As Jordan and Israel Begin Talks, Kibbutzim Hang in the Balance

Farmers supportive of peace find it ironic their fields could be an obstacle to an accord

AS borders between two warring countries go, it is not very impressive.

Two simple barbed-wire fences, unguarded save the occasional patrol, are all that separate Israel and Jordan in this sunbaked stretch of the Arava Desert, with 75 yards of no man's land between them.

And it may not be the border at all. Israel and Jordanian diplomats sat down yesterday in Ain Avrona, a few miles south of here, to begin negotiations on Jordan's claim that Israel has usurped a 116 square-mile strip of its land along the border and the water beneath it. That claim is the key issue lying in the way of a peace treaty between the two neighbors.

Moving the fence a few hundred yards one way or the other would not be a problem in this gravel-floored valley, where summer temperatures average 113 degrees, except for five Israeli kibbutzim that have made their bits of the desert bloom.

Drawing brackish water from local wells and pioneering desert agricultural techniques, the kibbutzniks have planted melons, citrus trees, onions, and date palms right up to the border. If the fence were moved just 900 yards to the west, Kibbutz Yahel would lose all its fields - and most of its livelihood.

``It's our land,'' says the kibbutz's economic manager Yonatan Cohen. ``It was appropriated to the kibbutz when we were founded, we have a contract on it, and we have lived off it for 17 years. Only a year ago did we begin to read in the papers that we may be an issue'' in Israeli-Jordanian negotiations.

Residents of Yahel and neighboring Lotan, small patches of green in the expanse of desert that stretches to the horizon, find it bitterly ironic that the fields they have cultivated might be an obstacle to peace with Jordan.

Both kibbutzim were founded by the Reform Movement of Judaism, whose members here are politically almost uniformly liberal and in favor of the Israeli government's peace initiatives. Their prime criterion in choosing the land they settled was that it should not be in the occupied West Bank or Golan Heights.

And now they find that their fields may be in Jordan, a problem they say nobody warned them about when they selected their barren sites 20 years ago.

Whether they are on Jordanian land is a surprisingly difficult question to resolve. The border was last drawn by British mandate authorities in 1947. It was marked on the map by cartographers in Jerusalem and never staked out by surveyors in the Arava Desert.

The 1947 border is the one the Jordanians want to make official, but exactly where it runs is not always clear: The line on the map is a thick one, and while the cartographers apparently intended to trace the lowest point in the valley, the lowest point has moved over the years as flash floods and sandstorms have re-sculpted the topography.

While the Jordanians claim that the Arava River marks the border at Yahel, some Israeli geographers say that they are not certain the boulder-strewn depression here behind the date palms - which runs with water only for a few weeks every other year - is in fact the Arava River or only a tributary.

Adding to the confusion is the Jordanian claim that over the years the Israeli farmers have nudged some stretches of the border eastward, into empty Jordanian territory, to make more room for new fields.

For the 2,500 Israelis who live in the Arava Desert, their uncertainty about what exactly Jordan is claiming, and their ignorance of the Israeli government stance, is unsettling. ``What makes us most anxious is the big fog surrounding what really is, and what will happen,'' says Ido Zevulun, treasurer of Kibbutz Lotan.

``I am highly unimpressed with the level of communication we have with the government,'' Mr. Cohen says. ``I very much hope that in the days to come we will get a clearer picture of what is being discussed ... because the hardest thing to live with is the uncertainty.''

But unlike settlers in the West Bank or Golan Heights, the Arava kibbutzniks are reluctant to publicize their plight. For a start, as Shlomo Tushinsky, the head of the regional council, puts it, ``our first priority is peace ... we don't want to make a campaign against the peace agreement.

``Our position is clear,'' he says, ``It is impossible to make peace only with words - for peace you have to give something up.''

But as Mr. Zevulun, at Lotan, puts it, ``We wear two hats; as ordinary citizens we hope for peace, but as people who live here, we hope the Jordanians don't get all they want.''

One solution, he suggests, and perhaps the best the Israeli farmers can hope for, is that the kibbutzniks be allowed to lease their fields from Jordan if they come under Jordanian rule. ``No one here has a problem growing on Jordanian-owned land.''

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