Jewish settlers celebrate end of West Bank building moratorium
Thousands of Israeli settlers gathered Sunday in the West Bank to mark the end of a 10-month construction moratorium that had been imposed on them by the Israeli government, dpa reported.
The moratorium, which is at the crux of renewed Middle East peace talks, is due to officially expire at midnight (2200 GMT).
Settlers in Kiryat Netafim marked the event by symbolically laying the cornerstone of a kindergarten "to protest the injustice caused to 35 babies born here this year," said Gershon Mesika, a representative of the community.
He blamed Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak for allowing the moratorium, which put on hold settlers' plans to build kindergartens, homes and synagogues.
"This is a racist decision which only forbids Jews to build their home in their country ... It is natural that this decision arrives to an end," he added, as neighbours of the settlement arrived with tractors and construction materials to the ceremony.
Some 2,500 demonstrators also released 2,000 balloons in other areas - such as the settlement of Revava - to symbolize the new housing units that can be built after the freeze ends.
"These are homes that have already received final permits," said a source close to lawmaker Danny Danon, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party.
Danon, one of the organisers of the rally in the West Bank, sent a message to the United States administration of Barack Obama saying that Washington should respect the Israeli "democracy and right to live in a sovereign Israel."
Calling on the settlers to "continue the Zionist vision from today," Danon asked them for forgiveness for treating them like "second class citizens."
Danon said Likud "is returning back to the track" by allowing construction to resume in the Palestinian occupied territories, but the government had yet to officially comment on whether it was considering extending the freeze.
It is facing heavy international pressure to do so, as Palestinians have threatened to walk out of the recently launched peace talks if the moratorium is allowed to expire.
Netanyahu had previously asked the settlers to avoid provocations, as his government worked with Obama and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to reach an agreement and keep the peace negotiations alive.