World News

Israel says enforcing West Bank settlement moratorium

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli inspectors armed with aerial maps and empowered to confiscate construction equipment have begun enforcing a limited government moratorium on new building in West Bank settlements, officials said on Monday.

The West Bank town of Bethlehem is seen in the background as labourers work on a construction site in Gilo, November 26, 2009. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

The 10-month freeze on new housing projects was announced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week, who pitched it as an attempt to persuade Palestinians to return to U.S.-sponsored peace talks suspended since December.

The temporary moratorium does not apply to areas in the West Bank that Israel annexed to its Jerusalem municipality after capturing the territory from Jordan in a 1967 war.

Palestinians, who seek to establish a state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, brushed off the Israeli step as insufficient and a ruse.

Netanyahu’s decision pits the government against settlers who claim a biblical birthright to the land and who, in many cases, have long expanded their enclaves without state approval.

“We are conducting operations throughout the West Bank. We have issued stop-work orders and begun confiscating equipment,” said Lee Hiromoto, spokesman for the division in Israel’s Defense Ministry which handles West Bank administration.

“We have a good number of enforcement agents in the field, accompanied by security forces,” he said.

Leaders of the some 300,000 Israelis living in the West Bank have accused Netanyahu -- whose coalition government includes pro-settler parties -- of capitulating to pressure from the Obama administration for a breakthrough with the Palestinians.

In Reuters TV footage that was aired in Israel on Sunday, Gershon Messika, head of the Samaria Regional Council in the northern West Bank, tore up a stop-work order delivered to him by an Israeli army major.

“This is an order to halt construction in the state of Israel. This is a racist, immoral and illegal decision which is therefore invalid,” Messika said.

Asked about the incident, Hiromoto said: “There was no violence.” He did not immediately offer details on where or why construction equipment had been confiscated.

Israel Radio said building inspectors had on Monday visited settlements in the Etzion and Binyamin blocs abutting Jerusalem.

The World Court has branded Israeli settlements illegal. The Palestinians, who number some 2.5 million in the West Bank, say the settlements could deny them a viable state.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Samia Nakhoul