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West Bank settlers threaten to break construction freeze

JERUSALEM — As President Barack Obama launched top level Middle East peace talks in Washington, Jewish settlers across the West Bank, enraged by the killing of four West Bank settlers, Wednesday held up signs, declaring: "Peace or no peace, we will build" and began breaking an official construction freeze that is essential to the talks.

Even before the Arab-Israeli summit began, the issue of expanding Jewish settlements in the mostly Palestinian territory was poised to be the most contentious element in the talks, with West Bank Palestinians threatening to quit them if the government freeze is lifted.

The Palestinian militant group Hamas, which opposes the Washington talks, stirred the passions among settlers by claiming credit for the killings near the flashpoint city of Hebron, and settlers proceeded to challenge the basis for the talks.

Hamas called the shootings a "natural reaction" to the pain of the occupation.

President Barack Obama denounced the West Bank ambush in a speech launching the summit.

"The message should go out to Hamas and everyone else who is taking credit for these heinous crimes that this is not going to stop us," he said.

Israeli authorities reported another shooting late Wednesday evening near Ramallah, in which a man and a woman were injured. Both were taken to hospital with injuries, but there was no indication whether they were Palestinians or Jews.

In Gaza, which Hamas controls, Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar issued a statement denouncing any compromise between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

"Today marks the start of direct negotiations between someone who has no right to represent the Palestinian people and the brutal occupier, to provide a cover for Judaizing Jerusalem and stealing the land," Zahar said.

On the West Bank, which is controlled by the Fatah movement, Hamas's rival, Israeli and Palestinian security forces launched a major crackdown and detained hundreds of Hamas supporters.

In parallel, thousands of settlers took part in the funerals for the four killed, and many of them used the occasion to make a political statement to the Israeli leadership in Washington.

Yesha, the council for the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, made a formal declaration that settlers would resume building immediately — despite a government freeze in construction that is scheduled to end on Sept. 26.

"What is going on in Washington is a farce. This is not peace, it's talking with terrorists that are determined to erase us from the earth. We are determined to stop that, and the only way to do that is to build," said Naftali Benne, the director general of Yesha.

Some settlers immediately made good on their word, staging a very public ground breaking ceremony in the settlement of Adam Wednesday night.

Settlers broke ground on a small patch, using shovels and diggers. A cement mixer was nearby to begin laying down concrete later this week, Yesha said in a statement.

Across the West Bank, settlers began work on a number of other structures under the cover of darkness, including a kindergarten in the Kedumim settlement in the northern West Bank, a sports center in Adam, and a private home in Beit Haggai — the Hebron Hills outpost where the four victims from the shooting attack lived.

The current freeze in construction — initiated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu 10 months ago — allowed for projects such as kindergartens and community centers. Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas complained that it was a freeze in name alone.

However, the work on the home outside Beit Haggai was a flagrant step against the freeze, one that will be sure to draw attention, said Hebron settler Danny Yishai.

"We knew what we were doing, and we felt it to be right," he told McClatchy. "The prime minister will not tell us in the time of mourning that we cannot build for our community."

A number of settler leaders expressed a similar sentiment Wednesday, including members of Netanyahu's coalition who are sympathetic to the settler movement.

Reuven Rivlin, Israeli Knesset speaker and veteran member of Netanyahu's Likud Party said at one of the funerals Wednesday that renewed construction would be "a proper Zionist response to terror."

Palestinian negotiators have called the settlement issue "the largest hurdle" in the upcoming talks. Abbas has openly stated that if construction in the settlements resumes on September 26, he would call off all talks with Israel.

However, Netanyahu is likely to return from Washington to renewed pressure from the pro-settler groups, said Israeli columnist Shimon Shiffer.

In a poll Wednesday by Israel's Channel 10 News, two-thirds of Israelis said they supported a total or partial resumption of settlement building in the West Bank. While 25 percent said that construction should resume only in the larger settlement blocks that Israel intends to keep in a final peace deal, 39 percent said they favor construction in all the settlements.

Though the West Bank is earmarked for a future Palestinian State, past negotiations have suggested that Israel could retain large swaths of the West Bank where larger settlements have formed sprawling cities.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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