Serenity prevails along west bank of 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.

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.

Prof. Ra Anan Weitz, head of the settlement department, has proposed rapid development of the Zor to provide land for 10 new settlements in the valley and to expand the land available to existing settlements. His political objective in urging a strong settlement belt in the lower Jordan Valley is precisely opposite to that of the Likud Party government that must endorse it.

''My thinking is based on the assumption that Israel in the long run won't be able to evade the basic issue of self-determination for the Palestinians.'' The only way this can be faced without endangering Israel's basic security needs, he says, is to develop a security belt of settlements. These are not intended as a military defense line, Weitz says, but as a physical sieve that would ensure that the West Bank remains demilitarized.

The Likud Party has no objections to development of the valley, but its top priority is settlement of the West Bank highlands that dominate the Israeli coastal strip. That is also where the bulk of the Arab population is concentrated.

''The Likud wants to settle Jews in Arab-populated areas,'' says Weitz. ''That's precisely what I'm trying to avoid.'' Although the government has bypassed the highly respected Weitz in its settlement of the West Bank highlands , he remains a key figure in rural-settlement policy.

The land along the river bank is the most fertile in the valley. In addition to wheat, the settlement authorities are planning date-tree plantations and cotton, alfalfa, and corn crops. The river defenses are not being abandoned. But they are being adjusted to meet the new situation.

A military escort is required to enter the Zor, but once there, a visitor finds an atmosphere along the Jordan as pastoral as any Sunday school vision of Bible land. Ecologists have solemnly announced on numerous occasions that the Jordan River is little more than an open sewer trench between Lake Kinneret and the Dead Sea, but the redheaded reservist with the bamboo pole had not heard them. ''Plenty of fish,'' he said. ''Up to half a kilo.''

The river is about 20 yards wide at this point and two to three yards deep. An old pump on the Israeli bank has just been replaced by a sturdy new one to draw river water for irrigation. ''In winter, the water is of good quality,'' said an Israeli farmer. ''In summer there's less of it, and it has a high saline content, so we mix it with water from wells.''

The men and women in the fields on the Jordanian side hardly look up as Israeli Army vehicles drive along a track between the river and the fields about 100 meters from where they are working. Behind them is a covered shed where they can take shelter from the sun.

''We talk to them from time to time,'' said the Israeli farmer, ''about crops and weather. I asked them about growing vegetables here, and they said it's no good because there's frost at night in the lowland.''

The river meanders wildly at points, and because of its narrow width and the tall cane along its banks, it is sometimes difficult for someone near the river bank to know whether someone upstream or downstream is on the Israeli side or the Jordanian.

The foreman of the crew preparing the site for the new Israeli river pump was waiting impatiently for his promised tractor to arrive a few weeks ago when he spotted a tractor moving uncertainly nearby.

Thinking the driver might be lost, the foreman ran toward it and shouted. The driver halted and looked at him with a puzzled expression. Drawing close, the foreman saw that the tractor was on the other side of the river.

A suggestion was made in Israel several years ago to seed the river bank with alligators as a way of discouraging infiltrators from crossing the Jordan. The authorities have chosen to seed with wheat and corn instead, to keep their powder dry, and to trust in King Hussein's shared interest in seeing that the Jordan keeps rolling peacefully.

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