With a tooting of horns and pouring of cement, several thousand settlers and supporters declared a symbolic end on Sunday to a 10-month moratorium on construction starts in their enclaves.
"The building freeze is over," Danny Danon, a right-wing lawmaker from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, declared as balloons were released into the air at sundown in the red-roofed West Bank settlement of Revava.
"Today we mark the resumption of building in Judea and Samaria," he bellowed, referring to the West Bank.
Netanyahu had urged Israeli settlers to show restraint after a limited building freeze expires at midnight on Sunday, a plea that appeared aimed at persuading Palestinians not to quit peace talks.
"The prime minister calls on the residents in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] and the political parties to show restraint and responsibility today and in the future exactly as they showed restraint and responsibility throughout the months of the freeze," it said.
Netanyahu's bureau also asked cabinet ministers to refrain from giving interviews on the topic. The Prime Minister's Office explained that the request meant to prevent inflammation of the delicate ongoing contacts between Israel, the U.S. and the Palestinian Authority surrounding the expiration of the freeze order.
But at Revava, near the West Bank city of Nablus, residents expressed their defiance at a groundbreaking ceremony where a mixer poured cement into a hole in the ground to launch construction of a creche.
While the act was symbolic, settlers said they would soon begin building some 2,000 homes across the West Bank for which permits were issued before Netanyahu, under U.S. pressure, called a partial building freeze last year.
The festivities were attended by thousands bused in for the occasion. They coincided with U.S. efforts, still afoot, to prolong the construction hiatus in order to avert a Palestinian walkout from the peace talks.
Dozens of buses brought Likud activists on Sunday morning to visit various settlements to hear about the damage caused by the construction hiatus, and to show support for the settlers. In the mid-afternoon, a ceremony was held marking the laying of the cornerstone of a new kindergarten in Kiryat Netafim.
In a plot apparently intended for construction in Revava, where signs advertise plans to put up more than two dozen homes, some 2,500 settlers blared shofars, a religious instrument made of a ram's horn, as their leaders proclaimed the building freeze had ended.
The freeze was declared over exactly at sunset, which according to Jewish law is the start of the following day.
Spokesmen for the 300,000 settlers living in the West Bank renewed their calls on Netanyahu to resist further pressure to delay construction in enclaves they say Israel must keep as a strategic asset, and as its biblical birthright.
Underscoring the pressure Netanyahu faces from political allies as well as the settlers, some right-wing leaders demanded Israel annex all its settlements rather than negotiate with Palestinians on their future.
Tsipi Hotovely, a Likud lawmaker, said Israel should annex all the settlements to prevent their removal under a peace deal, and pledged to introduce a bill to that effect in parliament. "Israeli sovereignty must be applied to the areas were settlements have been built," she said.
Settler leader Dani Dayan, who chairs the Yesha Council of Settlements, demanded that the government "admit this was a mistake and never do it again."
"Today it's over and we will do everything we can to make sure it never happens again," Dayan told the crowd. "We return with new energy and a new determination to populate this land."
Palestinian negotiators, among them Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, have declared repeatedly that they would abandon recently re-launched direct peace talks if Israel were to resume construction on land they envision for a future state.
David Axelrod, a close confidant of U.S. President Barack Obama, said the two sides were at the bargaining table and were working with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other U.S. officials to reach a deal on the issue.
"They are talking. They're trying to work this through, and we're hopeful that they will," Axelrod said on the ABC News show "This Week with Christiane Amanpour," describing the talks as "serious."
Axelrod added: "We think this (peace talks) is an unparalleled opportunity and a rare one, and we have to -- we have to seize the advantage of that, and we are going to urge and urge and push throughout this day to -- to get some kind of resolution."
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