Israeli settler move dashes US hopes

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Jewish settlers resumed building across the West Bank on Monday after Israel allowed curbs to expire, dashing US hopes of keeping the Palestinians in fledgling peace talks.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas had repeatedly warned he would abandon US-backed negotiations with Israel should the Jewish state keep constructing settlements on occupied Palestinian land.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to extend the moratorium on new settler homes in the occupied West Bank, which formally ended at midnight (2200 GMT Sunday).

The United States said it was "disappointed" that the 10-month moratorium expired, and announced its envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, was on his way to the region in a bid to resolve the "dilemma."

As bulldozers across the West Bank lumbered into action on Monday, Abbas said he would consult his Fatah movement and the Palestine Liberation Organisation this week and meet with Arab foreign ministers on October 4.

"After all these meetings we may be able to issue a position to clarify what is the Palestinian and Arab opinion on this matter," Abbas said in Paris.

Netanyahu has urged Abbas to stick with the talks, which were launched on September 2 after a 20-month hiatus.

US State Department spokesman PJ Crowley praised Abbas for not immediately backing out of the negotiations saying his "restraint at this point is appreciated."

But Washington is "disappointed" with the Israeli decision.

"We recognise that given the decision yesterday we still have a dilemma to resolve," Crowley said. "One way or the other the parties have to find a way to continue direct negotiations.

Britain and the European Union also expressed regret about the Israeli decision.

"I am very disappointed to hear that the moratorium has not been renewed," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said.

EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton expressed "regret" and said: "We are examining the consequences of this decision..."

In the West Bank, settlement construction was under way at Yitzhar and Ariel in the northern West Bank, Adam north of Jerusalem, and Kohav HaShahar and Shaar Benyamin near the West Bank town of Ramallah.

A carnival-like atmosphere prevailed as about 15,000 Israelis gathered in a flashpoint settlement in the heart of the southern West Bank city of Hebron, although most were ultra-Orthodox celebrating the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

"Today we are one day after the freeze, a move I always opposed and said was a bad idea," Silvan Shalom, a minister from Netanyahu's Likud party, told the crowd.

"I said that 10 months was too much. One day was too much."

There were no reports of any major construction taking place, in part because of Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles, during which Jews are not supposed to work.

And as a result of the blanket closure imposed on the West Bank until the holiday ends on Thursday night, Palestinian construction workers -- thousands of whom earn a living by building settlements -- will not be able to return to work until October 3, after the weekend.

Meanwhile the Islamist Hamas movement that rules Gaza called on Abbas to stand by his threat to end the negotiations.

"I call on my brothers at the Palestinian Authority, who had stated they would not pursue talks with the enemy (Israel) if it continued settlement construction, to hold to their promise," its exiled chief Khaled Meshaal said.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy sharply criticised the Israeli decision. "I deplore this," Sarkozy told a joint news conference with Abbas after talks in Paris.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also expressed disappointment with Israel and concern at what he called "provocative actions taking place on the ground," his spokesman said.

Just before the freeze ended, Netanyahu urged settlers to display "restraint and responsibility."

"We are building, but quietly," settler leader Zvi Katzover told AFP in Hebron.

"We hope it is really over and not just a trick... We are very suspicious, but we hope that we can still build and build big, like we used to."

The Palestinians have long deplored the presence of 500,000 Israelis in more than 120 settlements scattered across the West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem, lands expected to form the bulk of a future Palestinian state.

The international community views all settlements as illegal.


© 2010 AFP

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