JERUSALEM – Responding to a public outcry after a bloody Palestinian attack, Israeli bulldozers began flattening land for a security barrier in a part of the West Bank (search) that has been ignored up to now.
The work began Sunday southwest of Hebron (search), the main Palestinian center in the southern, West Bank, days after two suicide bombers from Hebron crossed the unmarked frontier into Israel and blew up buses in the Israeli city of Beersheba, killing 16.
Work on the 25-mile stretch of the barrier began when two bulldozers cleared an area in Beit Awwa, a village close to Israel. Three security guards and an army jeep secured the area. Completion of the section is several months away, officials said.
Israel has finished the northern third of the barrier, despite Palestinian and international objections. Palestinians charge it's a land grab and cuts tens of thousands off from their farmland and services, and the U.N. world court gave an advisory ruling calling it illegal.
Israel insists the complex of walls, fences, trenches and barbed wire is necessary to stop the suicide bombers. They say the reason the attackers headed south to Beersheba for the first time last week in four years of conflict was their inability to reach cities in the north — because of the barrier.
Civic leader in Israel's south had been warning the government for months that their cities and towns were vulnerable to attack. After the Beersheba bombing on Tuesday, the clamor for protection multiplied in intensity.
Some officials insisted that the beginning of construction Sunday was not a response to the attack or the outcry, but one admitted that the bombing "gave a push" to move forward.
"Of course after this terrible bombing, it was decided to speed up even more," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The original route of the 425-mile barrier dipped far into the West Bank, which Israel captured in 1967, in several sections, mostly in the north,
With criticism mounting, Israel has moved the route much closer to the "Green Line," the cease-fire line dividing the West Bank and Israel. The stretch begun Sunday, which is expected to take several months to complete, will run along the Green Line, officials said.
Even so, Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat condemned the latest construction. "This action totally destroys the road map," he said, referring to a moribund U.S.-backed peace plan meant to bring about an independent Palestinian state next year.
Also Sunday, Palestinian gunmen in Gaza seized the offices of the Khan Younis governor, demanding assistance for families left homeless by an Israeli army operation last week. The militants left the building four hours later, saying they had received "concrete promises" from the Palestinian Authority to address the problem.
Israeli troops destroyed two apartment buildings in Khan Younis last Thursday, leaving 40 families homeless, Palestinian residents said. The army said the buildings were used for cover by militants to fire rockets, mortars and rifles at Israeli settlements and troops, and were largely uninhabited.
Gaza has experienced a series of kidnappings, shootings and other attacks against members of the Palestinian Authority in recent weeks.
Many Palestinians have grown frustrated with the Palestinian Authority, headed by Yasser Arafat, accusing officials of corruption and ineffectiveness. Palestinian factions are also vying for power ahead of the planned Israeli withdrawal.
The gunmen Sunday came from the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent group loosely linked to Arafat's Fatah movement.