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Israeli minister says settlers' resistance 'natural'

Remarks come as West Bank settlers step up protest against the order for a temporary construction moratorium.

RAMALLAH // As Jewish settlers step up their resistance to a temporary and partial settlement construction freeze ordered last month by the Israeli government, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's foreign minister, yesterday said the opposition was "legitimate" and "natural".

While Mr Lieberman, himself a settler, did not condone the kind of action that has seen settlers try to block access roads to Jerusalem or prevent government officials from reaching settlements to implement the construction freeze order, his comments indicate that the order has struck a nerve with settlers and consequently the reaction will have a political fallout. Over the past few days, settlers stepped up their action against the order, evident in incidents of vandalism on Palestinians' properties, their efforts to disrupt the lives of Israelis and target government officials with protests outside their homes. The well-orchestrated campaign seems to have taken the Israeli government by surprise.

When the government ordered the freeze in November, ministers might have thought they had included enough exceptions to minimise protests by settlers. The 10-month moratorium on settlement construction excludes building in occupied East Jerusalem, 3,000 housing units already under construction in the West Bank as well as construction deemed "essential for normal life" in settlements, from synagogues to kindergartens.

Palestinians are not happy and say the freeze falls short of Israel's obligations under the 2003 road map, which also calls on Israel to dismantle so-called settlement outposts, settlements established without the express permission of the Israeli government. The Palestine Liberation Organisation is refusing to return to negotiations until a full freeze is implemented, especially in East Jerusalem.

Settlers, however, have taken unexpected umbrage at the order and have demonstrated in the thousands to make its implementation as hard and politically as costly as possible. "Whatever concessions the government has offered, they do not seem to have pacified the settlers," said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli analyst. Mr Alpher suggested that settlers did not believe assurances by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, that the moratorium would not be extended beyond the 10-month period. Settlers feel "betrayed".

"This is being done by one of their own, Netanyahu, on their own right wing, with Benny Begin [a minister without portfolio] and Moshe Yaalon [vice prime minister and minister for strategic affairs] concurring," Mr Alpher said. The freeze itself is not taken seriously by settlers, said Dror Etkes, of Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group. What is taken seriously is that the freeze comes under a right-wing Israeli government.

"It's not about the freeze. It's about the gradual and painful decline in the Greater Israel concept. If the freeze came from Labour, it would have been hard enough. But that it comes from the Likud-led government, which is supposed to be most committed to the concept of Greater Israel, hurts." Mr Etkes suggested that a division is emerging within the Israeli settlement movement between those who have internalised the political reality and are engaged in limiting the damage to the settlement project and those, mostly second- and third-generation settlers, who will not compromise.

"For some, the current [settler] protest is a deterrent. To others, it is an existential issue," Mr Etkes said. Mr Alpher saw similarities with previous protests against the Gaza withdrawal. "In a way this is a continuation. Now, settlers are saying to themselves, 'We didn't react strongly enough then. We have to draw the line here'. So, the current protests are pre-emptive, but they are also defensive, a sign that settlers feel themselves becoming more isolated even under a right-wing government."

However isolated settlers may feel themselves becoming, their movement is highly organised and politically influential in Israel. For years, the movement has managed to deter Israeli governments, with the exception of Ariel Sharon's, the last far-right prime minister, from making any serious moves against the settlement projects. There is little doubt that the movement has internalised lessons from Mr Sharon's Gaza withdrawal in 2005 and the current protests are to a large extent about making any moves against settlements by any government politically unviable. Settler watchers such as Mr Etkes say they expect the coming weeks and months will witness an increase in settler activities to thwart the freeze, including more organised violence against Palestinians in the West Bank.

"Unfortunately, we will see much more violence against Palestinians. Settlers know they enjoy very widespread impunity from the Israeli authorities, who will do nothing to find those responsible for such criminal behaviour, so they have no reason not to." okarmi@thenational.ae