Settlement Freeze Ends, Mideast Talks In Doubt
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It hasn't been long since Palestinians and Israelis started another round of peace talks with expressions of hope. Now, a development on the West Bank puts those talks in danger. A partial freeze on new construction in West Bank Jewish settlements expired over the weekend. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not extended that freeze, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to walk out of peace talks. Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders say they are still trying to reach a compromise that would allow the peace process to continue, but as Sheera Frenkel reports from the West Bank, Jewish settlers are already building.
Unidentified Man: (unintelligible)
SHEERA FRENKEL: The soft slush and thud of concrete hitting the ground at this small West Bank settlement marks the end of the freeze on settlement construction as far as Kiriyat Netafim was concerned. Dozens stood around the small patch of dirt cheering, clapping and eventually singing the Israeli national anthem as they laid the foundation for a new preschool.
(Soundbite of applause, cheering)
FRENKEL: But in the offices of senior Israeli and Palestinian leaders, a compromise is still being hammered out. Statements released by each side say that they are discussing a way forward - to continue the fledgling peace talks launched in the U.S. earlier this month, while addressing the contentious settlement issue.
Though the freeze officially expired yesterday, officials say they still have time to negotiate. Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has said that that he wants to talk with the Arab League forum before he withdraws from peace talks.
In Ramallah, officials remained quiet on the celebrations throughout the settlements, declining to issue a comment until a decision had been reached by the Arab League. Abbas' spokesman said that it would take several more days for that meeting to take place. Meanwhile, Jewish Israelis are still celebrating the Sukkot holiday, limiting work and construction to a minimum. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asked that settlers show restraint and responsibility by not creating a large fanfare over the expiration of the freeze. But across the settlements, public celebrations are still being held.
David Ha'Ivri, a spokesman for the settlement movement, said building work had resumed.
Mr. DAVID HA'IVRI (Spokesman for the Settlement Movement): We all do respect our prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu, and we are willing to keep down the noise of our celebrations. As long as we can keep the bulldozers moving and we can continue building more homes for Jewish people in our communities, we're willing to keep the noise down.
FRENKEL: As he spoke, a number of construction vehicles passed on the road behind him, bound for Revava, a northern Israeli settlement, where thousands gathered Sunday to celebrate the end of the freeze. The ceremonies, which included the release of 2,000 white and blue balloons, were organized by lawmaker Danny Danon, a member of Netanyahu's own Likud Party. Danon says the ceremony showed that public support was behind building in the West Bank, which he calls by its biblical name.
Mr. DANNY DANON (Lawmaker, Likud Party): Today, we come to mark the renewal of the building in Judea and Samaria. And we tell to the prime minister, be strong. We know there is a lot of pressure coming from the White House. Be strong, the people of Israel are behind you. You committed to build, and now we are doing it here in Judea and Samaria.
FRENKEL: The rally by Danon and other Likud supporters was also meant to remind Netanyahu that his coalition, including members of his own party, have threatened to disband if he resumes the freeze on Jewish West Bank construction.
(Soundbite of tractor beeping)
FRENKEL: In the settlements, they aren't wasting any time. The sounds of tractors and other construction equipment swinging into effect could be heard in half a dozen settlements this morning. Even as they celebrated, settlers say they are rushing out to build while they can.
For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel, in Jerusalem.