Jerusalem: Israel`s Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday urged Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas not to abandon peace talks as Jewish settlers started building again after the expiry of a 10-month freeze.
Just minutes after the end of the moratorium on new building in the West Bank, which formally expired at midnight, the Israeli Premier issued an appeal to Abbas to stick with the peace talks, which were launched earlier this month.
"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 in a bid to prevent the Palestinian leader from walking away from the negotiations.
Abbas, who is in Paris, immediately responded, urging Netanyahu to extend the freeze in order to save the talks, his spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said.
"Netanyahu must take a decision to freeze the settlements in order to create an appropriate atmosphere to proceed with the peace talks," he said.
Shortly after sunrise, bulldozers and other heavy machinery lumbered into action at a handful of small settlements across the West Bank, albeit on a modest scale, Israeli media outlets reported.
Earthmovers were spotted hard at work in the settlement of Adam, north of Jerusalem, where around 30 homes are due to be built, public radio said.
Construction was also due to start in at least eight other small settlements, including in the flashpoint enclave of Kiryat Arba, where 600 extreme rightwing settlers live in the heart of the southern city of Hebron, Israel`s private Channel 2 television said.
The expiry of the moratorium means that anyone who obtained a permit to build prior to the moratorium can now go ahead and start working.
Building work at this stage is likely to be limited to isolated settlements where several hundred housing units are due to be built in the coming months, media reports suggest.
It is also likely to start on a limited scale because of the ongoing Jewish festival of Succot, which ends at sundown on Thursday.
A wide-scale resumption of settlement construction would almost certainly force Abbas to quit talks, but Israel is hoping that he would tolerate low-key construction.
Washington is also keeping up pressure on Netanyahu to re-impose 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.
"We keep pushing for the talks to continue," he said, pointing out that US peace envoy George Mitchell had held talks with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who is in New York, and that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had spoken with Netanyahu.
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" -- in a move acknowledged by settler leaders.
"We are getting back to business as usual and building but we will respect the prime minister`s request," said David Ha`ivri, head of the Samaria regional council.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, settler sources said they had been given the nod from the premier`s office to start building -- but on condition they "don`t make a big deal of it”.
As debate raged over the end of the settlement freeze, events on the ground late Sunday turned violent when gunmen opened fire on an Israeli vehicle in the southern West Bank, lightly wounding a man and his pregnant wife, the military said.
The attack happened south of Hebron, not far from the site of a similar shooting earlier in the month which left four Israelis dead, and which was claimed by the radical Hamas movement.
Jewish settlement on occupied Palestinian land is one of the most bitter aspects of the conflict. Currently, around 500,000 Israelis live in more than 120 settlements across the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories the Palestinians want for their promised state.
A previous round of direct talks collapsed in December 2008 when Israel launched a war on the Gaza Strip aimed at halting rocket attacks.