Settlers: We'll Prevent Inspectors From Enforcing Construction Freeze

Crackdown on settlements activity begins; group appeals move after Barak adds more W. Bank inspectors.

Settler leaders announced on Monday that they would prevent Israeli inspectors from enforcing a moratorium on new construction in West Bank settlements, Army Radio reported.

The statement by the Yesha council of settlements came after officials said inspectors armed with aerial maps and empowered to confiscate construction had begun enforcing the policy.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arranged Monday meet on the following day with the heads of West Bank regional authorities, in the wake of his decision to impose the settlement freeze. However, the premier cancelled the meeting on Monday evening, citing ill health.

He announced the 10-month moratorium last week, pitching it as an attempt to persuade Palestinians to return to U.S.-sponsored peace talks suspended since December.

The temporary moratorium does not apply to areas in the West Bank that Israel annexed after capturing the territory from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War.

Palestinians, who seek to establish a state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, brushed off the Israeli step as insufficient and a ruse.

Netanyahu's decision pits the government against settlers who, in many cases, have long expanded their enclaves without state approval.

"We are conducting operations throughout the West Bank. We have issued stop-work orders and begun confiscating equipment," said Lee Hiromoto, spokesman for the division in the Defense Ministry which handles West Bank administration.

"We have a good number of enforcement agents in the field, accompanied by security forces," he said.

Leaders of the some 300,000 Israelis living in the West Bank have accused Netanyahu - whose coalition government includes pro-settler parties - of capitulating to pressure from the Obama administration for a breakthrough with the Palestinians.

In Reuters TV footage that was aired in Israel on Sunday, Gershon Messika, head of the Samaria Regional Council in the northern West Bank, tore up a stop-work order delivered to him by an Israel Defense Forces major.

"This is an order to halt construction in the state of Israel. This is a racist, immoral and illegal decision which is therefore invalid," Messika said.

Asked about the incident, Hiromoto said: "There was no violence." He did not immediately offer details on where or why construction equipment had been confiscated.

Israel Radio said building inspectors had on Monday visited settlements in the Etzion and Binyamin blocs abutting Jerusalem.

The World Court has branded Israeli settlements illegal. The Palestinians, who number some 2.5 million in the West Bank, say the settlements could deny them a viable state.

Pro-settler group to Court: Stop settlement freeze

Meanwhile, the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel on Monday appealed to the High Court of Justice to put a stop to the government's plan to enforce the construction freeze.

The appeal was submitted a day after Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered his ministry to appoint 40 new supervisors across the territories to ensure no new construction be carried out.

In the group's appeal, attorney Yossi Fuchs said that such a decision must be made By the whole government, not just the cabinet.

"A decision likely to bring serious harm to the assets of Israeli citizens and is unrelated to security cannot be made in an underhanded, covert way, by a secret security cabinet or predetermined without any chance for ministers to appeal," he wrote.

Fourteen construction supervisors are currently operating in the West Bank. Within two weeks, 40 new supervisors will be trained to begin working in the region and dozens more will be recruited down the line to enforce the construction freeze.

The Israel Police, the Border Police and the Civil Administration will all participate in the enforcement of the freeze alongside the supervisors, under the authority of the Israel Defense Forces.

Barak on Sunday called the government's move to enforce the freeze an unprecedented step that proves Israel is serious about pursuing Middle East peace.

"This step was not carried out in the Olmert government or in the Sharon government, not in my government and not in Yitzhak Rabin's government either," said Barak. "The real significance is that for the first time, we are suspending all new construction for an extended period and therefore giving peace negotiations a chance."

Settlers vowed on Sunday to defy the government enforcement. Yishai Hollander, a spokesman for the settlers council, told The Associated Press there would be festive cornerstone ceremonies for new neighborhoods in multiple settlements in the next few days.

Meanwhile, the Yediot Ahronot daily reported that a councilman in the settlement of Ariel ripped up the order in front of military officials and said he would not accept it.

But with the beefed-up inspection effort, it appears unlikely the settlers will be able to do any substantial new construction in the coming months.