RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Israel's prime minister pledged Sunday to move ahead with construction of a new Jewish settlement in a strategic part of the West Bank, speaking just hours after Israeli troops dragged dozens of Palestinian anti-settlement activists from the area.
The activists had pitched more than two dozen tents at the site on Friday, laying claim to the land and drawing attention to Israel's internationally condemned settlement policy.
Before dawn Sunday, hundreds of Israeli soldiers removed the protesters by force, beating some, activists said. Despite the eviction, Mustafa Barghouti, one of the protest leaders, claimed success, saying the overall strategy is to "make (Israel's) occupation costly."
The planned settlement, known as E-1, would deepen east Jerusalem's separation from the West Bank, war-won areas the Palestinians want for their state. The project had been on hold for years, in part because of U.S. objections.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revived the E-1 plans late last year, in response to the Palestinians' successful bid for U.N. recognition of a state of Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
Jewish settlements are at the heart of the current, four-year impasse in Mideast peace efforts. The Palestinians have refused to negotiate while Israel continues to build settlements on the lands they claim for a future state. Netanyahu says peace talks should start without any preconditions. Netanyahu also rejects any division of Jerusalem.
Israel expanded the boundaries of east Jerusalem after the 1967 war and then annexed the area — a move not recognized by the international community. Since then, it has built a ring of Jewish settlements in the enlarged eastern sector to cement its control over the city.
E-1 would be built in the West Bank, just east of Jerusalem, and close one of the last options for Palestinians to create territorial continuity between Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, their hoped-for capital, and the West Bank. According to building plans, E-1 would have more than 3,000 apartments.
The Palestinians say they turned to the U.N. last November out of frustration with the deadlock in peace talks. They believe the international endorsement of the 1967 lines as a future border will bolster their position in future negotiations. But Israel has accused the Palestinians of trying to bypass the negotiating process and impose a solution.
Netanyahu told Israel Army Radio on Sunday that it would take time to build E-1, citing planning procedures. Still, he said, "we will complete the planning and there will be construction."
Barghouti, one of the protest leaders, said the demonstrators pitched the tents on private Palestinian land and obtained an Israeli court injunction preventing the removal of the tents for several days. In response, Israel declared the site a closed military zone, enabling Israeli soldiers to evict the activists, he said.
When asked why the protesters were removed, Netanyahu said: "They have no reason to be there. I asked immediately to close the area so people would not gather there needlessly and generate friction and disrupt public order."
About half a million Israelis live in the dozens of settlements that dot the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Over the past 15 years, Jewish settlers have also set up dozens of rogue settlements, without formal approval, and critics say the government has done little to remove them.
Associated Press writer Amy Teibel in Jerusalem contributed to this report.