Israeli settlers have hauled bulldozers, cement mixers and other construction equipment into a Jewish settlement deep inside the West Bank, Israeli and Palestinian officials said today, a day before the end of a government-mandated halt to settlement building.
The lifting of the construction restrictions late tomorrow presents the first major crisis in the new round of Middle East peace talks, launched earlier this month at the White House by US President Barack Obama.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who imposed the slowdown 10 months ago as a peace gesture, said he will not extend the restrictions. But the Palestinians, who oppose all Israeli construction on territories they claim for a future state, said they will not continue negotiations if building resumes.
With the clock ticking, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was racing to broker a compromise before the deadline in the hope of averting a breakdown in the talks.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and top Israeli officials, including the defence minister and Mr Netanyahu’s chief negotiator, are all in the US working on the issue. But Israeli and Palestinian officials said today that a deal was far from certain.
No details have emerged on what the compromise could entail, and officials on both sides of the conflict have refused to discuss the negotiations.
Some in Israel have proposed, for example, that limited building will resume but not the relatively unfettered construction that prevailed before the Israeli moratorium.
Mr Netanyahu declared the slowdown, which put a halt to most new housing starts, last November with the aim of coaxing the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
The Palestinians initially rejected the gesture, because it contained loopholes which allowed construction to proceed on thousands of settlement apartments.
With peace talks now under way, the Palestinians say it is essential that Israel leave the restrictions in place. Mr Abbas has repeatedly said he will be forced to walk away from the negotiations if construction resumes.
The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank, home to 300,000 Jewish settlers, as part of a future state, and say that by expanding settlements, Israel is imposing facts on the ground that make it increasingly difficult for them to establish a viable country.
At the same time, Mr Netanyahu faces heavy pressure within his pro-settler governing coalition to resume construction. Hardline elements in the coalition could try to bring down the government if Mr Netanyahu extends the settlement slowdown.
Danny Danon, a pro-settler politician in Mr Netanyahu’s Likud Party, said today that settlers have already moved equipment into the Revava settlement in the northern West Bank.
He said activists would lay the cornerstone for a new neighbourhood tomorrow, the last day of the slowdown, and planned additional construction on Monday after the restrictions formally end.
“Building will begin there tomorrow afternoon and continue there on Monday,” Mr Danon said.
Nawaf Souf, the Palestinian deputy governor in the area, said settlers have moved construction equipment and 20 to 30 mobile homes into Revava in recent days.
“The moment that the freeze is lifted, they will do the work openly,” he said.