Barak softens terms of building freeze in bid to placate settlers
In an effort to placate angry settlement leaders, Defense Minister Ehud Barak promised 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.
Violent clashes ensued after dozens of residents blocked the entrance to the settlement Elon Moreh when inspectors tried to enter. Police arrested two people on suspicion of throwing stones.
Settlers also tried to hold a protest march to Joseph's Tomb in Nablus, but were blocked by police.
A more surprising clash occurred in Beit Aryeh-Ofarim, a secular settlement near the Green Line whose residents disdain the term "settlers." About 100 residents, led by Mayor Avi Naim, blocked the entrance. Police used force to break through the demonstrators, and Naim was arrested for allegedly interfering with them.
When the settlement's security officer used his security vehicle to try to block the gate, he was beaten and his leg was injured. The army also confiscated his vehicle.
At Avnei Hefetz, a group of women and children delayed the inspectors' entry into the settlement for more than three hours.
Altogether, six settlers were arrested.
This morning, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet with settler leaders. He plans to offer various measures to ease the settlers' lives; for instance, more funding for schools and other services. Netanyahu will stress that he intends to enforce the freeze fully, but he will promise that construction will resume when the freeze expires in 10 months.
Since Friday, when the freeze began, Netanyahu, Barak and other officials have held daily meetings to monitor enforcement.
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."
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.
Also Wednesday, Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot, the coordinator of government activities in the territories, published a list of 84 apartment buildings and public structures on which construction would be allowed to continue despite the freeze. The residential buildings include 492 apartments.
These buildings were approved because they meet the conditions set for exemption from the freeze - namely, they have legal permits and their foundations have already been completed. They join some 2,500 housing units that were previously exempted for similar reasons.
The Defense Ministry denied that Wednesday's approvals were meant to placate the settlers, explaining that they met the criteria the government set in its freeze decision last week.
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.
Barak Ravid, Mazal Mualem, Anshel Pfeffer and Fadi Eyadat contributed to this report
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