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West Bank construction intensifies tension

An Israeli soldier guards the West Bank settlement of Elon Moreh. Calls are mounting for soldiers to defy orders to enforce a slowdown of Israeli construction on lands claimed by the Palestinians.

Associated Press

An Israeli soldier guards the West Bank settlement of Elon Moreh. Calls are mounting for soldiers to defy orders to enforce a slowdown of Israeli construction on lands claimed by the Palestinians.

ELON MOREH, West Bank — From this Jewish settlement in the West Bank, calls are mounting for Israeli soldiers to cross a sacred line and defy orders to enforce a slowdown of Israeli construction on lands claimed by the Palestinians.

Anxious to preserve the army's role as the country's great unifier, Israeli authorities have jailed defiant soldiers, issued stern warnings to rebellious rabbis and recommended expelling one seminary from a program combining religious study and military service.

Though still on the fringes, the call to defiance points to the dilemma Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces in trying to mollify the Obama administration and draw the Palestinians back to peace talks by curtailing new settlement building in the West Bank for 10 months.

The Palestinians have not been lured. For them, the real issue is the half million Jewish settlers already living in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, their expanding towns and villages eating away at the Palestinian dream of an independent state.

Palestinians and international critics are skeptical about Netanyahu's freeze, noting that work will continue on some 3,000 apartments and houses already approved, and proceed unimpeded in east Jerusalem, where Palestinians hope to have their future capital.

But the settlers worry that it's the first step toward eventual eviction.

Some have destroyed Palestinian property, blocked inspectors from enforcing the building curbs and rallied 10,000 protesters outside Netanyahu's Jerusalem home last week. The settlers are also raising money to build more homes.

Extremists have taken to attacking Palestinians each time the government acts against settlers in a strategy known as the "price tag." That phrase was scrawled on the wall of a Palestinian mosque not far from Elon Moreh that was attacked by vandals who burned prayer carpets and holy books on Friday.

"We have a feeling that this (building freeze) won't stop in 10 months, that it will snowball," said Sraya Demsky.

The settlement of 2,000 people stands in the area where, according to the Old Testament, God promised Abraham: "To your offspring I will give this land." Settlers regard it as one of the crown jewels of Israel's 40-year drive to populate the West Bank with Jews.

The military recently punished six soldiers for refusing to take part in the demolition of two unauthorized settler houses in the West Bank. The ringleaders were educated in Elon Moreh's seminary.

West Bank construction intensifies tension 12/12/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 12, 2009 9:45pm]
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