Settlers protest in Jerusalem against freeze

JERUSALEM -- About 10,000 West Bank settlers and their backers filled part of downtown Jerusalem Wednesday, listening to fiery speeches, dancing in circles and pledging to defy a building ban imposed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The relatively large turnout on a cold night reflected support for settler resistance to the government ban on most new housing.

The ban is designed to encourage resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians.

Settlers held signs and banners that read, "We will continue to build" and "stop Iran's nukes, not our homes."

Netanyahu, a former ally, is widely perceived by the settlers to have caved in to American pressure.

Images of angry settlers blocking government inspectors from delivering stop-work orders and thousands of protesters across from his residence could help Netanyahu paint himself to be going as far as he can under the circumstances in the search for peace.

Palestinians dismiss the building restrictions as insincere and insufficient, since they do not include east Jerusalem or 3,000 homes already under construction in the West Bank. Palestinians claim the West Bank and east Jerusalem as parts of a future state.

They say they will not resume talks until all settlement construction ceases.

At the demonstration, speakers railed against the restrictions and the crowd chanted, "Break the freeze!"

Settler leader Dani Dayan complained, "Not one Jewish home can be built now."

An area was set aside for those who preferred a separation between men and women for religious reasons. Most of the demonstrators were Orthodox Jews -- many of them teenagers.

Netanyahu announced the 10-month halt in most new West Bank housing construction last month in an attempt to restart peace talks, which broke down a year ago. The restrictions infuriated Jewish settlers and their backers in Netanyahu's hard-line coalition.

"I think this is a violation of people's basic rights if they can't build homes on their own property," said Jamie Levavi, a 25-year-old settler originally from Cleveland, Ohio. "If the people of Israel speak up enough, our own government will listen to us."

The settlers have been struggling to regain their strength since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, uprooting all 8,000 Israelis who were living there, despite vocal and sometimes violent settler opposition.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, himself a settler, said the Jerusalem protest was legitimate.

"If someone came to you and froze construction on your house while you were building it, you would also object," he told Israel Radio. "I just hope the struggle and the resistance remain within the framework of a legitimate political protest that is acceptable in a democratic state."

Speaking after a meeting of top ministers and security chiefs on Wednesday, Netanyahu said the Palestinians seem to have adopted a strategy of "rejecting negotiations with Israel."

"This is a mistake. There can be no genuine solution without direct negotiations with Israel, in the framework of which we will reach agreements and arrangements between the sides," he said.

The Israeli settlement watchdog group Peace Now also cast new doubts on the building freeze, saying that building in the West Bank continues to take place at a greater pace than elsewhere in Israel.

"Beyond the political dispute going on around the settlements, the argument of the settlers that they are discriminated against is simply not true," said Peace Now leader Yariv Oppenheimer.

Some 300,000 settlers live in the West Bank, in addition to 180,000 Jewish Israelis living in east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed soon after. Netanyahu opposes any withdrawal from east Jerusalem, which Israel considers part of its eternal undivided capital.

The strong resistance at home could help Netanyahu in his political battles, casting him as a strong leader willing to make concessions in the face of fierce opposition from his own supporters.

Some of Wednesday's protesters said they would be willing to go to jail over their resistance.

"We want to show the world that there is opposition and we are willing to fight," said Joab Tzarum, 49. "We want peace, but not peace at any price. Not peace in the form of a noose. This freeze is a noose for the land of Israel and the people of Israel."