With Israeli and Palestinian negotiators deadlocked over settlement expansion just hours before the expiration of a 10-month Israeli settlement freeze, Jewish settlers vowed to renew building during symbolic celebrations in the West Bank.
"Today [the settlement freeze] is over and we will do everything to ensure it will never happen again,'' said Danny Dayan, the chairman of the settler umbrella leadership, the Yesha Council, at a foundation laying ceremony in the settlement of Revava. "We are here to return to Zionist activity … the mission of settling the entire land of Israel. This mission cannot be stopped – not just for 10 months, not for 10 days, not 10 seconds. We are resuming this mission. We are resuming settling the land.''
Bulldozers, cement mixers, and 2,000 balloons
Despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's call for settlers "to demonstrate responsibility and restraint," thousands of people gathered in the West Bank settlement of Revava on Sunday afternoon to count down to the end of the freeze, which is set to expire at midnight.
Activists, some of whom came to the rally with tractors, cement mixers, and other equipment, released 2,000 balloons into the air to symbolize the 2,000 apartments that settlers say they are ready to build immediately. Once the freeze is lifted, some 2,000 housing units can be built with no further authorization, according to Peace Now, an antisettlement group which monitors building.
Israel has said that it plans to allow building in the West Bank settlements after the freeze, while the Palestinians are threatening to abandon the newly restarted peace talks if new construction starts.
What happens to peace talks?
US-mediated talks aimed at averting a collapse of the negotiations intensified over the weekend, though there have been no signs of progress.
If the sides don’t reach a compromise, Monday could be the first real test of the resolve of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation that the chances of a compromise are "fifty-fifty." Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in a speech at the United Nations General Assembly on Saturday that Israel must choose between "peace and settlements."
Despite the standoff, both sides have said that they're trying to reach for a last-second compromise that will allow the talks to go forward. Palestinian, Israeli, and US negotiators are expected to keep discussing a deal on Sunday in the US.
Political tight spots
Likewise, if Abbas were to continue negotiating amid building, he risks losing the support of supporters within his Fatah party and among the Palestinian public. Only about 15 percent support continuing talks if settlement expansion continues, according to a recent poll by An Najah University in the West Bank city of Nablus.
"Both sides are trapped in positions which they politically cannot afford to violate," said Yossi Klein Halevy, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. "The tragedy is that both sides want the negotiations to continue but may not be able to create the circumstances that would make the continuation of the negotiations possible."