JERUSALEM — With an Israeli-Palestinian impasse on settlement construction set to come to a head this weekend, the Israeli military chief said Tuesday that new Palestinian violence could erupt if peace talks collapse.
The Palestinians are threatening to quit the talks unless a 10-month restriction on settlement construction is extended beyond its planned expiration on Sunday. Israel says it cannot be extended, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would likely face coalition trouble if he backed down.
Netanyahu on Tuesday warned the Hamas movement – which rejects peace with Israel, has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007, and already carried out one deadly attack this month – against a new round of violence.
Speaking near a community center in southern Israel where a rocket from Gaza recently exploded, he said Israel would continue to respond swiftly. "I don't recommend they test our determination in this matter," he said.
Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, the country's top soldier, told lawmakers that the military was bracing for possible mass protests and clashes.
He added, however, that the low expectations for a peace deal could mean any violence would be less intense than the Palestinian uprising that erupted after the failure of the ambitious Camp David summit in 2000 and led to years of Israeli-Palestinian violence characterized by suicide bombings and Israeli army incursions killing thousands.
"We must be prepared for every possibility," he told parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, according to meeting participants who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with protocol. "If talks fail, there could be riots."
Palestinian Authority spokesman Ghassan Khatib agreed, saying Israel's occupation of the West Bank has generally seen alternating periods of peace efforts and violence, with the failure of one often sparking the other.
"I think the chances of violence will increase in the case of a breakdown of the peace talks," Khatib said.
Israel faces a complex equation, with violence also sometimes coming not as a result of a failure in peace talks but rather as an effort to scuttle them.
Ashkenazi warned that groups under Iranian influence will try to thwart the negotiations – a reference to Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah group. Both Islamic militant groups staunchly reject peace talks and seek Israel's destruction.
Indeed, Hamas militants killed four Israelis in a drive-by shooting in the West Bank as peace talks were being launched earlier this month.
Reflecting rising tensions, settlers and Palestinians lobbed rocks at each other near the West Bank town of Nablus Tuesday.
The last round of talks broke down in late 2008 when Israel launched a military offensive in Gaza aimed at stopping militant rocket fire on southern Israel.
Under intense U.S. pressure, Israel agreed in November to a 10-month freeze on new construction projects in its West Bank settlements. Several thousand units already being built, however, were allowed to continue. The measure did not apply to Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, but there has been a de facto halt to new construction there as well.
The slowdown in building helped pave the way for the resumption of talks earlier this month in Washington. Israel has accepted the idea of a Palestinian state, and the sides say they hope to reach a full peace deal.
The U.S. and other world powers have called on Israel to extend the freeze.
Officials from both sides are meeting with American leaders in the United States to seek a compromise ahead of Sunday's deadline. On Tuesday the mood in Israeli government circles was grim, with no way out of the deadlock visible.
Some 300,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank among about 2.5 million Palestinians. Almost 200,000 more Israelis live in east Jerusalem, where Palestinians want the capital of their hoped-for state.
Palestinians and the international community call the settlements obstacles to peace because they make it increasingly difficult for the Palestinians to establish a state not broken up by Israeli enclaves.
Israeli settlers demand that they be permitted to resume building in full force next week, and pro-settlement officials have vowed to help them.
Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau told Army Radio he would advance plans to build hundreds of millions of dollars in water and sewer projects for the settlements. And pro-settler lawmakers plan to hold a celebration Sunday in the West Bank settlement of Revava, where, they say, bulldozers and cement mixers will begin work on a new neighborhood.
Ashkenazi added that tensions were rising among the settlers, and that they were likely to stage angry protests if they can't build.
Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, a member of Netanyahu's seven-member inner Cabinet, has proposed that Israel resume building in only those parts of the West Bank expected to remain in Israeli hands under a future deal – excluding, for example, most settlements deep inside the territory.
The Israeli government has not adopted this position and Palestinians reject it, saying it effectively allows Israel to decide which settlements it will ultimately keep – rather than negotiating the matter.
Also on Tuesday, the Israeli army announced the closure of its border crossings from the West Bank into Israel until the end of the month for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Such closures seek to prevent attacks during Jewish holidays.
Associated Press Writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.