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Despite Netanyahu's plea for restraint, thousands of settlers celebrate end of building freeze

Protesters attended rally in Revava with tractors, cement mixers and other equipment to broadcast to the world that construction in the territories is resuming.

By Jonathan Lis, Chaim Levinson and Haaretz Service

26 September 2010

Settlers gathered by the thousands on Sunday to celebrate the end of Israel's temporary freeze in West Bank construction, a 10-month moratorium set to expire at midnight.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Netanyahu urged settlers and their supporters earlier Sunday to show restraint in their festivities, asking them to avoid provocations and maintain a low profile in the media.

West Bank settlers celebrate end of construction freeze on September 26, 2010

West Bank settlers celebrate end of construction freeze on September 26, 2010

Photo by: Tomer

"The prime minister calls on the residents in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] and the political parties to show restraint and responsibility today and in the future exactly as they showed restraint and responsibility throughout the months of the freeze," it said.

Netanyahu's bureau also asked cabinet ministers to refrain from giving interviews on the topic. The Prime Minister's Office explained that the request meant to prevent inflammation of the delicate ongoing contacts between Israel, the U.S. and the Palestinian Authority surrounding the expiration of the freeze order.

Settlers watch a foundation laying ceremony in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Netafim.

Settlers watch as cement is poured during a foundation laying ceremony in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Netafim on September 26, 2010.

Photo by: Reuters

Nonetheless, dozens of buses brought Likud activists on Sunday morning to visit various settlements to hear about the damage caused by the construction hiatus, and to show support for the settlers. In the mid-afternoon, a ceremony was held marking the laying of the cornerstone of a new kindergarten in Kiryat Netafim.

Some 2,500 attended a celebratory rally in the settlement of Revava later in the day with tractors, cement mixers and other equipment to broadcast to the world that construction in the territories was resuming.

The demonstrators came together to release 2,000 balloons - signifying the number of new homes that settler groups said they intend to start building next week.

These are homes that have already received final permits," said an aide to MK Danny Danon, a Likud legislator who helped to organize the rally.

Settler leader Dani Dayan, who chairs the Yesha Council of Settlements, demanded that the government "admit this was a mistake and never do it again."

"Today it's over and we will do everything we can to make sure it never happens again," Dayan told the crowd. "We return with new energy and a new determination to populate this land."

Palestinian negotiators, among them Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, have declared repeatedly that they would abandon recently re-launched direct peace talks if Israel were to resume construction on land they envision for a future state.

David Axelrod, a close confidant of U.S. President Barack Obama, said the two sides were at the bargaining table and were working with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other U.S. officials to reach a deal on the issue.

"They are talking. They're trying to work this through, and we're hopeful that they will," Axelrod said on the ABC News show "This Week with Christiane Amanpour," describing the talks as "serious."

Axelrod added: "We think this (peace talks) is an unparalleled opportunity and a rare one, and we have to -- we have to seize the advantage of that, and we are going to urge and urge and push throughout this day to -- to get some kind of resolution."

Meanwhile, in an interview with the BBC, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that there was a "50-50 chance" that Israel and the Palestinians would reach a compromise on the issue of construction in the settlements.

Barak said that there was a much better chance that the current peace process would succeed, despite the disagreement over the settlements. "We cannot afford to let this [peace] process, with historic potential, to be derailed by the fact that Israel doesn't have a way to stop this construction totally," he said.

American, Israeli and Palestinian officials were engaged in "intensive" efforts over the weekend to find a compromise on a settlement moratorium.

"The American efforts are continuing. So far, there is no breakthrough," Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Abbas, told Reuters by telephone from Paris, where the Palestinian leader was to meet on Monday with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Abbas, whom Netanyahu has publicly urged to remain in the negotiations, also appeared to indicate the talks would not be suspended immediately upon the moratorium's expiration.

Asked in an interview with the pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat, whether he would declare an end to the negotiations if the freeze did not continue, Abbas said: "No, we will go back to the Palestinian institutions, to the Arab follow-up committee."

He was referring in the interview, conducted on Friday and published on Sunday, to an Arab League forum that gave him the go-ahead to pursue direct peace talks with Israel.

Abu Rdainah said Abbas had requested a meeting of the follow-up committee in Cairo and it would likely convene "within days".

More than 430,000 Jews live in well over 100 settlements established across the West Bank and East Jerusalem on land that Israel captured from Jordan in a 1967 Six-Day War.

A holiday toast at the home of Likud minister Yisrael Katz on Sunday evening turned quickly from a festive gathering into a triumphant celebration to mark the end of Israel's temporary freeze on construction in the West Bank.

Thousands of activists from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's faction crowded the lawn outside Katz's estate in Moshav Kfar Achim, where their host declared that Israel should never accede to international pressure when it comes to exhibiting their right to settle in the Jewish homeland.

Transportation minister Yisrael Katz.

Transportation minister Yisrael Katz.

Photo by: Ofer Vaknin

"I want to praise the president of the United States, Barack Obama, who in his address to the United Nations recognized Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people," Katz told his guests.

"I am sure he knows that Hebron, Shiloh and Beit El are also part of this historic homeland that belong to the Jewish people," he added, referring to three contentious settlements.

"I want to praise Netanyahu for living up to his commitment, engaging in negotiations without preconditions," Katz added, with regard to the direct peace talks recently re-launched between Israel and the Palestinians. "In ever future arrangement, we must preserve the Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria and the residents that live there."