JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Thousands of Jewish West Bank settlers and their supporters demonstrated near the official residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Wednesday to protest his 10-month building freeze.
The demonstration, which generally went off without incident, was the first major gathering in several years of settlers to protest an Israeli government’s actions to suspend settlement activity in the occupied West Bank.
The main slogan “Break the Freeze” was one of many visible among the demonstrators who stood on the streets of a central neighbourhood in Jewish west Jerusalem.
“The thousands of people here give us the courage to stand against the government and to find a way to continue the building in all the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria (West Bank),” settler leader Pinhas Wallerstein, a participant, said.
Ideological divides run deep in Israel, especially over the future of some 500,000 Jews who live among 2.7 million Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas captured in a 1967 war that Palestinians for a viable future state.
Netanyahu’s November 25 call to freeze some settlement building was intended to help re-start peace talks with the Palestinians. These have been frozen for a year but the Palestinians insist that all settlement activity must stop before talks can resume.
The freeze applies to housing but not in East Jerusalem or to schools, synagogues and other community infrastructure in the settlements.
A government official said on Wednesday night that Netanyahu’s cabinet would approve at its next session set for Sunday, funding of some $29 million (17.8 million pounds) for education, health and transportation assistance to dozens of settlements.
Some Jewish settlers have already organised resistance to the freeze and there have been confrontations with government inspectors sent to the West Bank communities to hand out orders to stop construction and to check that no building is ongoing.
There has been little evidence to suggest that the protests have influenced the Israeli government to change its mind over the freeze but Netanyahu this week sought to reassure the settlers that the freeze would have only a limited effect.
Ministers have made clear that the measure announced last month was aimed at Israel’s ally the United States, which had been pressing the Jewish state to make the concession, rather than in expectation of pleasing Palestinians.