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Israel forces detain Jewish settlement mayor

The mayor of the West Bank settlement is arrested as he and others seek to keep Israeli government inspectors from enforcing a building moratorium aimed at restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

December 03, 2009|By Richard Boudreaux

Reporting from Jerusalem — Israeli security forces arrested the mayor of a Jewish settlement Wednesday as he and other residents tried to prevent government inspectors from entering the community to enforce new restrictions on building in the West Bank.

The skirmish in Beit Aryeh was the most serious in five days of confrontations across the territory between a government that appears intent on limiting settlement growth over the next 10 months and a settler movement determined to defy the effort.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a partial construction moratorium last week under U.S. pressure, and the Obama administration applauded the decision in hope of coaxing the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority to resume peace talks with Israel.

But with the Palestinians still refusing to negotiate, the conservative Israeli leader faces the prospect of weeks or months of angry right-wing protests with no diplomatic advance to show for it.

The moratorium halts new permits for housing construction across the West Bank. Palestinians call the measure a sham because it will allow nearly 3,000 housing units in various stages of construction to be completed and will not prohibit new synagogues, schools and other nonresidential buildings.

The restrictions also put no limits on Jewish construction in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim along with the West Bank and envision as the capital of a future state.

While the Palestinian leadership holds out for a full settlement freeze, the Israeli government has begun sending inspectors to enforce the limited moratorium in the 120 West Bank communities that are home to about 300,000 Israelis.

The inspectors have issued more than 60 orders to halt unauthorized construction and confiscated several pieces of heavy equipment, officials said.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak has called for hiring dozens of new inspectors to augment the 14 who cover the West Bank.

Mayors of at least two regional councils, each comprising several settlements, have made a show of tearing up written government orders handed to them by inspectors. In several other communities, residents have banded together and physically blocked inspectors from entering.

On Wednesday, the inspectors entered some communities under protection of police officers and border guards. At the gated entrance to Beit Aryeh, not far from Israel's Ben Gurion International Airport, settlers sat in the road to create a blockade, but security forces cleared them away.

Video on Ynet, an Israeli news website, showed Mayor Avi Naim resisting as security forces detained him and shoved him into a police van. A statement by the Yesha Council, the main settler group, said he subsequently complained of heart palpitations and was taken for medical treatment. He was later released.

Two settlers were arrested for blocking inspectors in Elon Moreh, a community in the northern West Bank, where residents put spikes in the road in front of police vehicles.

Netanyahu's decision is a retreat from his longtime support for the settler movement. He won approval from his predominantly right-wing Cabinet for the construction curbs but faces simmering protest from former allies, who call his action a betrayal of promises during last winter's election campaign.

"We will do whatever it takes to preserve our communities," Danny Dayan, head of the Yesha Council, said Wednesday during a cornerstone-laying ceremony for a synagogue in the settlement of Efrat. "This is where we live. We can build where we want."

Netanyahu said in a speech Tuesday that the 10-month freeze was a one-time measure that would not be extended.

"We will resume building at the end of the freeze," he said, referring to the settlers as "our brothers and sisters."

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