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In Israeli settlements, residents and builders push back on 10-month freeze

Israel has begun to enforce a 10-month freeze on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, sending officials out to construction sites to issue stop-work orders.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 1, 2009

Palestinian labourers work at a construction site in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Modiin Illit on Tuesday.

Gil Cohen Magen/Reuters


Oranit, West Bank

Israeli officials shut down construction work in this town and dozens of other settlements throughout the West Bank on Monday, the first step in Israel's 10-month settlement freeze. But builders and settlers are pushing back on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's edict. Palestinians aren't happy with his controversial bid to restart stalled Middle East peace talks either.

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At a construction site here in Oranit, a settlement that hugs the Green Line border with Israel proper, foreman Moshe Halfon said he sent 11 Palestinian laborers home for the day after building inspectors from the Israeli military's civil administration issued a stop-work order for a new development of 300 houses.

"They said it was because of Bibi [Netanyahu], and that 'no work until further notice,'" Halfon said, still sounding stunned just a half hour after being shut down. "I thought we had all the authorizations."

Builders said they plan to sue the government for financial damages from halting work on construction projects already approved by building authorities. At Oranit's town council building, administrative staff said they had fielded complaints from upset residents left dangling between mortgage payments owed on their future homes and the need to rent temporary housing.

Settler leaders on Sunday ripped up the military stop-building orders and on Tuesday residents used automobiles and tractors to physically block building inspectors and their police escorts. Meanwhile, settler rhetoric is comparing Mr. Netanyahu to his predecessor Ariel Sharon, who evicted settlers during the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Ideological fault line

Netanyahu intended the settlement freeze as a good-faith gesture to the Obama administration. But presumably to appease his right-wing constituents he allowed building to continue in East Jerusalem and on 3,000 housing units elsewhere in the West Bank. The temporary halt in construction applies to any building which has not advanced past the stage of foundation work, said Guy Inbar, a spokesman for Israel's civil administration.

Though limited in scope, the freeze has aggravated an ideological fault line between settlers and Netanyahu.

"Netanyahu was elected on a platform that promised the development of the communities" of Judea and Samaria, says Aliza Herbst, a spokesperson for the settlers council, using the biblical names for the West Bank. "Now he's turned his back on his voters and I imagine he'll pay the price in his political future."

Despite his security hawk credentials, Netanyahu has been suspect among settlers ever since he transferred partial Israeli control over the West Bank to the Palestinians during his first administration in the late 1990s.

Apart from ideology, a practical battle

About three miles east of Oranit, in the settlement of Elkana, a construction drill grinding through rock in a new neighborhood of villas on Monday stopped work at around noon time.

Shimon Cohen, a building contractor who says he has overseen work on much of the Elkana neighborhood, called the decision "painful" but said he would ultimately respect the stop-work orders. Netanyahu, he said, was responding to US pressure rather than betraying his voters.

An Elkana resident who drove by the work site said he wouldn't accept the freeze and vowed that work would continue regardless.