REVAVA, West Bank (Reuters) - With a tooting of horns and pouring of cement, several thousand Jewish settlers and supporters declared a symbolic end Sunday to a 10-month moratorium on construction starts in their enclaves.
“The building freeze is over,” Danny Danon, a right-wing lawmaker from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, declared as balloons were released into the air at sundown in the red-roofed West Bank settlement of Revava.
“Today we mark the resumption of building in Judea and Samaria,” he bellowed, using biblical names for the West Bank, captured by Israel in a 1967 war.
Netanyahu had urged Israeli settlers to show restraint after a limited building freeze expires at midnight (2200 GMT) on Sunday, a plea that appeared aimed at persuading Palestinians not to quit peace talks.
But at Revava, near the West Bank city of Nablus, residents expressed their defiance at a groundbreaking ceremony where a mixer poured cement into a hole in the ground to launch construction of a creche.
While the act was symbolic, settlers said they would soon begin building some 2,000 homes across the West Bank for which permits were issued before Netanyahu, under U.S. pressure, called a partial building freeze last year.
The festivities were attended by thousands bused in for the occasion. They coincided with U.S. efforts, still afoot, to prolong the construction hiatus in order to avert a Palestinian walkout from the peace talks.
In a plot apparently intended for construction in Revava, where signs advertise plans to put up more than two dozen homes, settlers blared shofars, a religious instrument made of a ram’s horn, as their leaders proclaimed the building freeze had ended.
The freeze was declared over exactly at sunset, which according to Jewish law is the start of the following day.
Spokesmen for the 300,000 settlers living in the West Bank renewed their calls on Netanyahu to resist further pressure to delay construction in enclaves they say Israel must keep as a strategic asset, and as its biblical birthright.
Underscoring the pressure Netanyahu faces from political allies as well as the settlers, some right-wing leaders demanded Israel annex all its settlements rather than negotiate with Palestinians on their future.
Tsipi Hotovely, a Likud lawmaker, said Israel should annex all the settlements to prevent their removal under a peace deal, and pledged to introduce a bill to that effect in parliament.
“Israeli sovereignty must be applied to the areas were settlements have been built,” she said.
Benny Katsover, a veteran settlements leader, exhorted supporters to “prepare for a struggle,” denouncing peace talks as “nothing but a false Messiah.”
Editing by Mark Trevelyan