JERUSALEM – Israeli police arrested the mayor of a West Bank Jewish settlement on Wednesday after protesters blocked security forces from entering the community to enforce a construction freeze.
The showdown was the most serious incident of settler unrest since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week announced the 10-month building freeze, which bars the construction of new homes in West Bank settlements.
Settler leaders have vowed to defy the order, which Netanyahu says is meant as a confidence-building gesture to get peace efforts with the Palestinians back on track.
Confronting the settlers could help Netanyahu convince skeptical Palestinians and a wary Obama administration that he's serious about resuming talks. The Palestinians are refusing to talk peace with Netanyahu and say his settlement freeze is a sham because it excludes certain projects as well as east Jerusalem, the section of the holy city they claim as a capital.
Israel's Haaretz daily reported Wednesday a sharp rise in the number of east Jerusalem Arabs who were stripped of their residency in 2008. It said Israel's Interior Ministry revoked the residency of 4,577 east Jerusalemites in 2008 — more than 20 times the annual average of the previous 40 years.
East Jerusalem Palestinians, in contrast to those in the West Bank, have residency rights that allow them to travel freely in Israel and entitle them to Israeli health care and social benefits.
The Interior Ministry refused to confirm the Haaretz statistics, but said that individuals must prove they spend most of their time in the city to maintain their residency.
"At the beginning of 2009, the immigration authority decided to conduct a thorough check of permanent residents in Israel whose center of life is not in Israel," the statement read. "When it was found that many do not live in Israel, it was decided to update their status in the registry accordingly."
Critics say such orders are aimed at cementing Israeli control over Jerusalem.
In Wednesday's unrest, Avi Naim, mayor of the Beit Arieh settlement in the central West Bank, was apprehended for allegedly disrupting a police officer in the line of duty, said settler spokesman Yishai Hollender.
He said Naim and a group of settlers had blocked the entrance to the settlement when troops arrived to hand out orders to cease construction at the site.
Inspection teams, joined by soldiers and police, have visited dozens of the roughly 120 Jewish settlements in the West Bank in recent days to enforce the order. The Israeli military said it has issued more than 60 orders to halt unauthorized construction and confiscated about a half-dozen pieces of heavy equipment.
While there have been minor confrontations between settlers and security forces, there have been no reports of violence.
The settlement freeze has put both Netanyahu and the settlers into delicate situations.
The settler movement, a small but formerly influential lobbying group, has been struggling to regain its strength since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, uprooting all 8,000 settlers living there. At the same time, the settlers are wary of being portrayed as violent extremists.
Dani Dayan, leader of the West Bank settlers' council, said that activists would use only nonviolent means to defy the freeze.
"We'll do whatever it takes to preserve our communities. This is where we live. We can build where we want," he said during a cornerstone laying ceremony for a new synagogue in the settlement of Efrat. "If we have to be arrested, we will be arrested."
Netanyahu, a traditional supporter of the settlers, is now under heavy international pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians.
Seeking to calm the settlers, Netanyahu emphasized Tuesday that the 10-month freeze is a one-time measure that will not be extended.
"We will resume building at the end of the freeze," he said in a speech, referring to the settlers as "our brothers and sisters" and "an integral part of our people."
The Palestinians have refused to start peace talks with Netanyahu unless he freezes all settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — captured areas they claim as parts of a future independent state. Some 300,000 settlers live in the West Bank, in addition to 180,000 Jewish Israelis living in east Jerusalem.
They have rejected Netanyahu's 10-month freeze as insufficient because it does not include east Jerusalem or 3,000 homes that were already under construction when the order was approved.