has been heightened by their professed inability to get answers from the occupation authorities and their knowledge of what has happened here since Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 war.
Wahid Masri, secretary of the Fara Valley irrigation committee, whose membership includes about 250 landowners and 2,000 tenant farmers, listed the dates and places of meetings occupation authorities have initiated only to cancel them when he or other farmers showed up.
Spokesmen for the Israeli occupation authorities questioned about the Arabs' charges Thursday morning, had not replied or commented as of early today.
Indicative of the mood among the farmers was the refusal of any Palestinians interviewed here -- with the exception of Masri -- to be quoted by name.
On Thursday, Masri said, he drove 50 miles from his home in Nablus to keep an appointment in Jericho with the military governor, Lt. Col. Moshe Dana.
When he arrived, he was told by an assistant that the governor had been called away on "urgent business."
"I was very upset," Masri said, "but I will not give up. Why did the governor not tell us he could not meet us rather than making us come here all the way for nothing?"
Such incidents have bred a climate of suspicion that the recent Israeli "get tough" policy in the occupied territories has done little to allay.
Like many other West Bank residents, the farmers here are convinced that the radical Jewish settlers enjoy greater influence with the occupation authorities since the May 25 resignation of then-defense minister Ezer Weizman. The Defense Ministry is in charge of the occupied territories.
"We hear that the settlers nearby were frightened about staying" after the May 2 attack on the settlement in Hebron in which six Jewish students were killed, Masri said. "Maybe the settlers brought the Army in to move the lodgings without consulting headquarters."
Even without their fears of the Gush Emunim extremist settlers, the farmers feel they have ample reasons to be suspicious of Israeli motives.
Three Arab villages in the Fara Valley -- Ajajereh, Saterieh and Makhrouk -- were razed in the summer of 1967 by the Israelis, displacing 40,000 Palestinians. The Israelis set up their own agriculture settlements and a large Army camp nearby.
Last fall, occupation officials invoked "security reasons" -- a catchall explanation Palestinians say the Israelis often cite to justify their actions -- to force all tenant farmers to remove makeshift lodgings from west of the Jordan Valley's main north-south road running from Bet Shean to Jericho.
Then, at the end of May, and without any warning, according to Masri, occupation authorities arrived in trucks, damaged or destroyed about 50 lodgings and ordered others removed further west to an area between the north-south road and another road leading northwest to Nablus.
At stake are 4,250 acres of some of the most fertile land in the Middle East, capable of producing two crops of vegetables and a third of alfalfa or corn, Masri said.
The Israelis already have taken over 50 percent of all Jordan Valley farm land or 70 percent if the land around Jericho is excluded, according to farm specialists.
"It's a natural hothouse and the spring water feeding the land is without a trace of salinity," Masri said. He estimated that the net return for both landowners and tenant farmers amounted to $17,000 for the average 12.5 acre plot. "Every Israeli who comes here sayd the land is golden," he added.
Unlike farm land taken over by the Israelis since 1967 in the occupied territories, the Fara Valley land is held by its Arab owners in clear title deeds. As a result, they fear the Israelis are trying other schemes to get them to leave the land.
The farmers say their fears were reinforced last year when the occupation authorities turned down an American-backed study for modernizing the irrigation pipe system. The $3 million project, backed by the American Near East Refugee Agency, would have added 2,000 acres of irrigated land and provided work for 3,000 Palestinians.
"Drip irrigation requires tremendous investment," Masri said, "but we will invest more money in the land."
A tenant farmer who declined to give his name wiped the sweat from his brow, adjusted his headdress and said:
"If the Israelis take the land away, I will put my whole family on the paved road and let the Israelis run us over."
Grabbing his six-year-old son by the hair to underline his determination, the 55-year-old farmer recounted how the Israelis had kicked him out of his native village near Hebron in 1948 and then razed the nearby village of Ajajereh in 1967. But he had remained when others had fled.
"If they take the land," he said, "there's no longer any reason to go on living."