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 forces dragged dozens of Palestinian activists from the area.
The activists 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 police and paramilitary border troops evicted the protesters. 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.
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 seek for their state. Netanyahu says peace talks should start without any preconditions. He 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 would 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 will bolster their position in negotiations. 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."
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."
Palestinian protest leaders hoped the tent camp would be the first of a new type of well planned, nonviolent protests against Israeli policies in the Palestinian territories.
In recent years, Palestinians have staged weekly rallies in some areas of the West Bank, demanding to get back land they lost to Israel's separation barrier. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has held up such tactics as worthy of emulation. The protests have remained relatively small, and media coverage has dropped off over the years.
The tent camp was set up after a month of planning by grass-roots groups using Facebook, Google Earth and other tools to find the right spot and stay in touch, said organizer Abdullah Abu Rahma.
The Palestinian Authority, the self-rule government in parts of the West Bank, provided legal assistance.
The activists said they pitched the tents on private Palestinian land and immediately obtained an Israeli court injunction preventing the removal of the tents for several days.
At the next court hearing, Israel will have to explain why it wants to take down the tents, said Mohammed Nazzal, a Palestinian Authority official whose department is involved in the legal proceedings. Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said he believes one of the issues in the hearing will be the status of the land where the tents were pitched.
Barghouti, meanwhile, said troops beat some of the protesters, a claim Rosenfeld denied. Rosenfeld said the protesters were carried away without injuries, put onto buses and dropped off at a West Bank checkpoint.
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 settlement outposts without formal approval, and critics say the government has done little to remove them.
Associated Press writers Karin Laub in Ramallah and Amy Teibel in Jerusalem contributed to this report.