JERUSALEM (AP) – Jewish settlers pressed on Thursday with their refusal to abide by a government-ordered freeze on building in West Bank settlements, and blocked inspectors from entering one such community to enforce the edict.
Leaders of the settlers met with Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu, who was expected to try to placate them with tax breaks and promises to mitigate the freeze.
The meeting comes a day after Israeli police arrested the mayor of a West Bank settlement and three other activists for defying the 10-month building freeze Netanyahu announced a week ago.
Netanyahu said the order is meant as a confidence-building gesture to get peace efforts with the Palestinians back on track. The decision has drawn fire from the right-flank of Netanyahu’s coalition and put him at odds with some key supporters of his political base.
Palestinians have said the move is insufficient because it does not include east Jerusalem or 3,000 homes that were already under construction when the order was approved. The Palestinians have refused to start peace talks with Netanyahu unless he freezes all settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, captured areas they claim as parts of a future independent state. Some 300,000 settlers live in the West Bank, in addition to 180,000 Jewish Israelis living in east Jerusalem.
One of the settlers’ top leaders, Pinhas Wallerstein, said they have no intention of complying with the freeze order.
“The freeze is total and complete,” he told Israel’s Army Radio. “Whoever thinks we will allow for this to continue is mistaken.” Wednesday saw unrest in a number of West Bank flashpoints, when settlers tried to block troops and inspection teams from entering their settlements and enforcing the freeze.
In the most serious incident, police arrested the mayor of the Beit Arieh settlement in the central West Bank for allegedly disrupting a police officer in the line of duty. The settlers have been struggling to regain their strength since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, uprooting all 8,000 settlers who were living there. The settlers perceive the construction freeze as a betrayal by Netanyahu, a former key ally. At the same time, they are wary of being portrayed as violent extremists. Settlers say they blocked inspectors from entering the settlement of Kedumim on Thursday, and prevented them from enforcing the freeze.
A major settler rally is planned for next week in Jerusalem.
“We have unfortunately lost faith in the words of the prime minister,” said Dani Dayan, leader of the West Bank settlers’ council. All but two settler representatives boycotted a meeting late Wednesday with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who tried to assuage them by declaring that settlements near the Israel-West Bank boundary are “an integral part of Israel as regards any negotiations with the Palestinians.”