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Settlements' Deadline Clouds Future of Israeli-Palestinian Peace Efforts


Israeli settlers are preparing to step up construction in the occupied West Bank as soon as a building freeze expires late Sunday. The expiration of Israel's self-imposed, 10-month moratorium on building threatens to derail peace negotiations, with the Palestinians threatening to quit talks if it is not extended.

As Israeli and Palestinian negotiators worked toward a possible last-minute compromise, Israeli settlers across the West Bank gathered construction equipment and prepared to resume building as soon as a partial ban on the building of new Jewish homes in settlements expired.

The settlers urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to give in to Palestinian or U.S. pressure to stop settlement construction.

Naftaly Bennett directs the Yesha Council, a group that represents the settlers. He is among those attending a rally at the Revava settlement late Sunday, sending a clear message for Israeli leaders.

"Any extension of a freeze on the lives of 325,000 Jews is not acceptable," Bennett said. "We will not tolerate that. It is unfair. It is immoral. It is against our human rights."

The resumption of full-scale construction in the settlements could cause the negotiations to collapse. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas threatens to quit talks if construction continues. At the United Nations on Saturday, he said Israel must choose between peace and the continuation of settlements.

Backing this position are many Palestinians like Abdullah Ghneim, a farmer whose lands have been taken up by another settlement, El Azar, near Bethlehem. He says there can be no peace as long as this settlement is here.

"It stole my land. This settlement is built over my land," Ghneim said. "What do you think my feeling is over this settlement? Who confiscates your land, do you like him?"

Israel has allowed hundreds of thousands of Israelis to settle on lands it has occupied since 1967. The Palestinians say the settlements interfere with plans for a sovereign Palestinian state.

In the hours before the deadline, Israeli officials said the freeze was to end late Sunday as scheduled.

In a statement, Prime Minister Netanyahu called for West Bank settlers to exercise restraint.

Hope of a compromise persisted up to the last minute. Israel's defense minister told a British television network there is a 50-50 chance that both sides would reach a deal on settlements.

Negotiators for both sides remained in the United States and have been in consultation with Obama administration officials who are working to negotiate a compromise.

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