Israelis drawn by beauty flee Jordan valley violence

Palestinian shootings, security fears driving Jewish settlers away

October 17, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

YAFIT, West Bank - This is a small Jewish settlement built on a barren plot of rocky land in the Jordan valley, where hot wind swirls fine dust into the air while the sun bakes everything in sight. Israelis settled here in the 1980s, they say, because they fell in love with the unforgiving desert.

"It's like God painted it and left it the way it was," said Effie Crassac, 26, who has lived here for six years.

It is beauty that drew them here but gunfire that is driving them away. A steady stream of families is fleeing Yafit and other settlements in the valley, driven away by Palestinian shootings and a tumbling economy that has made jobs scarce and living tough.

Their complaints in some ways mirror those of settlers in other parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip - that violence from the Palestinian uprising has become unbearable and that the Israeli government seems powerless to prevent it. But the exodus is quick and dramatic from the Jordan River valley, the deep fold in the Earth that links the Dead Sea to the fertile northern plains.

Six months ago, all 32 of Yafit's single-story homes were filled with families, making this community one of the largest in the valley and a center for culture and schools. Now, 12 homes are vacant.

"When you stand outside on the street at 6 in the evening, you see how empty it is," said Crassac, an out-of-work tour guide and mother of a 2-month-old girl. "It's like a deadly silence is in the air. It's sad, but I can't blame them."

In the nearby settlement of Gilgal, six of 36 families have moved away. In Masua, five of 35 are gone. Eight of 22 left from Gitit. And in Naaran, only six of 20 families remain. The exodus is too recent to be reflected in government statistics released in June, which showed a slight population growth: 3,401 Jewish residents in June, up from 3,355 in December.

The main cause of concern here is Route 90, the Jordan Valley Highway. The two-lane road traverses desert and, in the north, winds around the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Route 90 used to be Israelis' scenic shortcut to the north, a road that hugs the Jordanian border and was devoid of traffic jams. It skirts the mountain where the New Testament says Jesus was tempted by the devil, and now passes farms, mini-forests of towering date trees and a crocodile farm.

But now, few Israelis dare drive Route 90. On the southern end, the road swings by the Palestinian city of Jericho, where gunmen hide in thickets and shoot at passing Israeli cars. Even stretches farther north, where Israel has full control, are not immune from attacks.

Six Israelis have been killed on the highway in the past year, including three last month. Among them were Yaacov Hatsav, 41, a friend of Crassac's and fellow tour guide, and Sima Franco, 24, a kindergarten teacher. They were driving teachers to school when their van became the target of gunmen in a passing car near Yafit.

Six families moved away within weeks.

"Terror makes you feel so helpless," Crassac said. "It's hard to lose someone you know, a neighbor. I saw Yaacov that morning, and that evening he never came back."

The regional settler's council has complained about the violence and pleaded for more soldiers, more checkpoints and more guarantees of safety. Residents believe they are victims of policies that began under former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who briefly put the Jordan valley settlements on the negotiating table. In mid-2000, Barak said he might be willing to return the territory to the Palestinians.

The peace negotiations fizzled, but Jordan valley settlers say the stigma has remained. They say that makes the Palestinians believe they can drive out Jewish homeowners.

Israeli government spokesman Avi Pazner called those concerns baseless.

"Even Barak reversed himself on the Jordan valley," Pazner said. "And, certainly, this government has no plans to give up the Jordan valley, which it views as a strategic border stronghold."

Pazner said security officials are doing everything they can to protect all of Israel's 208,000 citizens living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but he pointed out that "in no area can we provide 100 percent protection, not even in Tel Aviv, and certainly not in the Jordan valley."

But settlers want assurances. On Monday, the Yesha Council, which oversees all settlements, met with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in what was described as an unproductive meeting.

"We did not hear meaningful answers to the security problem," said the group's spokesman, Yehoshua Mor Yoseph.

The problems in the Jordan valley may now be a permanent part of the settlers' lives.

Crassac was born near Jerusalem but fell in love with the desert when she served in the Israeli army in the Negev. She often visited her brother, who lived in a kibbutz near Jericho, and decided to move to the Jordan valley. She met her husband, Gil, 33, a second-generation valley resident when he was in his early teens. His parents were among Yafit's founders.

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