Songs of praise as the diggers and cement mixers start up again

Women raised their arms aloft as they swayed to pan pipe music in the setting sun, Christian pilgrims from Finland sang and banged on their tambourines, while supporters released thousands of blue and white balloons, the colours of Israel's flag, into the sky.

This was a celebratory rally to mark the end of Israel's 10-month construction freeze in the Jewish settlement of Revava in the West Bank amid an atmosphere of jubilation and festivity.

As politicians prepared to take the stage, a spokesman for a right-wing legislator said the request for "restraint" from the settlers from the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, would be "respectfully declined".

Instead the leaders made a symbolic start on their vow to resume the building of 2,000 homes as soon as the freeze expired at midnight last night. They laid the cement foundation for a new kindergarten in the adjacent Kiryat Netafim.

"Tonight, we place this miserable decision back into the dustbin of history," Danny Danon, a Likud parliamentarian, told the crowd.

Around 2,000 people, many of them from Mr Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party, packed into a sandy clearing ringed by caravans and newly built homes. A banner above the makeshift stage said: "We salute the pioneers of Judaea and Samaria".

"We want to build, God gave us this land," said Razalia, a Russian immigrant in her sixties who moved to Israel 20 years ago. "What's so awful about what we're doing here?"

Among the most enthusiastic supporters were Christian evangelicals, many of whom had travelled from as far afield as the United States and China, and who waved banners reading: "We love Israel".

"We knew this was happening today, and we wanted to stand in support for all of Israel and God's land," said Paulette, a Christian who made the trip from Canada. "We love the Israelites, we love God's way."

When asked if she supported a land for the Palestinians, she admitted she was "not familiar" with the politics.

Many settlers are deeply sceptical that Washington, which is driving renewed peace negotiations, can broker a deal between Israel and the Palestinians to deliver a two- state solution.

For some, a Palestinian state presents an existential threat to the State of Israel. "It's just not possible to reach an agreement. They don't want us here," said Mark, an elderly immigrant from Russia.

Bryna, an Israeli living in the large settlement of Ma'ale Adumim, just outside of Jerusalem, said, "The so-called West Bank is very strategic. If the Arabs controlled it, they could kill us from here."

Some 300,000 Israelis live in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, all of them illegal under international law. While many are lured by tax breaks and cheap housing, a core of settlers believes that they are reclaiming the land promised to them by God.

The settlements have expanded rapidly since the early 1970s and have emerged as an early stumbling block in the newly revived peace talks.

The Palestinians argue that Israel cannot negotiate in good faith as long as it builds on land that it may one day have to give up to make way for an independent Palestinian state.

Settlers remain unmoved, although underneath yesterday's festivity, there was an undercurrent of concern that Mr Netanyahu could yet break with his right-wing electorate and cave in to US demands to make concessions for peace. "We're still worried, we know what happened before," said Gidon Ariel, a member of the Likud Central Committee, referring to Israel's disengagement from Gaza five years ago. "We're not so easily convinced that it can't happen again."

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