JERUSALEM - Settlers and members of Israel's ruling rightwing party were seething on Sunday over a government decision to impose a temporary ease on West Bank settlement building after months of US pressure.
In an act of defiance, Gershon Messika, the director of a regional settlement council in the occupied West Bank, tore up the government moratorium order when he received it from the military, his spokesman said.
"This is the beginning of a struggle to continue the construction," his spokesman David Haivri told AFP. "We will do everything we can to build despite the restrictions."
The settler lobby, a potent political force in Israel, is vigorously opposed to any curbs on Jewish settlement activity on occupied Palestinian land and has slammed last week's announcement, along with prominent members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party.
The decision "will do nothing but reinforce Palestinian demands," said Vice Premier Silvan Shalom.
Netanyahu announced on Wednesday that his government would impose a 10-month moratorium on issuing building permits for new homes in the West Bank in a gesture aimed at getting the Palestinians to resume peace talks, which were suspended during the Gaza war at the turn of the year.
Environment Minister Gilad Erdan said that he was "completely opposed" to the decision.
"As most Likud members, I am guessing that this measure will not get the Palestinians to the negotiating table," he told reporters.
The moratorium, however, excluded occupied and annexed east Jerusalem as well as the construction of public buildings in the West Bank. It also allows for the completion of hundreds of units already under way.
The Palestinians, who have demanded a complete freeze on all settlement activity before the US-backed peace talks resume, have rejected Netanyahu's move as political.
On Sunday, Israel's defence ministry announced it would be expanding the number of inspectors charged with enforcing the government's decision.
"Today there are 14 inspectors to oversee construction in Judea and Samaria (the biblical name of the West Bank) ... Within two weeks, an additional 40 inspectors will be recruited and trained," the ministry said.
"They will later be joined by dozens of others to ensure the application of the partial freeze of settlements decided upon by the Israeli security cabinet," it said, adding that police and border guards would also be involved.
Meanwhile, settlers have been hurling invective at US President Barack Obama's administration for pressing Netanyahu to take the decision.
At a gathering late on Saturday organised by a Likud hardliner, the mayor of the West Bank settlement of Beit Aryeh said the administration posed a threat to believers in Eretz Israel (Greater Israel), the idea that Israel should have biblical-era borders.
"He hates the Jews and is an anti-Semite," Avi Naim charged, in remarks that were widely aired on Sunday on Israeli radio and in newspapers.
"His regime is the worst with which Eretz Israel has ever been confronted, and I tell Barack Hussein Obama that he will not be able to stop us," the mayor said, using the middle name to refer to the US president's Muslim father.
"We will survive Obama," he vowed.