Thousands of right-wing Israelis protested in Jerusalem against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to partially suspend construction in West Bank settlements.
Dozens of buses transported settlers from all over the occupied territory as well as supporters from elsewhere in Israel to the rally in a wet and rainy central Jerusalem.
The protesters held up signs Wednesday reading “God’s Bible gave us this land” and “We will keep building in Judea and Samaria,” and wore T-shirts declaring, “Freeze the freeze”.
Judea and Samaria are the Hebrew Biblical names that Israel uses for the southern and northern West Bank, respectively.
In bid to appease his right-wing constituents, Netanyahu meanwhile decided to allocate additional funding to a number of isolated West Bank settlements, home to a total of more than 100,000 settlers.
The funding would, among others, go to education.
The isolated settlements - not part of Israel’s main settlement blocks - were included in a periodically revised “Map of National Priorities,” the new version of which was handed out by Netanyahu to his ministers Wednesday.
The inclusion of the isolated settlements in the new map is likely to spark international criticism. Netanyahu’s office said in response it also included dozens of Arab villages inside Israel in the new map.
The Netanyahu government’s two-year budget allocates some 4 billion Israeli shekels (just over $1 billion) to all communities - both in Israel and the West Bank - defined by the map as a “national priority”.
Netanyahu, of the hardline but mainstream Likud party, enraged his right-wing voters when he announced the partial construction moratorium last week.
The premier, who since taking office in March has been under pressure from the US and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to stop Israeli construction in the occupied West Bank, said he hoped the 10 month suspension would prompt Abbas to revive peace talks with him.
But the Palestinians have rejected the move because the suspension does not include East Jerusalem, nor a few thousand housing units in West Bank settlements whose construction has already begun. Public buildings including schools and kindergartens are also exempt.
Abbas has made a full settlement freeze a precondition for reviving negotiations, broken off since late last year as Israel headed into new elections.
Washington has said the moratorium falls “far short” of its and the Palestinian demand for a full freeze, but nonetheless praised it as “unprecedented” and urged Abbas to drop his preconditions for talks.
Earlier Wednesday, Netanyahu accused Abbas of having made a “strategic” choice not to enter into peace negotiations with him.
“It seems that the Palestinians have adopted a strategy of rejecting negotiations with Israel,” he told his security cabinet, according to a statement from his office.
Netanyahu accused Abbas’ of rejecting peace talks with him “to avoid the demands of Israel and the international community which require compromises on their part”.
Calling Abbas’ policy a “mistake,” Netanyahu told the 15-member forum of senior ministers that “there can be no genuine solution without direct negotiations with Israel.”
“The history of Israel cannot be frozen,” said a settler leader addressing the crowd protesting near the premier’s residence later in the evening, in what he said was a message to Netanyahu and the White House.
“We are afraid that the freeze won’t last only 10 months. Netanyahu is a weak leader and he will follow the pressures of the United States and the European Union,” David, a supporter of the settlements from Jerusalem, said.
“To give back Judea and Samaria will be the end of Israel,” warned the 50-year-old.