Chaim Levinson, Barak Ravid
December 3, 2009 - 1:00am

Defiant West Bank settler leaders rejected on Thursday a personal plea from the prime minister to respect a construction freeze in the territories, vowing to keep confronting security forces sent to enforce the edict.

In the West Bank, settlers blocked inspectors from entering a settlement to search for unauthorized construction, the third straight day of such confrontations. There has been no violence, but authorities have made at least six arrests.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu summoned settler leaders to a Tel Aviv meeting on Thursday morning in a bid to defuse the tensions.

During the talks, West Bank regional council heads told the premier that they would continue to fight the moratorium, and voiced doubt that it would end after 10-months, as declared by Netanyahu. The head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, David Alhiani David Elhani, lambasted the prime minister over the freeze.

"Am I your enemy?" he asked. "Why are you treating me like an enemy?"

Settler leader Dani Dayan called the three-hour meeting difficult and emotionally charged. Speaking on Israel Radio, he said the settlers would continue their struggle against the freeze, both through civil disobedience and legal challenges. The settlers have scheduled a mass demonstration next week in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu's bureau, for its part, said the meeting was businesslike and was held in a respectful manner.

At the end of the meeting, the bureau said, Netanyahu noted 30 complaints the settlers made about the implementation of the freeze, and said he would relay them to Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

During the two-hour meeting, Netanyahu told the settlers he respected their right to disagree, but told them they must respect the rule of law. "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," Netanyahu said, according to a statement released by his office.

"The solution is dialogue; we need to get through this period together by cooperation, instead of creating an atmosphere of crisis in order to focus on leaving the period of moratorium, and overcome the problems together," Netanyhau was quoted as saying.

Earlier Thursday, Chairman of the rightist National Union party, Ya'akov Katz, also vowed to continue fighting the construction freeze.

Katz called on settlers to declare an "uncompromising struggle by taking off the gloves against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's anti-Semitic and racist decree."

At the meeting, Netanyahu had planned to offer various measures to ease the settlers' lives, including more funding for schools and other services. Netanyahu was to stress that he intends to enforce the freeze fully, but he was to promise that construction will resume when the freeze expires in 10 months.

One of the most senior settler leaders, Pinhas Wallerstein, told Army Radio on Thursday that they have no intention to halt all construction.

Since Friday, when the freeze began, Netanyahu, Barak and other officials have held daily meetings to monitor enforcement of the freeze, which the premier said is meant as a confidence-building gesture to get peace efforts with the Palestinians back on track.

Palestinians have said the move is insufficient because is does not include east Jerusalem.

Barak softens terms of building freeze in bid to placate settlers

In another effort to placate angry settlement leaders, Barak vowed on Wednesday to restore mayors' power to approve minor renovation projects such as enclosing balconies or building pergolas over a porch - powers they had initially lost under last week's cabinet decision on a settlement freeze.

Barak made the promise at a meeting with settlement mayors following a day of clashes throughout the West Bank between settlers and the inspectors enforcing the freeze.

Meanwhile, the state told the High Court of Justice that the freeze would force it to postpone the evacuation of several illegal outposts and the demolition of thousands of illegal buildings against which demolition orders had already been issued. Officials said the people needed for these evacuations and demolitions were busy enforcing the freeze.

Settlement leaders met in Jerusalem last night and expressed satisfaction with what they called "the success of the determined struggle" so far. But after some participants expressed concerns that the struggle might turn violent, they decided to launch an explanatory campaign stressing that activists must not raise their hands against the building inspectors. They also decided to hold a mass demonstration in Jerusalem next Wednesday.

Throughout the day, police often had to use force to disperse demonstrators and allow the inspectors to do their job. Altogether, six settlers were arrested.

Netanyahu received a boost Wednesday from a meeting at the Knesset with some 50 veteran Likud mayors and activists - all considered pillars of the party - who voiced support for the freeze. Some even threatened to "settle accounts" with any Likud minister or Knesset member who failed to back the premier by working to keep them off the party's slate in the next election.

However, some cracks in Likud ministers' hitherto united front are showing. In an interview due to be published Friday in the weekly Makor Rishon, Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon assails the freeze's implementation, saying construction that should have been allowed to continue is being frozen, making the freeze "much more sweeping than we intended."

Also Wednesday, Netanyahu and Barak agreed to set up an exceptions committee that settlers can apply to for permits to build in special cases such as sewage or electricity problems.

So far, enforcement of the freeze has been carried out entirely by the police. The army has not been involved at all - and is very much hoping to keep it that way.


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