Israel settlement freeze end clouds peace talks
Jerusalem: Settlement building resumed across the West Bank on Monday just hours after a 10-month freeze expired, but the Palestinian leadership held back on a threat to quit peace talks with Israel over the move.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas had repeatedly warned he will turn his back on direct negotiations with Israel should the Jewish state continue building on occupied Palestinian land.
But, despite weeks of international pressure, Israel`s hardline premier Benjamin Netanyahu made no move to extend the moratorium on new building in the West Bank, which formally ended at midnight (2200 GMT Sunday).
As bulldozers across the West Bank lumbered into action early on Monday, Abbas told reporters in Paris he would not rush to respond to Israel`s failure to extend the freeze, but would first consult Palestinian and Arab leaders.
He said the Palestinians would hold a cabinet meeting later this week and then discuss the next step 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, after Israel has refused to freeze settlements," Abbas said.
Just minutes after midnight, Netanyahu had appealed to the Palestinian leader to stick with the talks, which were relaunched earlier this month after a 20-month hiatus.
"I call on president Abbas to continue with the good and honest talks we have just embarked upon, in an attempt to reach a historic peace agreement between our two peoples," he said.
Shortly after sunrise, building work began in around a dozen small settlements, albeit on a modest scale.
An earthmover broke new ground on the outskirts of Adam settlement, north of Jerusalem, and another digger prepared the foundations for several dozen housing units in Kohav HaShahar northeast of the city of Ramallah.
A bulldozer was also seen moving earth in Shaar Binyamin near Ramallah.
Construction was due to start in at least seven other settlements, including in Kiryat Arba, where 6,500 Israelis live on the edge of the flashpoint southern city of Hebron, Channel 2 television and Haaretz newspaper said.
The expiry of the moratorium means anyone who obtained a permit to build prior to the freeze can now go ahead and start work.
However, for practical reasons, no major construction was taking place -- largely due to the ongoing Jewish festival of Succot, 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.
A wide-scale resumption of settlement construction would almost certainly force Abbas to quit the talks, but Israel is hoping that he will tolerate low-key construction.
The Islamist Hamas movement which controls Gaza called on the Palestinian leader 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 in the Syrian capital Damascus.
"To negotiate without a position of strength is absurd," he stressed.
Washington is also keeping up its pressure on the Israeli premier to reimpose the settlement freeze, with a State Department spokesman saying efforts to that end would continue.
"We remain in close touch with both parties and will be meeting with them again in the coming days," said PJ Crowley.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who held talks with Abbas, sharply criticised the Israeli decision.
"We regret that the unanimous calls for the moratorium on Israeli settlement building to be extended were not listened to. I deplore this," Sarkozy told joint news conference with the Palestinian leader.
Just before the freeze ended, Netanyahu urged the settlers to keep a low profile as they start building again, and called on them to display "restraint and responsibility."
"We are getting back to business as usual and building but we will respect the prime minister`s request," said David Ha`ivri, a settler leader in the northern West Bank.
Settler sources told AFP they had been given the nod from Netanyahu`s office to start building -- but on condition they "don`t make a big deal of it."
Jewish settlement on occupied Palestinian land is one of the most bitter aspects of the conflict.
About 500,000 Israelis live in more than 120 settlements across the West Bank, including annexed Arab east Jerusalem, territories the Palestinians want for their promised state.
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