Israeli security forces demolished a handful of illegal structures in West Bank settlements Tuesday, including a wooden bunker that hard-line Jewish activists had defiantly named after President Barack Obama.
Israeli forces also clashed with Palestinian protesters opposed to construction of Israel's West Bank separation barrier. In one incident, paramilitary border police wrestled a teenage boy to the ground, then fired pepper spray directly into his face to subdue him. The youth, screaming in pain, was then arrested.
Nine structures in Jewish settlements were removed, including a wooden bunker north of Jerusalem known as "Obama's Shack," Israeli military officials said. Young settlers threw burning tires at security forces in another location, and two people were arrested.
The crackdown coincided with growing signs that Israel and the Palestinians are on the verge of resuming peace talks after a breakdown of more than a year.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he will discuss resuming the talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak when he travels early next week to Egypt, which is a key mediator between the sides.
On Monday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signaled he is ready to start indirect negotiations.
"I heard with satisfaction that Abu Mazen intends to resume talks," Netanyahu said, referring to Abbas. "I will be happy if this happens next week. We are committed to a real peace process." He was speaking at a convention of his Likud party.
The Obama administration has urged Israel to make goodwill gestures since it announced plans for a contentious housing project in disputed east Jerusalem last month. The announcement, coming during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden, set off a diplomatic crisis between Israel and Washington and prompted the Palestinians to call off the start of indirect peace talks.
Authorities said the structures demolished Tuesday had been built in violation of a 10-month freeze on new construction in West Bank settlements.
Netanyahu announced the freeze in November under pressure from Obama, who opposes settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — captured lands that the Palestinians claim for a future state.
Netanyahu has repeatedly said he will not freeze construction in east Jerusalem. Israel considers the area, home to sensitive Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites, part of its eternal, undivided capital.
But this week, Jerusalem municipal officials said Netanyahu has imposed an unofficial freeze in east Jerusalem since the dispute with Biden erupted on March 9. Netanyahu has not commented publicly on the claims.
Despite the signs of progress, new violence broke out Tuesday between Israeli security forces and Palestinian protesters opposed to the separation barrier Israel is building in the West Bank.
About 45 protesters in Walajeh, a Palestinian village that straddles the outskirts of Jerusalem, lay down in front of bulldozers working on the barrier.
Protest organizers said soldiers beat activists, including a 14-year-old boy who had climbed on a bulldozer. Mahmoud al-Araj, one of the organizers, said soldiers forcibly opened the boy's eyes and sprayed pepper spray in his face.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the protester punched a police officer.
Israel began building the barrier in 2002 after a string of deadly Palestinian attacks, saying the structure is a security measure. But Palestinians say the barrier is a land grab because it frequently juts into the West Bank, gobbling up territory they claim as part of a future state.
Also Tuesday, Israel's military chief said two senior officers have been reprimanded over shooting incidents last month that killed four Palestinians in the West Bank. Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi said the deaths could have been avoided.
Associated Press writers Nasser Shiyoukhi in Walajeh and Dalia Nammari in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.
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