RAMALLAH, West Bank - Israel's prime minister pledged Sunday to move ahead with construction of a new Jewish settlement in a strategic part of the West Bank, speaking just hours after Israeli forces dragged dozens of Palestinian activists from the area.
The activists pitched more than two dozen tents at the site on Friday, laying claim to the land and drawing attention to Israel's internationally condemned settlement policy.
Before dawn Sunday, hundreds of Israeli police and paramilitary border troops evicted the protesters. Despite the eviction, Mustafa Barghouti, one of the protest leaders, claimed success, saying the overall strategy is to "make (Israel's) occupation costly."
The planned settlement, known as E-1, would deepen east Jerusalem's separation from the West Bank, war-won areas the Palestinians want for their state. The project had been on hold for years, in part because of U.S. objections.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revived the E-1 plans late last year in response to the Palestinians' successful bid for U.N. recognition of a state of Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem.
Jewish settlements are at the heart of the current four-year impasse in Mideast peace efforts. The Palestinians have refused to negotiate while Israel continues to build settlements on the lands they seek for their state. Netanyahu says peace talks should start without any preconditions. He also rejects any division of Jerusalem.
Israel expanded the boundaries of east Jerusalem after the 1967 war and then annexed the area - a move not recognized by the international community. Since then, it has built a ring of Jewish settlements in the enlarged eastern sector to cement its control over the city.
E-1 would be built in the West Bank just east of Jerusalem, and would close one of the last options for Palestinians to create territorial continuity between Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, their hoped-for capital, and the West Bank. According to building plans, E-1 would have more than 3,000 apartments.
The Palestinians say they turned to the U.N. last November out of frustration with the deadlock in peace talks. They believe the international endorsement of the 1967 lines will bolster their position in negotiations.
Asked why the protesters were removed, Netanyahu said, "They have no reason to be there. I asked immediately to close the area."
Palestinian protest leaders hoped the tent camp would be the first of a new type of well-planned, nonviolent protests against Israeli policies in the Palestinian territories.