Palestinians living in a Bethlehem neighbourhood have condemned Israeli plans to build a security wall to protect Jewish pilgrims
visiting a shrine on the edge of the West Bank town.
Israel says homes and businesses will not be harmed
They say the area will be cut off from the rest of the Palestinian town if Israel constructs a three kilometre (two mile) concrete wall around Rachel's Tomb, the burial site of the biblical matriarch.
Israel says the wall is a necessary security measure because
Palestinians have failed to safeguard the religious site.
"We will ensure free access to one of the holiest Jewish sites, so we will build the fence," said Raanan Gissin, an aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Palestinians counter by saying that the move is another Israeli attempt to secure land that could form part of a future Palestinian state.
Palestinian Mayor Hanna Nasser said: "These walls will never make for good neighbours. This is a mad project."
Colonel Jamal Salman of the Israeli army met local Palestinians on Tuesday and told them that their homes and businesses would not be harmed.
But after the wall is built, they will need permits and
will have to pass Israeli security checkpoints to reach the other
side of Bethlehem.
Jaad Issac, the head of a local group specialising in geographic
and environmental research, complained of "an Israeli grand plan to
progressively drive out the population".
He said: "Around 700 people will be affected by the wall's construction,
including 350 people who live here and 350 who commute to work.
"People will be strangulated, not being able to freely reach
Bethlehem and cut off from Jerusalem."
He said 2,000 residents from Bethlehem and surrounding villages
had left since the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation began in September 2000.
Israel captured Bethlehem from Jordan in 1967.
It handed over the town to Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority in
1995, but retained control of Rachel's Tomb.
Before the Palestinian uprising began, the tomb was a popular tourist attraction, but today it attracts only a few visitors, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Palestinian gunmen and stone throwers have frequently clashed
with Israeli troops guarding the tomb.