HAVAT GILAD, West Bank – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday rejected President Obama's demand for a freeze on West Bank Jewish settlement construction, but his government's move to dismantle some squatter camps set off a rampage by Jewish settlers against Palestinians.
It was a violent reminder that Netanyahu is caught between his own hard-line supporters and Israel's vital relationship with Washington. So far, Netanyahu has appeared sympathetic to the settlers, but protests over his limited West Bank policy spread as far as Jerusalem.
On Monday, Netanyahu briefed the Israeli parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee about his recent meeting with Obama. The American president and his secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, have demanded that Israel halt all settlement construction, including expansion to accommodate what Israel calls "natural growth" of settlements.
Netanyahu said Israel cannot "freeze life" in settlements, according to a participant who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed. Netanyahu was quoted as saying that "there are reasonable requests and unreasonable requests."
At the same time, in an apparent gesture to Obama, Netanyahu's government has begun dismantling small settler outposts built without formal government authorization. But even that limited step has triggered settler violence.
Settlers have vowed to retaliate with attacks on Palestinians after removal even the tiniest enclave — a tactic known as "price tag."
"We will do everything we can to oppose this," said settler Yehuda Shimon at the Havat Gilad outpost in the northern West Bank.
Monday's settler violence started near the radical settlement of Yizhar, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. About 100 settlers blocked a road. Six were later arrested.
Before dawn, near the Kedumim settlement, stone-throwing settlers ambushed a minivan carrying Palestinian laborers to Israel, the workers said. Six of the 15 Palestinians on board were hurt, including Yahye Sadah, 44, who was hit in the head and said he needed six stitches.
Police said settlers threw rocks and burned tires and then fled. Police said no arrests were made.
A few hours later, settlers torched a wooded hilltop near Nablus and set trees and Palestinian agricultural land on fire near the village of Hawara, residents said. Romel Sweiti, a local resident, said about 50 teenage settler girls gathered on a main road and blocked traffic as Israeli paramilitary police stood in the background.
Toward nightfall, about 20 young Jewish extremists briefly blocked the highway into Jerusalem, burning tires and a garbage bin, causing a huge rush hour traffic jam. Police dragged the struggling youths away, arresting four.
One of the protesters, Menachem Novick, 28, said the goal was to press Netanyahu and his party to keep their campaign pledge to expand the settlements. "We want to give them a push to do what they were elected to do," he said.
On another touchy diplomatic front, U.N. investigators on Monday began looking into possible war crimes during Israel's three-week offensive earlier this year against Gaza's Hamas rulers, even though they failed to secure a promise of cooperation from Israel.
Israeli officials have insisted the investigation, led by veteran war crimes prosecutor Richard Goldstone, would not be objective, citing alleged anti-Israel bias by the U.N. agency sponsoring the probe.
Goldstone, who is Jewish and South African with close ties to Israel, has said he wants to investigate both Israel and Hamas. After arriving in Gaza City from Egypt with a 15-member team Monday, he said would deliver his report by August.
Nearly 300,000 Israelis live in West Bank settlements among 2.4 million Palestinians. Another 180,000 live in Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem. The Palestinians claim both areas — captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war — as parts of a future independent state.
In recent years, settlers have set up dozens of squatter camps, or outposts, that lack formal government approval, but often received funding and support from government agencies. Israel has failed to keep a promise to the U.S., first made in 2003, to dismantle about two dozen outposts.
The U.S. considers the settlements an obstacle to peace but has done little on the issue, a policy that appears to be changing under Obama.