New Palestinian violence could erupt if peace talks collapse after this weekend's expiration of an Israeli settlement slowdown, the Israeli military chief warned Tuesday.
With the Palestinians threatening to walk out on the talks if the slowdown isn't extended, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi told lawmakers that the military was bracing for possible mass protests and clashes.
He said low expectations for a breakthrough in the talks, however, were likely to keep the level of violence from reaching that of the Palestinian uprising that erupted in 2000. Then, years of Israeli-Palestinian violence characterized by suicide bombings and Israeli army incursions into Palestinian towns followed the collapse of a previous round of negotiations.
"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 spokesman Ghassan Khatib agreed with Ashkenazi's assessment, saying Israel's occupation of the West Bank has generally been marked by either peace efforts or violence, with one often leading to the other.
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.
"I think the chances of violence will increase in the case of a breakdown of the peace talks," Khatib said.
Under intense U.S. pressure, Israel agreed in November to a 10-month slowdown of West Bank settlement construction to bring Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
That helped pave the way for the resumption of talks earlier this month in Washington.
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the slowdown was a one-time offer, and his coalition government, dominated by right-wing parties that champion settlement construction, would be fractured if the slowdown is extended.
The U.S. and other world powers have called on Israel to extend the freeze, and the Palestinians have repeatedly threatened to abandon the talks if settlement construction resumes. Israel is demanding the Palestinians drop their ultimatum, creating a showdown ahead of Sunday's deadline.
Palestinian and Israeli officials are meeting with American leaders in the United States to seek a compromise. The U.S. has urged both sides to continue the talks, calling on Israel to extend the slowdown and on the Palestinians not to walk out.
Some 300,000 Jewish settlers live in West Bank territory claimed by the Palestinians.
The Palestinians say that further expansion of the more than 100 settlements makes it increasingly difficult to establish a viable state that would not be broken up by Israeli enclaves. A further 180,000 Israelis live in east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians hope will become their future capital.
Israeli settlers are demanding that they be permitted to resume building in full force by next week.
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.
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 they were likely to stage angry protests if the construction freeze continues.
Under the so-called moratorium, Israel refrained from starting new construction projects in the settlements, but several thousand units already being built 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.
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.
Palestinians reject this, saying it effectively allows Israel to decide which settlements it will keep if a deal is reached -- something they say should be decided through negotiation.
The impending end to the construction curb has intensified tensions on the ground. Near the West Bank town of Nablus, settlers and Palestinians lobbed rocks at each other Tuesday after Palestinians accused settlers of trying to steal their olives. The olive harvest in the West Bank traditionally is a time of violence between the two sides.
The West Bank has remained relatively quiet in recent years, after long periods of deadly Palestinians attacks against soldiers and settlers and Israeli raids against Palestinian militants.
Ashkenazi also warned that Palestinian groups under Iranian influence will try to thwart the negotiations with a resumption of violent attacks -- a thinly veiled reference to the Islamic militant groups Hamas, which rules Gaza, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
As peace talks were being launched earlier this month, Hamas militants killed four Israelis in a drive-by shooting in the West Bank.
Associated Press Writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.