JERUSALEM - Israeli settlers blocked roads, scuffled with police, and pelted officers with eggs yesterday in the most aggressive display of resistance yet to the government's moratorium on new housing in West Bank settlements.
Trying to calm the tensions, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged the pain his order had caused the settlers. But he said the freeze was necessary to demonstrate that Israel is serious about seeking peace, and he faulted the Palestinians for rejecting the gesture.
Seeking to calm the concerns of Israeli hard-liners, Netanyahu repeated his stance that the freeze is a "onetime, temporary decision" and that construction will eventually resume. "We made it clear that upon the conclusion of the period of suspension, construction will resume," Netanyahu said.
Palestinians say the Israeli move is not genuine, as it does not include East Jerusalem or 3,000 houses under construction in the West Bank.
The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank and East Jerusalem as parts of a future independent state. They say they will not resume talks until all settlement construction ceases.
Netanyahu announced the 10-month halt of most West Bank construction late last month in an attempt to restart peace talks, which broke down a year ago.
The freeze has infuriated Jewish settlers and their backers in Netanyahu's hard-line coalition, and government inspectors have been harassed while trying to enforce the ban.
In new unrest yesterday, protesters blocked inspectors from reaching the settlement of Kedumim by lying in the road leading to the community in the northern West Bank.
Amateur video showed paramilitary border police grabbing the protesters - most of them teenagers - by their arms and legs and hauling them out of the way. Police said they were pelted with eggs as they entered the settlement to search for unauthorized construction.
There were no reports of arrests or injuries. Settler leaders, wary of openly clashing with security forces, have stressed that they will use only nonviolent methods in their opposition to the freeze. Nonetheless, yesterday's unrest signaled that the settlers are growing bolder in their tactics.
Netanyahu told his cabinet yesterday that the freeze, though painful, shows the world that Israel is serious about pursuing a peace agreement with the Palestinians. At the same time, he said Palestinian criticism of his move raises questions about their commitment to peace.
"This is not an easy decision for them [the settlers]; it is not an easy decision for us," he said. "The decision was taken because we see it as serving the wider interests of Israel, and today it is also clear - to whomever it was not yet clear already - who wants peace and who today is acting as if they are opposed to peace. The state of Israel wants peace in the clearest possible sense."
Speaking to his cabinet, Netanyahu noted that he had met with settler leaders last week to try to ease tensions.