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Israeli settlers step up protest against freeze

Israeli policemen scuffle with Jewish settler girls at the West Bank settlement of Kedumim on Sunday.Tomer Applebaum / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Israeli settlers blocked roads, scuffled with police and pelted officers with eggs on Sunday, in the most aggressive display of resistance yet to the government's ban on new housing construction in West Bank settlements.

Trying to calm the tensions, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged the pain his order has caused to the settlers. But he said the freeze was necessary to demonstrate that Israel is serious about seeking peace, and he criticized the Palestinians for rejecting the gesture.

Netanyahu announced the 10-month halt in most West Bank construction late last month in an attempt to restart peace talks, which broke down a year ago.

The settlement freeze has infuriated Jewish settlers and their backers in Netanyahu's hard-line coalition, and government inspectors have been harassed while trying to enforce the ban.

In new unrest Sunday, protesters blocked inspectors from reaching the settlement of Kedumim by laying in the road leading to the community in the northern West Bank.

Amateur video obtained by The Associated Press showed paramilitary border police officers grabbing the protesters — most of them teenagers — by their arms and legs and hauling them out of the way. Police said they were pelted with eggs as they entered the settlement to search for unauthorized construction.

There were no reports of arrests or injuries. Settler leaders, wary of openly clashing with security forces, have stressed that they will use only nonviolent methods in their opposition to the freeze. Nonetheless, Sunday's unrest signaled the settlers are growing bolder in their tactics.

Freeze a 'temporary decision'
Netanyahu told his Cabinet Sunday that the freeze, while painful, shows the world that Israel is serious about pursuing a peace agreement with the Palestinians. At the same time, he said Palestinian criticism of his move raises questions about their commitment to peace.

"This is not an easy decision for them (the settlers); it is not an easy decision for us," he said. "The decision was taken because we see it as serving the wider interests of Israel, and today it is also clear — to whomever it was not yet clear already — who wants peace and who today is acting as if they are opposed to peace. The state of Israel wants peace in the clearest possible sense."

Speaking to his Cabinet, Netanyahu noted that he had met with settler leaders last week to try to ease tensions.

Seeking to calm the concerns of Israeli hard-liners, Netanyahu repeated his stance that the freeze is a "one-time, temporary decision" and that construction will resume afterward. "We made it clear that upon the conclusion of the period of suspension, construction will resume," Netanyahu said.

The Palestinians say the Israeli move is not genuine, since it does not include east Jerusalem or 3,000 homes already under construction in the West Bank. The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem as parts of a future independent state. They say they will not resume talks until all settlement construction ceases.

Some 300,000 settlers live in the West Bank, in addition to 180,000 Jewish Israelis living in east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed soon after.

The settlers have been struggling to regain their strength since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, uprooting all 8,000 settlers who were living there.