JERUSALEM - Israel reduced spending on settlement construction in the occupied West Bank during 2009, according to official figures which show just four building starts funded in the third quarter.
The Central Bureau of Statistics data was published this week, shortly after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under pressure from his main ally, the United States, to halt all settlement activity, announced a 10-month freeze on new buildings.
About half a million Israelis live in settlements on occupied territory in the West Bank on land the Palestinians regard as part of their future state. Some settlements are remote hilltop towns, some are major city suburbs close to Jerusalem.
The Palestinian leadership refuses to resume peace talks with Israel that have been suspended over the past year until Israel freezes all settlement construction. They have rejected Netanyahu's partial 10-month moratorium.
The official statistics show a dramatic drop in publicly funded starts in 2009, which stood at only 226 compared with 649 during the corresponding period a year earlier.
Privately funded construction was very slightly down for the period of January-September 2009 with 972 building starts, compared with 1,005 during the corresponding period in 2008.
There were 1,518 West Bank building starts in 2006, 1,491 in 2007 and at 2,108 last year. For comparison, there were 32,051 starts overall in Israel last year.
Netanyahu ordered the freeze in an attempt to persuade Palestinians to return to the U.S-sponsored peace talks suspended a year ago. It does not apply to some 3,000 settler housing units already being built in the West Bank and Netanyahu stresses it is temporary.
The freeze also does not apply to areas that Israel annexed to its Jerusalem municipality after the 1967 Middle East war.
On Wednesday, Israeli inspectors continued attempts to enforce the building freeze by delivering orders to the settlements, but they encountered strong protests from settlers and police said the arrested three men.
(Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Matthew Jones)