Israeli authorities could soon use special commando units, unmanned spy planes and cellphone-jamming equipment to enforce a moratorium on new settlement construction in the West Bank, military officials said Sunday, deepening a showdown between the government and Jewish settlers.
Enraged settlers leaders vowed to resist the plan, prompting Defense Minister Ehud Barak to warn that settlers would face the full wrath of the military if they continue to flout the 10-month construction slowdown.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the settlement slowdown last month in an attempt to restart peace talks with the Palestinians. But the Palestinians have rejected the plan because it allows for construction to proceed in 3,000 settlement homes already under construction in the West Bank and does not affect east Jerusalem, which Palestinians hope will be their capital.
Nonetheless, settlers have repeatedly blocked inspectors and security forces trying to enter their communities to enforce the order. The resistance has grown increasingly violent.
The issue of settlements on lands the Palestinians claim for a future state is a key sticking point in Mideast peace efforts, with the Palestinians demanding a halt to all settlement construction as a condition for returning to peace talks. U.S. President Barack Obama made a similar demand shortly after taking office, but has since adopted a softer stance.
The military plan calls for the deployment of unmanned spy drones to photograph illegal construction, and would create closed military zones to keep out protesters and reporters during demolitions of illegal buildings, according to a military memo leaked to Israeli media and confirmed by The Associated Press. The document said various units of the military would be used, including special forces, military police and even communication specialists to jam settler cell phone frequencies.
The enforcement plan was drafted by the military's central command and most likely leaked by settler sympathizers within the army, according to military officials speaking on condition of anonymity because they were discussing internal orders not meant for public consumption.
Those same officials confirmed the plan to The Associated Press, though the army later said the plan was only a "first draft" for potential action.
The leak itself points to a growing concern among Israeli officials relating to insubordination. A number of nationalist soldiers have refused to obey orders to act against settlers. The government has jailed defiant servicemen, issued stern warnings to rebellious rabbis and expelled one pro-settler seminary from a program combining religious study and military service.
It's also possible the authorities wanted the plan to be known, as it might help the government portray itself as willing to confront domestic opposition for the sake of peace.
"All that is required of the settlers and their leaders is to carry out the government's decision regarding freezing new construction in the West Bank for this defined period and that will prevent the use of force and friction with the defense forces," Barak said at a political meeting.
Settler leaders feel betrayed by Netanyahu, a former longtime ally.
"Using special forces, jamming cell phones and banning journalists from the area is what you do when you are fighting an enemy," settler leader Dani Dayan told Israel's Army Radio.
Settlers have frequently scuffled with government inspectors sent to enforce the building moratorium. A week ago, a female Israeli police officer was beaten by settlers opposing the ban.
"We will protect the houses with our bodies if they come to destroy them," Arieh Eldad, a lawmaker from the hardline National Union party, told Israel Radio.
About 300,000 settlers live in the West Bank, in addition to 180,000 Jewish Israelis living in east Jerusalem.