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Israel begins construction of new stretch of separation barrier

HEBRON, West Bank (AP) _ Israel began construction Sunday on a section of its separation barrier in the southern West Bank, days after Palestinian suicide bombers carried out an attack from the area.

Israeli security officials confirmed work had started on a 20-mile stretch of barrier southwest of Hebron.

But the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the work wasn't related to last week's attack in Beersheba, in which Hamas suicide bombers from Hebron killed 16 people. The bombing has put pressure on the government to speed up construction of the barrier, which has been delayed by a series of legal challenges.

On Sunday afternoon, two bulldozers cleared an area in Beit Awwa, a small village close to Israel. Three security guards and an army jeep secured the area.

The barrier is about one-third complete and hasn't reached the Beersheba area yet. After last week's attack, local officials said they had warned the government for several months that their area was vulnerable to attack.

The U.N. world court issued an advisory opinion in July calling the barrier illegal, and the Israeli Supreme Court has ordered the government to redraw the route to ease hardship on Palestinians.

The Israeli security officials said they decided to begin work south of Hebron because the Supreme Court decision has delayed other sections. Work on the Hebron stretch was originally set for 2005, they said.

Israel says the barrier is needed to keep Palestinian attackers from entering the country.

The Palestinians condemn the barrier as an illegal land grab that will prevent them from establishing a viable independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat condemned the latest construction Sunday. ``This action totally destroys the road map,'' he said, referring to a U.S.-backed peace plan meant to bring about an independent Palestinian state next year.

The road map has been stalled for months, amid violations by Israel and the Palestinians.

The original route of the barrier dipped deep into the West Bank in several sections. Amid the mounting criticism, Israel has moved the route much closer to the frontier dividing the West Bank and Israel.
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