JERUSALEM — Jewish settlers across the West Bank have vowed to begin construction in more than 60 locations, posing a direct challenge to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he returned home from Thursday's first round of direct peace talks in Washington.
Settler spokesman Naftali Bennet said construction would begin immediately in settlements across the West Bank, a direct violation of the freeze that Netanyahu imposed in November. That freeze expires Sept. 26, but Bennet said settlers had been moved to action after to a spate of shootings at settler vehicles this week.
For three consecutive nights this week, assailants organized by the Palestinian Hamas movement shot at cars carrying settlers. They killed four settlers Tuesday night, and wounded two more late Wednesday night. Two Israelis who were shot at Thursday night said the guns of the shooters jammed, and they were able to escape unharmed.
Police said that in all the attacks, a car overtook that of the settlers and opened fire — spraying the vehicles with bullets.
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Bennet said the attacks were an example of what awaits Israel if it fails to support the settler movement.
The United States was trying to force Israel into a "phony peace" Bennet said.
"Once they understand Israelis are here to stay and only growing stronger day by day, they will give up," Bennet said.
The settlers' political backers include many lawmakers within Netanyahu's own Likud party. Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom of Likud has said that extending the freeze on all construction in the settlements, which Palestinians are demanding as a condition for continuing the talks, could lead to the dissolution of Netanyahu's coalition and force early elections.
Settlers plan demonstrations throughout the week to try to persuade Netanyahu to allow building in the settlements, in defiance of demands of the Americans and Palestinians.
The current freeze in construction allowed for projects such as kindergartens and community centers. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas complained that it was a freeze in name alone.