Protests Mount Against Israel's Settlement Freeze

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Tomer Appelbaum / AP

Israeli police officers scuffle with a settler at the West Bank settlement of Kedumim

Israeli settlers are a tough bunch and not easily deterred by a bit of cold weather — or, for that matter, by a partial government freeze on construction in the occupied West Bank. Despite the blustery December chill in the air in Jerusalem on Wednesday evening, about 10,000 demonstrators, mostly settlers, gathered near the residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to demand their right to build at will. "Bibi, you can't freeze our spirit!" shouted the lead speaker, using Netanyahu's nickname. "We'll continue to build the land of Israel, with or without you!"

Tension between the government and West Bank settlers has been rising since November, when Netanyahu's cabinet called for a 10-month pause in construction, in response to pressure from the U.S. and Europe to stop expanding its grip on territories captured in the war of 1967. Obama had hoped a settlement freeze would enable a resumption of peace talks, because the West Bank and East Jerusalem (together with Gaza) are seen by the Palestinians as the basis of a future state. But the settlers' concept of Israel's boundaries derives from the Bible, and they fear that the government's temporary freeze signals the beginning of a process that will end with them being forced to give up territory that many believe was given by God to the Jewish people. "How can we be told to give up our rights to build on land that is ours?" said a demonstrator from the West Bank settlement of Adam, east of Jerusalem.

Despite their fears, Netanyahu's settlement freeze may actually help save the homes of the very people demonstrating against him. Already, the Israeli Prime Minister has used his gesture to blame the deadlock in the peace process on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who despite U.S. prodding has refused to restart peace talks as long as settlement construction continues in East Jerusalem. (Netanyahu has exempted Jerusalem from his freeze, claiming all of the Holy City as Israel's and refusing to negotiate over its status.)

The settlement freeze could also help get the U.S. and other Western powers off Netanyahu's back. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Netanyahu's partial freeze as "unprecedented" even though she had earlier made an unequivocal demand for an absolute freeze with no exceptions. Now, with settlers staging demonstrations, their leaders muttering about civil disobedience and radical rabbis urging young soldiers to disobey orders that might conflict with their religious obligations to inhabit biblical lands, the Israeli leader can tell the West that he would face a civil war if he moved to dismantle settlements.

The reality of the settlement freeze is hardly that. Many settlements have staged civil-disobedience actions to prevent government inspectors from entering to make sure construction has halted, some merely by sending schoolgirls out to blockade the main gates. "We'll keep building day or night," an official at the Kedumim settlement told TIME last week. And even Netanyahu has said that when the freeze is over, construction can resume in the West Bank, where construction permits are granted at a higher rate than inside Israel, the Israeli activist group Peace Now reported on Wednesday.

Having deflected international pressure on the Palestinian front, Netanyahu hopes to focus U.S. attention on dealing with what he believes is the real threat to Israeli security: Iran. He cites Iran's support of Hamas as reason to avoid relinquishing Israeli control over the West Bank, whose hilltops are well within rocket range of Israel's main cities. Israeli officials are hinting that if President Obama doesn't demonstrate rapid progress in his diplomatic efforts to shut down Tehran's nuclear program, he should step aside and let Israel's air force do the job.

But even as the Israelis focus on the perceived threat from Iran, time is rapidly running out for a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. Frustrations are running high among Palestinians, who have watched two decades of negotiation with the Israelis bring them no closer to statehood. A latticework of Israeli security zones and settlements makes nonsense of the territorial integrity of the West Bank, while a ring of Israeli-controlled space is forming around East Jerusalem, without control of which no Palestinian or Arab leader will be able to accept any peace agreement. Not surprisingly, then, Palestinian moderates like Abbas are on the wane, militants are on the rise, and the whispers already talk of a new uprising.

With reporting by Aaron J. Klein / Kedumim and Jamil Hamad / Bethlehem