'Okay for New West Bank Homes Isn't Bid to Appease Settlers'

Defense Ministry officials dismiss speculation over approval of 84 new settlement buildings.

Defense Ministry officials denied that an announcement on Wednesday that 84 new buildings would be built in West Bank settlements was a bid by to appease settlers, who were angered by a 10-month freeze on new building in the territories.

The coordinator of government activities in the territories, Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot, on Wednesday said Israel would go ahead with the move, which was initially approved by the political echelon during the summer.

The buildings will contain 492 housing units. Even though their foundations have not yet been laid, they will still be added to the 2,500 housing units upon which construction work has already begun and that will not be included in the moratorium.

Dangot's announcement raised speculation that the decision was meant as a goodwill gesture ahead of a meeting on Thursday between settler leaders and Netanyahu, who declared the freeze as a confidence-building gesture to get peace efforts with the Palestinians back on track.

Earlier Wednesday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak invited settler leaders to meet with him urgently in a bid to lower tensions, amid a showdown between security forces and settlers over the construction freeze. Only two heads of West Bank regional councils showed for at the meeting.

The invitation came after protesters blocked security forces from entering the community to enforce a construction freeze. Following the move, Israeli police arrested the mayor of the settlement of Beit Arieh.

On Wednesday afternoon, officials in Barak's bureau phoned heads of West Bank regional councils, asking them to meet with the defense minister at his Tel Aviv office at 8 P.M. Among the officials invited were the mayor of Ma'ale Adumim, and the heads of the Alfei Menashe, Oranit and Givat Ze'ev regional councils.

The incident at Beit Arieh was the most serious case of settler unrest since Netanyahu announced the moratorium.

Settler leaders have vowed to defy the order, which Netanyahu says is meant as a confidence-building gesture to get peace efforts with the Palestinians back on track.

Settler spokesman Yishai Hollender said police apprehended the Beit Arieh mayor, Avi Naim, for disrupting a police officer in the line of duty.

He said Naim and a group of settlers blocked the entrance to their settlement in the central West Bank on Wednesday when troops arrived to hand out orders to cease construction at the site.

Senior officials in the Yesha council of West Bank settlements on Wednesday also began pouring concrete that will serve as the foundation for a new synagogue in the enclave of Efrat.

The move was a gesture aimed at showing the public that settler leaders will not hesitate to defy government orders to halt construction.

Settlers confront construction inspectors at Elon Moreh

Earlier on Wednesday, a violent confrontation between settlers and Civil Administration inspectors broke out in the West Bank settlement of Elon Moreh.

Settlers began a march from Elon Moreh towards Nablus to protest the 10 month settlement freeze declared by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as the enforcement of the freeze by the Civil Administration inspectors.

Leading the march was Head Rabbi of Elon Moreh, Elyakim Levanon; police later arrived at the scene.

Danny Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council of settlements, said "The Netanyahu government is frothing at the mouth to enforce the order."

The settler leaders also announced that they would no longer enforce construction-related violations, saying the government had stripped them of their authority to manage planning and construction in their communities.

In Kiryat Arba, several dozen settlers, led by local-council head Malachi Levinger and right-wing activist Itamar Ben-Gvir, tried to block the inspectors' path.

At Kfar Tapuach, the gate was locked and police accompanying the inspectors broke in.

Some 100 demonstrators crowded the inspectors at the settlement Revava. Meanwhile, dozens of people, led by the local council head, gathered at the gate of the settlement Kedumim, waiting for inspectors who never arrived.

Efforts to block the freeze enjoy broad support in the settler community; banners were prepared Tuesday declaring "No entrance to the inspectors of Bibi's freeze," referring to Netanyahu.

Barak, who has authorized the hiring of 40 more inspectors for the Civil Administration to help enforce the moratorium, said that "the IDF and especially the [civil] administration are getting ready to ensure that the decision is carried out."

Barak added that the freeze "will be enforced fully and in a way that will ensure as much dialogue as possible with the settlers."