December 6, 2009 / 3:02 PM / 10 years ago

Israeli settlers step up protest against freeze

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Jewish settlers widened their protests on Sunday against a construction freeze in scattered violence across the West Bank but there was little sign the protests were influencing the Israeli government.

Israeli police arrested at least two settlers accused of trying to block security officers from enforcing the limited 10-month building ban Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pitched as an attempt to resume U.S.-sponsored peace talks.

Despite the protests, including within Netanyahu’s own Likud party and its right-wing coalition partners, few officials or analysts see Netanyahu abandoning the “freeze” policy, which has already been rejected by Palestinian leaders as inadequate to persuade them to end a year-old suspension of negotiations.

Netanyahu sought to reassure settlers that the building halt would have only a limited effect. Ministers have made clear that the measure announced last month was aimed at Israel’s ally the United States, which had been pressing Israel to make the concession, rather than in expectation of pleasing Palestinians.

For some skeptics, the virulence of the settlers’ response may only bolster Netanyahu’s argument to U.S. President Barack Obama that he is taking domestic political risks for the sake of making peace — and that he dare not make greater concessions.

The prime minister appealed to settlers on Sunday to abide by his decision and he reiterated a pledge to promptly resume construction in the enclaves once the suspension was over. Some building is in any case allowed to continue, officials say.

“This is a one time decision and it is temporary,” Netanyahu told a weekly meeting of government ministers.

Netanyahu told his cabinet the freeze move showed he and not Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sought peace: “It made it clear to anyone to whom it wasn’t clear before, who is the one who wants peace and who is now acting as a refuser of peace.”

One vocal critic on the left, Haaretz newspaper commentator Gideon Levy, dismissed the freeze as a “masquerade” in which government and settlers were playing their allotted parts in a “swindle ... designed to appease U.S. President Barack Obama.”

EU MEETING

The government is also concerned to address criticism from Europe over its policy toward the Palestinians. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon denounced as “dangerous” a mooted move by EU foreign ministers to endorse a statement on Monday restating support for a Palestinian state on land Israel captured in 1967.

In the West Bank, settlers torched two tractors, two cars, and damaged a Palestinian home in the village of Ein Aboun near Nablus before dawn, a Palestinian man, Abdallah A’llan, said.

He said a settler opened fire when he went to a window to see what was going on, but caused no injury.

Several dozen settlers tried to block Israeli military officers from entering the Kedumim enclave near Nablus to issue stop-work orders on construction and two settlers were arrested after a scuffle, a police spokesman said.

Some protesters threw stones at Palestinian vehicles and blocked a highway after that incident, witnesses said.

Despite settler protests, some analysts thought the freeze would have a minimal political impact on Netanyahu’s government, citing its limited scope, and a permit for some 3,000 settler homes already under construction to continue being built.

“They aren’t really freezing all construction, it’s a strange kind of freeze,” Haim Ramon, a former cabinet minister from the opposition Kadima party told Army Radio, adding Israel must impose a permanent freeze for peace talks to resume.

Additional reporting by Atef Sa'ad in Nablus, Mustafa Abu Ganiyeh in Jerusalem; editing by Alastair Macdonald

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