Valley takes center stage in struggle

They live just a few miles from each other along a country road , 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 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 that 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.

The valley has a distinctly Israeli feel, with Jewish settlements, Hebrew billboards, war memorials and a Jewish seminary lining a 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. 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.

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.