Israeli security forces on Tuesday dismantled a caravan set up in the West Bank settlement of Elon Moreh, despite the government's declaration last year of a 10-month construction freeze.
This was the first time a structure built to contravene the settlement freeze has been razed.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced in December that Israel would impose a 10-month freeze on construction in West Bank settlements, saying the move was a bid to restart stalled peace talks with the Palestinians.
Settlement building has been a key sticking point in U.S. efforts to restart Middle East peace talks; the Palestinians say they will not return to the negotiating table without a complete halt to construction.
After the caravan in Elon Moreh was built, residents held an event at which they called the construction an "appropriate Zionist response" to the settlement freeze order.
Security forces arrived before dawn on Tuesday and dismantled the caravan. They also destroyed the foundations of structures in the Kochav Yaakov and Kochav Hashahar settlements which were built in contradiction of the freeze order.
The security forces operated undisturbed, despite the expectation that the dismantling would lead to renewed protests against the freeze.
In response to actions carried out by the security forces, a committee of residents from the northern West Bank settlements released a statement saying: "The activities over recent days prove that [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak and Netanyahu understand that the resistance of the residents will not allow them to implement the freeze unless they sneak up like thieves in the night. That is the only time to fight wars, to disrupt actions being taken out against terror organizations."
Settlers, government at odds over new school buildings
Jewish council leaders in West Bank and the government, meanwhile, are now in the midst of another row over construction of new school buildings in time for the coming academic year.
According to Ministry of Education projections, Jewish students in the West Bank will need 116 new classrooms when the school year starts in September 2010 if schools are to cope with the growing settler population.
Instead the defense ministry will allow only 28, to be built to strict guidelines, which settlers say are a result of commitments made by Defense Minister Ehud Barak to the United States.
News of the restrictions has reinflamed tensions between the settler movement and Barak's ministry, just as the two sides seemed to be reaching an accommodation. In the past few days settler leaders have begun lobbying Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intensively in an attempt to overturn the decision.
Meanwhile, the head of the Samaria Regional Council, Gershon Mesika, has turned to the State Comptroller to request an investigation into Barak's handling of the dispute.
"The reality is," wrote Mesika to Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, "that 88 kindergartens, schools and other educational institutions - which comprise 76 percent of the quota set out by the Ministry of Education - will not be completed in 2010, with the result that thousands of students will be unable to complete their studies in accordance with national education law. Some will be unable to begin the school year at all."
"This policy is a clear contradiction to both cabinet rulings and declarations by the prime minister that the construction freeze will not affect public buildings and especially educational institutions," Mesika continued.
"Worse still, the defense minister is riding roughshod over national education law, preventing the education ministry from fulfilling its obligation to provide the required standard of tuition to thousands of students. It is an abuse of the human rights of the children concerned."
The council leader went on to accuse Barak of sacrificing education for the sake of personal political ambition. "We cannot escape the conclusion that the defense minister's cruel and reckless behavior is politically motivated, when it is clear that the ill-advised ruling.