Chaim Levinson, Anshel Pfeffer, Barak Ravid
December 4, 2009 - 1:00am

Israel Defense Forces officers in the West Bank have expressed concerned that settlers may escalate their acts of opposition to the freeze on settlement construction by targeting the Palestinian population.

In recent days, inspectors delivering freeze orders to the settlements have been met with acts of violence, yet the troops from the Judea and Samaria Division and the Central Command - who are responsible for their safety - are nowhere to be found. Instead, the brunt of the security work has been carried out by police and Border Police troops.

At this stage, the IDF is keen to keep a low profile and even the IDF spokesman's office has left the field to their colleagues from the police and the Civil Administration.

The army went as far as to downplay a visit by Defense Minister Ehud Barak to the Division Headquarters, during which time he spoke about necessary preparations to enforce the temporary ban on settlement construction.

Troops from the regional brigades in the West Bank have intervened in only a few cases involving unruly settlers. A noteworthy instance involved the chief of security of Beit Aryeh, whose salary and vehicle are paid for by the IDF. Once the IDF learned that he had used the vehicle to block the path of the construction inspectors, the commander of the regional brigade, with the backing of GOC Central Command, ordered the vehicle to be confiscated.

"Even though we will carry out every order we are given, the current situation suits us," an officer serving in the West Bank told Haaretz. "For many soldiers [confronting settlers] is a difficult subject, and at the end of the day it's not really the task for which we have been prepared."

The division of labor that Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and former GOC Central Command, Gadi Shamni, put in place - by which the police deal with the Israeli citizens in the territories - has created a sense among many soldiers that any future role the army may have in evacuating settlements would be illegitimate.

The commander of one of the battalions, familiar with the attitudes among the troops, recently had to tell his soldiers that "our job is to carry out every order we are given, even if it's to clear trash left behind by visitors to the Ben Shemen forest."

Meanwhile, the army's main concern is that some settlers will begin targeting Palestinians as part of their resistance to the freeze.

Rightists to intensify protest of settlement freeze

Settler leaders on Friday pledged to take advantage of the weekend lull in the Defense Ministry's active enforcement of the freeze by stepping up construction in their community.

Ministry officials have warned, however, that settlers who defy the freeze over the weekend will be stopped.

"Inspectors will return on Sunday and halt any construction activity, should there be," said associates of Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Right-wing activists are planning to block major traffic arteries throughout the country next week as part of an escalating protest of the government decision to freeze settlement construction in the West Bank for 10 months.

The idea is to disrupt traffic at major junctions, similar to the protests held against the disengagement and evacuation of the Gaza Strip settlements in 2005. It is still unclear whether the idea is finding fertile ground or when such protests will take place.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met on Thursday with a group of more than 20 members of the Yesha Council, where he stressed that "the law must be respected and cabinet decisions must be carried out."

He also blamed the Palestinian Authority for not responding to Israel's decision to freeze settlement construction and for refusing to return to the negotiating table. Netanyahu called PA President Mahmoud Abbas "someone who refuses peace."

The meeting with the settler leaders lasted more than two hours, instead of the original hour that had been planned. Present at the meeting were 22 community leaders, and three from the Yesha Council leadership. Each was given an opportunity to raise complaints against the decision to freeze construction. Much of the anger was directed against Barak.

Netanyahu stressed that he does not intend to rescind his decision on the construction freeze, saying it would be carried out in full.

"There is one thing that is out of the question," he said. "You are allowed to demonstrate and protest, but you cannot show disrespect for a decision that was made lawfully. The solution is dialogue. We need to work together during this period and cooperate."

The prime minister asked the settler leaders to hold a meeting with Barak as well, but they refused. Netanyahu tried to explain his reasons for the decision to freeze construction, and directed much of his dissatisfaction with the situation at the Palestinian Authority.

"The decision made by the cabinet is the best for Israel under the complicated diplomatic circumstances Israel is in and in view of the multifaceted challenges facing us," the prime minister said. "We made a difficult decision in order to advance the broader interests of Israel. This move makes it clear to key players around the world that Israel is serious in its intentions to achieve peace, while the Palestinians refuse to enter negotiations for peace. There is a side that wants to [talk] and another that does not. This move has made clear [which side] is refusing peace."

Trying to appease the settlers, Netanyahu asked for their patience and promised to resume construction after the 10-month hiatus was over. He also promised that the implementation of the order banning construction would "be carried out in the least intrusive way possible for the public, and where there are unnecessary difficulties, we shall make them go away."

One of the community leaders, Avi Naim of Beit Aryeh, challenged the prime minister on what many settlers consider a betrayal of his pre-election campaign promises.

"You were [at Beit Aryeh] three days before the elections. How were we made illegitimate law breakers overnight? Everything we have done [has been done legally]. Last month I filed charges against eight people who violated building permits. We protested legitimately - the police treated us violently. My 7-year-old called me to ask me whether I'd been arrested," Naim said.

Naim also demanded that the defense minister's assistant on settlement issues, Eitan Broshi, be replaced.

Meanwhile, the settlers have petitioned the High Court of Justice against the order to freeze construction. This is the second petition filed with the court this week. The petitioners claim that GOC Central Command has no right to implement the order on the basis of political criteria without the settlers being given the right to a hearing


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