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Serenity prevails along west bank of Jordan River

By Abraham RabinovichSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 18, 1982

Along the Jordan River

While the news media has pictured the Israeli-occupied West Bank as smoking and shuddering under violence and gunfire recently, the actual banks of the Jordan River have been an idyllic picture of end-of-days bliss.

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A redheaded Israeli soldier sat on the West Bank of the river recently within sight of a hilltop Jordanian Army observation post, fixing a piece of Army-issue meat loaf to a fishing line attached to a bamboo pole.

Just opposite him, beyond the canebrakes on the east bank of the river, Jordanian farmers were working in a field. Just behind the redhead, an Israeli farmer in blue work clothes was plucking a still-green ear of wheat from the edge of a 500-acre field. Last year, the wheat field had been a mine field.

''We've been watching the Jordanians come closer and closer to the river on their side the past few years,'' said an Israeli settlement official. ''For us it was a signal that they wanted to coexist here. We decided we'll go down to the river, too.''

The signal was clearly visible during a recent visit to the river bank in the lower Jordan Valley -- the sun glinting on new Jordanian greenhouses on the opposite side like a message in Morse code.

This was the Israeli east front in the post-six-day-war years. Armed Palestinian bands, crossing from the cover of the canebrakes at night, would attempt to pierce the Israeli defenses -- mine fields, electronic fences, and bunkers. Some got through and would be pursued at dawn up into the foothills of the West Bank. Most died near the river bank.

Following Black September in 1970, when King Hussein threw his Army against the Palestinians challenging him for control of the country, peace descended on the Jordan Vally. Jordanian farmers began slowly to return to fields abandoned under fire in 1967.

''We've been seeing them expanding in the last seven, eight years,'' says Yehuda, an Orthodox Jewish farmer from one of the farming settlements in the valley. ''But in the last three years, the pace has picked up considerably, particularly their use of hothouses.''

The modern agricultural technologies being used by the Jordanian farmers in the valley have been taken across the Jordan bridges from Israel by West Bank Arabs who learned them from Israeli instructors. The equipment is imported from Israel, too, including the drip irrigation piping carried across by West Bank middlemen. The piping feeds water and fertilizer directly to the roots of the plants, increasing yields and saving scarce water. Much of the crops grown with this Israeli know-how is shipped to Arab Gulf states.

On the Israeli side, however, the land along the river had lain sterile all these years, sown with mines and lying under the guns of the fortress-bunkers on the high ground to the west. A survey carried out by the settlement department of the World Zionist Organization determined that there were at least 8,000 acres of good farm land lying unused along the river bank. The department is the prime technical vehicle for Israeli settlement.

Known as the Zor, this arable lowland between the river and the first foothills ranged from a width of only some 20 yards to more than a mile. The arable land here was more than is at present available to the 19 settlements that have been set up since 1967 in the lower Jordan Valley part of the river separating the occupied West Bank from Jordan.

Last year, clearing work began on an experimental basis on a 500-acre tract midway up to Zor.

First, the mines were removed by Army engineers. Then farm machinery was sent in to clear the land of roots and prepare it for farming. In January a sturdy strain of wheat was sown. The wheat is already more than waist high.