Hours before peace talks were set to begin in Washington, Jewish settlers defiantly announced plans on Thursday to launch new construction in their West Bank enclaves in a test of strength with Palestinian Islamists.
Naftali Bennett, director of the settlers' Yesha council, said settlers would begin building homes and public structures in at least 80 settlements, breaking a partial government freeze on building that ends on September 26.
"The idea is that de facto it (the freeze) is over," Bennett said, criticizing the U.S.-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian talks as aiming for a "phony peace" and rejecting Palestinian demands for a halt to settlement building on land they want for a state.
"Once they understand Israelis are here to stay and only growing stronger day by day, they will give up," Bennett said.
The settlers, who have threatened to depose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if he does not let them resume building after September 26, ended the freeze unilaterally on Wednesday, the day after gunmen killed four settlers in the occupied West Bank.
Pro-settler parties are a majority in Netanyahu's right-wing coalition and a number of cabinet ministers have already backed demands to resume settlement construction.
Earth-moving vehicles and cement mixers went to work in several settlements on Wednesday, breaking ground for homes and community centers.
Bennett said settlers had decided to double the number of building starts after news that two Israelis had been wounded in a separate West Bank shooting on Wednesday evening. The Islamist Palestinian group Hamas claimed both attacks.
"The real test between the Palestinians' radical Islam and Israel is the on-the-ground test of who is stronger and who is here to stay," Bennett said.
"Once they (Palestinians) understand Israel is here to stay and only growing stronger day by day, they will give up ..."
Many settlers oppose the two-state solution backed by the United States and see the West Bank, captured by Israel from Jordan during the Six Day War in 1967, as Israel's biblical birthright.
Settlement building is a key issue in negotiations starting in Washington later in the day between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, their first direct talks in nearly two years.
Palestinians have demanded a complete halt to expansion of these enclaves, where about 500,000 Israelis live and which the World Court regards as illegal.
Settlers had been lobbying Netanyahu before the Hamas shootings against extending the partial building freeze in the West Bank, imposed by Netanyahu a year ago as part of the drive to resume direct talks with Abbas.
Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom of Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party told Reuters this week an extension of the settlement building freeze might make the Israeli government fall apart and lead to new elections.
But some analysts in Israel say Tuesday's West Bank attack by Hamas has put Netanyahu in a stronger position to press the Palestinians to improve security before he yields any ground on settlements.
Bennett said he hoped Netanyahu would approve construction of at least 3,000 new homes for West Bank settlers in the coming year.
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