The tiny settlement of Maskiyot, with just eight families, lies on a gentle rise overlooking the Jordan Valley. Since the Israeli government announced plans to expand the settlement in late July, this settler outpost and one-time army training facility, established in 1982, has emerged as a central symbol for the intractable road to peace between Palestinian and Israeli.
Maskiyot is one of more than 20 settlements in the 75-mile-long Jordan Valley. Date farms, Bedouin shacks and small hamlets break up the brown-and-gold landscape of craggy hills and dry plains. The valley accounts for 28.5 percent of the West Bank land mass controlled by Israel after the Six-Day War. It is sparsely populated, with no more than 6,000 Israeli settlers and 47,000 Palestinians, most of whom live in the ancient city of Jericho.
It is a land where Bedouins shepherd their goats and Palestinian farmers cultivate olives and raise chickens. It is also a place where Israel Defense Forces soldiers guard Israeli settlements surrounded by electric fences, razor wire and lights that face outward.
But more than the physical barriers that separate them, the residents of this valley stand on either side of an unbridgeable ideological chasm. The Palestinians bent on seeing the Israelis go, and the Israelis unwilling to.
Fathy Khdirat is the head of Jordan Valley Solidarity, a Palestinian grass-roots organization that works to publicize the progress of the Israeli presence in the valley. Khdirat sits in a car traveling to a friend's farm in Al Farsiya, a small community sandwiched between Israeli settlements and military land.
"It is like a needle in your body," he says, while passing the sign for Maskiyot. "You have to get rid of it as soon as possible."
However, if Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak signs off on a plan to build 20 more homes just outside the current perimeter fence -- and he has not yet said whether he will -- Maskiyot could become a northern Jordan Valley fixture for years to come.
The announcement of the expansion elicited condemnation from the United Nations and many in the international community. Maskiyot would be the first new settlement built by the Israeli government since 1999, in contradiction to the guidelines of the all-but-dead "road map" for peace. Plans to expand the settlement in 2006 were frozen after similar criticism.
Yosi Chazut, Maskiyot's manager, sits at a picnic table at the edge of the six small, pre-fabricated homes that form the nucleus of the tiny settlement. His family, like six of the eight other families living in Maskiyot, was forced from Gaza during the Israeli pullout in the summer of 2005. And although the 29-year-old says he wants peace, his confidence in his Palestinian neighbors was shaken by their actions after the Israeli government took the significant step of moving 8,500 Jewish families from Gaza.
"I gave up my home there, and what did we get in return?" he says. "We got Qassam attacks on Sderot. This [the Palestinians] is not a people that want peace. The purpose is to kick us out of this land and send us somewhere else."
But Chazut's future plans lie firmly in Maskiyot. He sees the tiny outpost growing into a 500-family hub of Jewish life in the northern Jordan Valley within 10 years.
He looks out over the bowl of land that sits below the settlement, where settlers have already planted palm and olive trees. The afternoon winds have picked up, whistling through the homes and barracks, alleviating the intense heat that pounds the valley throughout the day. Because of the harsh conditions, settlement in the Jordan Valley has been slower than in the heavily settled areas in the center of Israel, primarily around Jerusalem.
"I didn't come to live here to stop the future peace plans," he says. "But if the Arabs don't want to live with me in peace, it is their problem, not mine. I am the strong one here."
The argument over the Maskiyot and the Jordan Valley is one at the core of the existence of both Israel and a future Palestinian state.
For the many Israelis, the victory in 1967 and the expansion into the ancient lands of Judea and Samaria were the realization of the full Jewish state as described in the Bible: the Israel that the architects of Zionism had always dreamed of -- one which extended from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River.
But with a larger Israel came a price, most notably the demographic question of the Palestinians -- 2.35 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. If Israel were to annex the land, the Jewish majority would be lost to the new Israeli citizens: Palestinians who have a much higher birthrate than Jewish Israelis.
Despite the "demographic time bomb," settlers like Ephraim Bluth, who lives in a large settlement near Ramallah, don't see divestment from the West Bank and the Jordan Valley as an option. A native New Yorker, Bluth, moved to Israel 37 years ago. He has eight children, all of whom served in the Israeli army, a fact he alludes to with pride.
There are three different camps of opinion over the question of the land gained in 1967, particularly the West Bank, according to Bluth. One group sees the territories as a strategic asset to be traded for peace, another sees them as a strategic liability, which must be given up, and then there is his constituency.
"I am from the camp that says the land of Israel, including those territories captured in 1967, are in fact a gift from God ... this is ours, has been ours and with God's help, always will be," Bluth said.
But just as Bluth is confident of Israel's continued presence in the West Bank, Khdirat is sure of its end.
"When the Israeli military jeeps leave, he [Chazut and all the settlers] will leave before them," Khdirat says with a chuckle. "He have experience leaving from many place to the other. He left his homeland in Morocco maybe, or maybe Europe, and he left Sina [the Sinai Peninsula], and he left Gaza, and he will leave the Jordan Valley."
But until the settlers leave, he sees them as a constant threat. Khdirat visits the farm of Jasser Daraghmeh, who says that the Israeli government has ordered the demolition of his home because it does not comply with Israeli building code.
"Even if they destroy our home, we will build a new one," Daraghmeh says. "We will never leave."
Daraghmeh's farm is at the bottom of a valley hemmed in by land reserved for the Israeli military to the west and a string of settlements along the ridge to the east, including Maskiyot.
As dusk gives way to the deep blue of coming night, Daraghmeh invites Khdirat to sit with his father and a neighbor for tea. They recline around a small table in plastic chairs set on a dusty patch of ground. The lights of the settlements on the hills above flicker on, as bats flit in and out of the growing darkness on the valley floor. The afternoon winds that come up the valley and over the hills have died down completely.
The men tell stories of their sheep being shot from helicopters and of a brother being killed by a mortar shell. They talk of kin being pushed off the land, of the ever growing radius of the settlers' fences. Whether some of the stories are exaggerated or entirely fabricated, the truth of their pain is clear. This is the tragedy of the place.
"We have been patient, but I don't know what my children will do," says Daraghmeh's neighbor, Faiq Spah. His allusion is to a future of violence. For these men, like those living in the settlements, true co-existence seems impossible -- the threshold for peace long passed, despite leaders on either side who say they are working toward it.
In complete blackness, their stories come to an end. The lights of the settlements gleam on the hills, and the farmers on the valley floor retire to their homes, black without electricity.