TUCKED into a hillside with a spectacular view over the fertile Jordan Valley, this small Jewish settlement has always offered its residents a quiet, comfortable, easygoing lifestyle.
But as Palestinians in the West Bank town of Jericho, 15 miles to the south, prepare for autonomy perhaps as soon as next week, fear and uncertainty about the future are gnawing at the settler community, setting neighbor against neighbor as the tension takes its toll.
In the grocery store, arguments break out among shoppers waiting in the checkout line. Meetings called to discuss the future degenerate into shouting matches. Activists touting petitions and counter-petitions compete for their fellow settlers' signatures.
``People are stressed, their sensitivities are up, and anything sets them off,'' says Naftali Tapeiro, a factory foreman. ``When people are uncertain, anything can ignite them.''
The trouble started last week, when Gabi Harel, a Maale Efrayim settler, began circulating a petition to the Knesset (parliament), asking for ``dignified evacuation'' from the settlement ``so that we will not be a weight around the government's neck on its path to peace.''
``Dignified evacuation,'' Mr. Harel explains, means a new home in Israel proper and adequate financial compensation - the exact amount of which remains open to negotiation. He says he signed up 80 of Maale Efrayim's 330 families.
That prompted Mr. Tapeiro, one of the settlement's founders, to launch a rival petition. ``We should use our strength to demand that the government offer us real security,'' he argues. ``And if the government wants us to stay, it is going to have to give us what we need to do so.''
Maale Efrayim is not an ideological settlement, peopled by hard-line believers in the sanctity of the Land of Israel. Rather, says Rivka Mishtari, an official with the local council, ``we are moderate people who want to go with the government, not against it.''
The settlement was founded in 1978 as part of a drive launched by the Labor party to bolster what it called Israel's ``security border'' along the Jordan River. Like the Israeli pioneers in the Golan Heights in Syria, which was captured after the 1967 Six Day War, settlers in Maale Efrayim have enjoyed universal support for their role in Israel's defense.
But nerves are clearly frayed here now as Palestinians prepare to take over Jericho and the Gaza Strip, ushering in what is supposed to be an interim, five-year period of autonomy before a final settlement for the occupied territories is reached.
The Israeli government has promised the settlers that although it cannot guarantee their future under the final accord, they are safe for the next five years. Few residents of Maale Efrayim, even supporters of the Labor-led government, think that is true.
``The worst thing is the uncertainty,'' Ms. Mishtari says. ``The government just won't tell us what is going on, and people here don't want to wait another five years without knowing their future.''
``We have our lives here, our families, our livelihoods, and we don't know what to do with them because the government won't tell us,'' adds Todd Payer, an immigrant from Pennsylvania who has set up his glassware business in Maale Efrayim.
So far, the government has said nothing. The Housing Ministry has offered any settler family who wants to come back to Israel proper a small grant of $260 per month to help with rental costs, but that is it.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, positioning himself for future negotiations with the Palestinians, is obviously loath to show his hand to Palestinians by declaring in advance what his policy on settlements will be. For the time being, Mr. Rabin has said, he is not going to encourage settlers to leave by offering them compensation.
Some Maale Efrayim residents can live with that, just so long as they are kept in the picture. ``If I'm a trump card in the negotiations, that's OK,'' Tapeiro says. ``But first of all, tell me so.''
Others are not so happy. ``I am not willing to wait another five years,'' complains Adi Shuker, a substitute kindergarten teacher who signed the petition asking for help in getting out of Maale Efrayim. ``I'm getting older, and I want to do something with myself.''
Anxieties about leaving
Ms. Shuker's anxiety to leave infuriates Mishtari. ``If the government were to tell us that in return for true peace we were giving back the land, no one here would fight that,'' she says.
``But for me, the value of settling the land of Israel and the value of peace are equal,'' she adds. ``So long as nobody has told me that I have to give up one of them in exchange for the other, why should I smash one of my values?''
Labor Knesset member Yossi Katz, however, believes that with the autonomy regime imminent, the time has come to air the issue of settlement evacuation. Author of a draft bill offering settlers compensation, he says the government ``will have to tackle the challenge very soon, because there will be small settlements in Gaza'' whose residents will want to leave.
In Maale Efrayim, though, worries Tapeiro, premature talk of abandoning the settlement only weakens the community at a time when violence against settlers on the roads around Jericho has worsened considerably.
``My goal is to ensure that this settlement is as united as possible for whatever we decide we want,'' Tapeiro says.
Unity seems difficult to achieve, however, in the rush of events.
``Everything has burst out,'' Harel says, ``the settlers here are bursting, and I've just released some of the pressure. This whole thing is gaining momentum.''