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Page last updated at 08:07 GMT, Tuesday, 5 August 2008 09:07 UK

Land battle in the Jordan Valley

By Wyre Davies
BBC News, Maskiot

Meskiot entrance
Under terms of the Road Map, all settlement "activity" should be frozen

From Gaza to the Jordan Valley via Beersheva, K'Dumim, Alon Shvot, and Hamdot.

With a wry smile and a shrug of the shoulders Yossi Hazut describes how he has moved from place to place across Israel and the Palestinian Territories for the last three years.

Now, sat under the welcoming shade of a tree, Yossi tells me he has finally found somewhere he and his young family can call home.

Yossi and fellow settlers from Shirat Hayam were among the last to be forcibly removed from the Jewish settlements in Gaza in 2005 as part of the controversial "disengagement" process instigated by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Twenty of those families, who have remained committed to their Zionist ideals, are now preparing to build a new Jewish community - not on the sand dunes of Gaza, but in the equally hot but fertile landscape of the Jordan Valley.

Yossi Hazut
As a religious Jew I also have a duty to settle here. This land was promised to us by God
Yossi Hazut
Israeli settler

Like Gaza, this is recognised internationally as Palestinian land, something that Yossi challenges.

"As a law-abiding Israeli citizen, I accept my country's laws which allow me to build my home here," says Yossi.

He gestures towards a patch of land, now covered in wispy yellow grass, where they plan to build several new housing units.

"As a religious Jew I also have a duty to settle here," Yossi tells me. "This land was promised to us by God and that promise is now being fulfilled."

Hard to defend

If, as expected, it gets final Israeli government approval, this former military outpost known as Maskiot will be the first new, formal, Jewish settlement to be established in the Occupied West Bank for a decade.

Building work at the West Bank settlement of Modiin Illite
Building of new Jewish homes in the West Bank has increased this year

Under the current Road Map - the basis for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians - all settlement activity is meant to be frozen.

However, the approval or building of new Jewish homes in Arab East Jerusalem and in Occupied West Bank has actually increased this year.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he was "deeply concerned" over the new Maskiot plan, whereas the British government said it was "dismayed".

Even Israel's staunchest ally finds the policy hard to defend.

Settlement expansion was "not helpful" and was "inconsistent with Israel's commitment to the roadmap", said a spokesman for US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, referring to the international peace plan that is the basis for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Demolition order

It is not finer points of the roadmap that worries Jasser Dargma - a Palestinian farmer a couple of kilometres down the valley from Maskiot.

He is more concerned by a tatty, torn piece of paper given to him by the Israeli military authorities.

It is a demolition order for his house, in reality a small shack in which Jasser, his wife and six children live.

Court papers
A demolition order for Jasser's house says he has no permission to build

Although the document acknowledges that Jasser owns the land (it has been in his family for several generations), it says he has no permission for the "wooden building" - his house.

Jasser shrugs and tells me there is absolutely no point applying for permission to build as Palestinians are rarely, if ever, allowed to build in the Jordan Valley area.

So while Jewish settlers prepare to establish homes, offices and school buildings, Jasser may well see his very modest home knocked down by a bulldozer.

It is not just the buildings. Jasser says he has been physically prevented by the Israeli military authorities from using natural springs in the area for drinking water and to irrigate his crops.

He says the settlers, though, are given as much water as they want from a pipeline which crosses over his land, but which he is not allowed to use.

Jasser says it is a similar story with an electricity supply, which is carried by an overhead line that passes right over his shack. It brings light, power and convenience to the settlers, but Jasser says he has no access to the power supply.

Movement restricted

Fathy Khadarat is a local Palestinian co-ordinator who has documented the steady movement of Palestinian villagers away from the Valley.

Fathy Khadarat (L) and Jasser Dergma
Fathy Khadarat helps locals mount challenges against demolition orders

He also helps farmers like Jasser to mount legal challenges against demolition orders.

"I think the plan is to put pressure on him to leave this area", says Fathy. "If he can't build a simple house and is not allowed to use the water, he won't be able to grow crops and will have no income."

Despite many requests no-one from the Israeli authorities would be interviewed on the issue of the Maskiot settlement but, in a statement, the government said the settlement was Israeli land and that everyone in the area had the same legal rights and access to resources.

Israel says the Jordan Valley - the eastern flank of the occupied West Bank - is strategically important.

Not only does it form much of a long border with Jordan but Israel says many attacks by Palestinian militants have been launched from the area.

Neither man says he has any animosity towards the other, and both say they are prepared - in theory - to live side by side

So, movement for Palestinians is restricted with road-blocks and checkpoints.

Jasser says if the army demolishes his home, he will build a new one. He has no intention of leaving his land.

Yossi is equally adamant after being shunted around the region for the last three years.

Neither man says he has any animosity towards the other, and both say they are prepared - in theory - to live side by side.

The future of the Jordan Valley, its Jewish settlements and Palestinian villages, will be decided in a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal.

If and when that happens, might there be a way of accommodating both Jasser and Yossi in this stunningly beautiful but often hostile strip of land?



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