Israel Speeds Up West Bank Fence
After Suicide Bombings


(AFP) - Israel said it will speed up construction of a fence separating it from the West Bank after two Palestinian suicide bombers killed themselves and three Israelis within a space of 24 hours, shattering a growing sense of calm.

Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer met mayors of several Israeli border towns to discuss the construction, his ministry said in a statement Monday after a second Palestinian blew himself up at a bus stop near Afula in the north.

The blast, which injured no one else, came less than a day after another suicide bomber killed himself and three Israelis in a market in the northern coastal town of Netanya, rupturing more than a week of calm when Israeli security forces said they managed to stave off a number of attempted attacks.

Sunday's attack in Netanya -- where 29 people were killed in a late March attack, triggering an Israeli invasion of West Bank cities -- was claimed by both the nationalist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian (PFLP) and the hardline Islamist movement Hamas.

The renewal of suicide bombings at a time when Israelis were starting to relax after the West Bank offensive sparked renewed interest in building a much-talked about buffer to shield Israel from attackers.

In Ben Eliezer's meeting with the mayors, he "confirmed he intends to proceed with a continuous security barrier, notably including a fence and electric equipment, along the 350 kilometre (215 mile) demarcation line," the ministry said.

"Initial work will start on a section of between 70 and 80 kilometres and a budget has been released for this purpose," it said, without specifying where work would begin.

The barrier is being built "to prevent the infiltration of Israeli territory from the West Bank by Palestinian terrorists, vehicles and explosives."

Construction on the barrier has yet to start, but the deadline for its completion has been moved up to within the next six months, one of the mayors at the meeting was quoted as telling public radio after the meeting.

The barrier will cost more than 200 million dollars, the radio said.

The idea has been criticised by the left, which said it would not work and called for political negotiations to tackle the 20-month-old crisis, and by hardline Jewish settlers fearful they will be abandoned on the wrong side of the fence.

Israeli military sources said the army had seized a young Palestinian woman in Tulkarem, on the West Bank border just 10 kilometres (six miles) from Netanya, who was allegedly preparing to launch another suicide attack in Israel.

Israeli forces launched raids into Tulkarem in the immediate aftermath of the Netanya blast.

Despite a Palestinian leadership denunciation of the Netanya blast as a "terrorist operation," Israel accused Yasser Arafat's administration of doing nothing to prevent attacks.

Arafat has come under mounting pressure to carry out reforms in his security structures to streamline his many-pronged armed services under single command and gain control over hardline groups.

But US Vice-President Dick Cheney said Arafat was unable to prevent all attacks.

"There clearly is a class of bombings that he can't (control), that relates to groups supported for example by Syria and Iran, the Hezbollah and Hamas factions that don't come under his purview," he told US television.

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