Soldiers serving in the Engineering Corps began work yesterday to dismantle the large concrete barrier erected to protect homes in the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo from Palestinian gunfire.

Israel Defense Forces officials say they expect the area to remain calm, making it feasible to remove the 600-meter wall, which was built in 2000 and became one of the most prominent symbols of the second intifada.

"As per the request of the Jerusalem municipality and in accordance with the order handed down by the GOC Central Command, we have decided to dismantle the wall," said Lt. Col. Hezi Ravivo, a military engineer in charge of the task. "Right now the security situation is better and we do not see any reason not to take it down. We will keep the parts that comprise the wall and if the need arises, we can build it anew."

But the removal of the wall has angered local residents, who say the army has left them exposed to possible renewed gunfire from neighboring Beit Jala.

"It gave us a certain feeling of security," said Gilo resident Aviva Klein. "I didn't feel the wall was shutting me in - I felt safe."

"It's quite a shame that they're taking it down," said Jacqueline Ben Khalifa, another Gilo resident. "It even added something to the view. The time of constant shootings was pretty scary."

The wall, positioned along a street that borders the town limits of Beit Jala, features numerous murals, some of which portray the view that the structure has been keeping hidden.

Officials in the Central Command said yesterday they expect it to take two weeks to remove the 800 concrete slabs that make up the wall. IDF troops yesterday cleared away the portion of the wall that protected a kindergarten in the eastern part of Gilo.

Ravivo said the security situation in the area is stable to the point that the army now permits Israeli tour guides to lead organized groups into the heart of nearby Bethlehem.