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.

Gil Cohen Magen/Reuters
Palestinian labourers work at a construction site in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Modiin Illit on Tuesday.

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.

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.

Demand has surged in settlements such as Elkana and Oranit, which fall east of the Green Line border with Israel but west of the Israeli security barrier that separates them from the rest of the West Bank. (See map.)

The location offers proximity to jobs in central Israel and the cheap housing of the West Bank without the perceived risk of eventual evacuation that confronts settlements on the other side of the wall. That draws a more well-to-do population that generally doesn't share the hardened ideology of other settlements.

A settlement where political sentiment gravitates toward Israel's political center, residents of Oranit recoil when they are grouped with the more ideological residents of the West Bank. But Netanyahu's move gives them no choice but to join forces to fight the freeze.

"Until a week ago business was booming," says Meir Hess, an Oranit real estate broker, who fears that a joint land purchase organized for more than two dozen families will collapse because of the freeze. "People think of Oranit as part of Israel. I don't understand why we're included in the freeze."

'Outrage' of the right is real

While his rejection earlier this year of President Obama's call for a comprehensive settlement freeze sparked the most public Israel-US spat in two decades, Netanyahu's slowdown has been praised by the administration. George Mitchell, Obama's special envoy for Middle East Peace, said last week that Netanyahu's move "falls short of a full settlement freeze, but it is more than any Israeli government has done before and can help movement toward agreement between the parties."

But so far it's unclear whether the move is meant simply to shift pressure onto Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for refusing negotiations, or whether it's a signal the pragmatic Netanyahu is willing to cut a landmark peace deal.

"Anyone who dismisses the significance of Netanyahu's move should pay attention to how the settlers are responding," says Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the center-right Shalem Center in Jerusalem. "The outrage on the ideological right against Netanyahu is real and telling. The settlers understand that Netanyahu's freeze goes far beyond what even prime ministers of the left have done."

To be sure, there is no imminent danger of settlers declaring an all-out mutiny against the current prime minister. But they are hoping that Netanyahu's hard-right colleagues in the Likud Party will put enough pressure on him to force the government to rescind the ban.

Meanwhile, those on the left say the halt on building is superficial unless further measures are taken.

"The freeze is significant," says Michael Sfard, a lawyer for the left-wing Yesh Din, which monitors law enforcement on Israeli settlers. "But it isn't as dramatic as Bibi would like us to believe."

Sfard said for a freeze to be effective, Israel's government needs to halt bureaucratic approval for future activity, or else building activity will pick up from where it left off at the end of the 10-month period.

It also remains to be seen, Sfard said, how active the government will be in enforcing potential freeze violations.

See also:

Israel rejects European Union plan to divide Jerusalem

West Bank settlements become havens of Israeli surburbanites

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