By Tom Perry
ITAMAR, West Bank (Reuters) - Jewish settlers protested on Tuesday in the West Bank against Palestinian plans to seek United Nations endorsement of their statehood and clashed with Palestinians in at least one village, underscoring growing tensions in the territory.
About 200 settlers, many waving blue and white Israeli flags, marched out of the hill-top enclave of Itamar near the Palestinian city of Nablus in a demonstration they said aimed to underline their biblical claim to the West Bank.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas plans on Friday to submit an application for full U.N. membership for the state of Palestine based in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the coastal Gaza Strip -- lands occupied by Israel in 1967.
The Palestinian goal of independence on the land is opposed by settlers who regard the West Bank as Judea and Samaria -- the heart of biblical Israel.
"We are just showing them that this is our home. We are the true owners of the land of Israel," said Moshe Goldsmith, mayor of Itamar, a settlement of about 1,400 people.
A spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, the body which Palestinians hope will gain U.N. recognition as a state, said the protest was an example of "regular, continuous intimidation and attacks" by the settlers.
"We are convinced that it has a strategic objective, which is dragging the Palestinians to violent reactions," Ghassan Khatib, the spokesman, said.
The settlers, watched over by a heavy Israeli security presence, marched to a junction on the main road linking the Palestinian cities of Nablus and Ramallah, where they danced and sang songs in Hebrew.
Up the road, long queues of traffic formed at temporary road blocks set up by Israeli security forces.
"As the U.N. talks about giving away our land and trying to a form a state in the heart of the Jewish nation we are showing we are marching freely in the heart of the Jewish nation. In our nation, our land," said Goldsmith, originally from New York.
About 500,000 Jewish settlers have moved into the West Bank and East Jerusalem in settlements which the Palestinians say undermine the chances of them being able to establish a viable state on the territories occupied in 1967.
CHANCE OF ESCALATION
U.S. opposition is destined to sink the Palestinians' bid for full U.N. membership. Washington, Israel's closest ally, says only a resumption of the two-decade old peace process can advance the Palestinians' goals.
Settlement expansion is one of the issues which the Palestinians blame for undermining peace talks with Israel.
Settler marches were also planned at least two other West Bank locations, but Israeli media said turnout had been less than anticipated. Some settlers have chosen to ignore the Palestinians' U.N. bid and are quietly urging Israel to respond by annexing at least some of their enclaves.
The UN agency OCHA has recorded an upswing in settler attacks against Palestinians and their property this year compared with last and the rate has increased further in the last few weeks, with three mosques vandalized in September.
Goldsmith said he expected more violence ahead but said the Palestinians were responsible for attacks targeting settlers.
The march from Itamar began from outside the home where an Israeli couple and three of their children were murdered in March, a crime for which Israel has charged two young Palestinian men and convicted one of them. "I think there is a chance of an escalation of violence," Goldsmith said.
Not far from Itamar, at least two dozen settlers attacked Asira al-Qibiliya, throwing rocks at homes in the Palestinian village just south of Nablus. Youths from the village went out to confront them, also throwing rocks, villagers said.
A spokeswoman for the Israeli army said soldiers had fired tear gas and stun grenades during the disturbance. The Palestinians said that the army was protecting the settlers. One Palestinian youth was injured when hit by a tear gas cannister fired by the soldiers, they said.
Palestinians have responded to a recent increase in violence by forming volunteer groups to keep watch and, in some cases intervene to prevent the attacks which usually occur in land near settlements which is under full Israeli control.
"The idea is that, with the recent spike in settler attacks, it became clear that the Palestinians cannot rely on the army," said Jonathan Pollak, an Israeli activist involved in the volunteer effort to protect Palestinians from settlers.
(Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Matthew Jones; Editing by Myra MacDonald)