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Sunday, 26 September 2010

Israeli Settlement Freeze Ends; Peace Hopes in Doubt

AOL News Sunday September 26th, 2010

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

KIRYAT NETAFIM, West Bank (Sept. 26) -- A pregnant Israeli woman gave birth Sunday night soon after she was wounded in a gun attack on two Israeli cars driving through the West Bank. The shooting incident underscored the knife-edge atmosphere as Israel marked the end of a 10-month moratorium on West Bank settlement construction that the Palestinians say must continue if peace talks are to make any progress.

Four Israelis were gunned down in the same area of the southern West Bank on Aug. 31, and there have been several days of rioting in Jerusalem after an Israeli security guard shot dead a Palestinian on Sept. 24.

In settlements across the West Bank and Likud Party gatherings elsewhere, opponents of the freeze gathered to declare a renewal of construction while Israeli, Palestinian and American officials scrambled to piece together a formula that would allow the two-week-old peace talks to go forward.

Palestinian labourers work at the construction site of new houses in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel, which was established in 1978 and houses some 16,716 people, on September 26, 2010, hours before the end of a freeze on settlement construction.

Jack Guez, AFP/Getty Images
Men work at a construction site in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel on Sunday, hours before the end of a freeze on settlement construction.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged settler leaders and right-wingers in his own Likud Party to tamp down their pronouncements on Sunday, but he was largely ignored.

The outspoken statements of hardliners from within his own political movement suggested that he must either abandon peace talks or follow the previous Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and create a new political alignment in Israel if he wants to continue negotiations and enjoy a parliamentary majority.

More than 300,000 Israelis live in West Bank settlements, and another 100,000-plus live in new neighborhoods built in East Jerusalem, both occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six Day War. Palestinians say that both areas are within the territory of their future state and have demanded an end to all Israeli construction while peace talks continue.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told Jewish intellectuals in Paris on Sunday that continuing peace talks without a settlement freeze was "a waste of time." Last week he told the United Nations that "Israel must choose between peace and the continuation of settlements."

But settler leaders said they would not agree to a further moratorium in order to placate Palestinian and American demands.

"For 10 months we've been frozen. The government has restricted the building for Jewish people throughout Judea and Samaria," said Samaria Liason Office director David Ha'Ivri, using the biblical description of the West Bank. "Today the building freeze has come to an end."

"Our building in Judea and Samaria has nothing to do with the peace process. Our building has to do with Zionism, it has to do with the return of the Jewish people to our homeland," Ha'Ivri told AOL News. "This area, Judea and Samaria, is the core, the heartland of the Jewish national homeland. Through great miracles of God's hand we have returned to our homeland and we are building here. We will continue to build here regardless of our aspirations to peace with our neighbors and we call on our neighbors to live with us in peace."

In the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Netafim near Nablus, right-wing leaders gathered to pour the first cement for the cornerstone of a new daycare center they said had been blocked by the freeze. Gershon Mesika, head of the Samaria Regional Council, said 35 babies had been born in the settlement during the past year and would soon be using the new facility. He said the freeze had been "born in sin."

The ceremony was attended by Danny Danon, deputy speaker of the Knesset and chairman of World Likud, the international wing of Netanyahu's own party.

Settler leaders chose Kiryat Netafim for the symbolic restart of construction because it represented the national consensus on settlements that has guided Israeli policy for the past generation. The community, now numbering 620 people, was founded 30 years ago and has grown under governments led by all of Israel's major parties, from right to left.

Zeev Elkin, Likud Party chief whip, issued a veiled warning to Netanyahu as he hosted a political gathering at his home in the settlement of Kfar Eldad.

"This is a symbolic gathering place, in one of the frozen communities. Kfar Eldad has people who have been living in caravans for 20 years and have not been able to build their homes. This reality is about to end tonight, and life in Judea and Samaria will return to normal," Eldad declared.

Thousands more Likud activists attended a gathering at the home of Likud minister Yisrael Katz to listen to their host declare that "Hebron, Shiloh and Beit El" – three settlements that are almost certain to be handed over to the Palestinians in any peace deal -- were "part of this historic homeland that belongs to the Jewish people."

"In every future arrangement, we must preserve the Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria and the residents that live there," said Katz.

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