Hundreds of women and children blockading several Israeli settlements successfully prevented police and government inspectors searching for unauthorised construction Photo: EPA
Stepping up a campaign of disruption, hundreds of women and children blockading several Israeli settlements successfully prevented police and government inspectors searching for unauthorised construction.
Facing the prospect of having to order Israeli security services to turn on their fellow countrymen, Benjamin Netanyahu, the country's prime minister, met settler leaders yesterday to make an impassioned plea for restraint.
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Jewish settlers double in West Bank since 1990sDuring a tense two hour meeting in Tel Aviv, Mr Netanyahu urged his guests to stop building and co-operate, saying: "You have the right to demonstrate. You have the right to protest. You have the right to express an opinion, but it's unacceptable not to respect a decision that was taken by law."
But with settler leaders enraged by what they see as Mr Netanyahu's capitulation to American pressure, there was little to suggest that his calls would be heeded.
With the backing of his security cabinet, the prime minister last week made an attempt to address one of the most contentious issues dividing Palestinians and Israelis by ordering a halt to Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank for 10 months.
The move was cautiously welcomed by the United States, Israel's patron, but dismissed by critics on the Israeli left as political chicanery and rejected by the Palestinian leadership because the moratorium excluded predominantly Arab East Jerusalem.
But it is from his traditional allies on the Israeli right that Mr Netanyahu is facing his most immediate difficulties.
Rejecting the prime minister's offer of financial sweeteners for the Jewish communities that have moved into the West Bank since it was occupied in the Six-Day War of 1967, the settler leaders said they would continue their physical campaign against the authorities.
"The settler leaders have no intention of stopping their struggle," Pinhas Wallerstein, one of the West Bank's most prominent settler officials, said.
"We will use our bodies to prevent this in an unequivocal way and we are ready to pay with great pain." In three days of confrontation there has been no significant violence with police unwilling to use force against the women and children who have formed the vanguard of the settler protests.
At least six people, including the mayor of one settlement, have been arrested while other settler leaders are in danger of detention after publicly tearing up orders to halt construction. Most such orders are being delivered to construction sites where planning permission was granted several years ago but building itself was delayed.
Some observers believe that the confrontation with the settlers, many of them his natural constituents, will suit Mr Netanyahu by allowing him to point to the domestic sacrifices he has made in his unrequited push for peace.
But despite the guarded backing of most right-wingers in his ruling coalition, the prime minister is still facing a potentially dangerous battle of wills with a powerful opponent unlikely to back down.
There are over 300,000 settlers in the West Bank, many of whom are driven by ideological or religious conviction that the territory must remain Israel's in perpetuity. Palestinians argue that every new settler home built undermines the viability of a future Palestinian state.
As Mr Netanyahu mulls his options, Israeli liberals are already calling for action against the settlers.
Haaretz, a leading liberal newspaper, deplored the "lawless behaviour" of settler leaders paid by the state in an editorial yesterday that also called on the army to take "all legal measures" to ensure they submitted to the construction freeze.
Yet calling in the army, where sympathy for the settlers runs strong, would be a risky strategy. Last month, two soldiers were jailed for refusing to obey orders during an operation to close down a settlement not sanctioned by the Israeli authorities and there have been warnings that others too could mutiny if forced to act against the settlers.
The international community regards all Jewish settlements built in the West Bank as illegal.