Defiant settlers mark end of freeze

As settlement construction begins again, Mahmoud Abbas says he will consult the Arab League before deciding whether to stay in talks.

An Israeli soldier detains a protester during a demonstration against Israel's settlements in the West Bank village of Beit Omar, near the city of Hebron, Saturday, Sept. 25, 2010. (AP Photo/Nasser Shiyoukhi) *** Local Caption ***  XOB108_Mideast_Israel_Palestinians_.jpg
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REVAVA, WEST BANK //Busload after busload of Jewish settlers and their supporters rolled through the guarded gates of this tiny hilltop community yesterday to mark what they saw as a victory - the resumption of illegal settlement construction in the West Bank.

Meanwhile Palestinian and Israeli negotiators under pressure from Washington were trying to reach an 11th-hour compromise to prevent the collapse of recently resumed peace talks. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, said that without the settlement freeze peace talks would be "a waste of time", but he said he would meet senior Arab League diplomats next Monday before making a decision. For the crowd of some 2,000 people gathered in Revava, however, the focus was on the end of the 10-month freeze on settlement construction and the building anew of their communities in occupied Palestinian territory.

In a statement yesterday, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, urged settlers "to show restraint and responsibility today and in the future - just as they [the Palestinians] showed restraint and responsibility during all 10 months of the new construction suspension". But with tractors and cement mixers, the settlers appeared keen to play up to the international media. Against a backdrop of the mauve hills surrounding this small town, speakers at the ceremony, including leading Likud Party politicians, were given loud applause when they demanded that such a freeze never be imposed again.

Earlier in the day, Danny Dayan, who heads the Yesha Council, an organisation that represents West Bank settlement municipalities, gave a similar exhortation at the settlement of Eldad. "These 10 months brought harm to the state," Mr Dayan said. For many here, the gathering was about more than just the end of the freeze and the resumption of building. It was what they believe the freeze's end may have thwarted.

Naftali Bennet, director general of the Yesha Council, said before he took part in the rally: "We cannot allow a Palestinian state to be injected nine miles from our largest city, Tel Aviv." "I think the notion of a Palestinian state blew up in our faces when we evacuated Gaza," Mr Bennet said. "We decided a few months ago that we're not going to make noise when the freeze is over; it's going to be natural, paced growth", he added, emphasising that the settlers wanted "peaceful coexistence" with Palestinians in the West Bank.

That would seem to contradict Mr Netanyahu's recent efforts to strike an accord to create an independent Palestinian state, and it would also be anathema to Palestinians who seek a two-state solution. For such a state to be viable, they argue, they would need much of the land on which more than 120 Israeli settlements are built. Both the Palestinians and the international community consider the settlements illegal, and Mr Abbas's threat to walk away from the peace talks remains.

But Mr Netanyahu has vowed to allow the freeze to expire. And while Mr Abbas has hinted at a compromise, the outcome of the negotiations is uncertain. "The settlement ceremony is a ceremony that will also be remembered as a celebration of the possible demise of the negotiations," said Husam Zomlot, a member of the international affairs commission for Fatah, the Palestinian faction that is spearheading the current round of negotiations with Israel.

But he cautioned: "We are not in a rush to end the peace talks. It's in our national interest to see these talks succeed." Many in Revava, on the other hand, say they are in no rush to see the talks come to an agreed solution. "You can have peace without a peace agreement," said Avraham Goldis, 73, a retired American Israeli who lives in the settlement and attended the ceremony. "Our border with Syria is our most peaceful, and we don't have a peace agreement with them, or any commercial relations."

Naama Klein, 28, an Orthodox Jew and mother of three, makes no distinction between the West Bank and what constitutes the state of Israel. She moved to Revava four years ago because, she said, "We believe that Samaria [the northern West Bank] is part of the land of Israel, just like Tel Aviv or Jerusalem." And while the freeze has caused the rent on her two bedroom apartment to rise - 1,800 shekels (Dh1,784) a month to 2,500 - she is hopeful its end will allow her to build a house - and a more permanent life - in Revava.

"We want to live here in peace with the Palestinians," said Mrs Klein, who, like many here, first moved into the bare conditions of a mobile home. "I believe we should live together." But Yassin Shamlawi, 55, a resident of Haris, a neighbouring Palestinian village of 4,000 people, suspects more sinister intentions among settlers. He has seen the land that is home to his olive orchards gradually confiscated by the settlers and the Israeli soldiers who protect them since Israel conquered the area in 1967. Recently, he said, he has received threats of complete takeover by Israel.

"They told me you can work your land for the time being," he said. "But the people from the army and the settlers said to me, 'One day, we will take this land'."