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The Israel Defense Forces will expropriate and demolish some 15 Palestinian-owned properties between Kiryat Arba and the Jewish enclave in Hebron as it builds walls along a widened "Worshipers' Way" used by Kiryat Arba settlers to reach the Tomb of the Patriarchs and the Jewish section inside Hebron.

The work begins this week in the wake of the deaths of 12 Israelis - 9 soldiers and three Kiryat Arba security officers - in a Palestinian ambush on the path used by settlers on the Sabbath and holidays.

The protective walls and road-widening has been in the works over the past two weeks since the November 16 ambush, in contacts between the Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinski of the Central Command and Judea Corps commander Brig. Gen. Amos Ben-Avraham with settler leaders in Kiryat Arba and Hebron.

The declared purpose of the walls and road-widening is to improve protection for the settlers who use the road.

But the settlers regard the construction as the first stage in a massive construction program they are planning with help from Housing Minister Natan Sharansky and the Tourism Ministry.

This plan includes building a "promenade" from Kiryat Arba to the Jewish enclave, surrounded by a 1,000-apartment housing bloc.

According to Kiryat Arba Mayor Zvi Katzover, "They massacred us and now we're being put into a narrow sleeve, a ghetto.

Kiryat Arba mayor rejects wall plan

"We do not agree to this kind of defensive protection [as proposed by the army]. These measures are foreign to Dror Weinberg [the brigade commander killed in the ambush], who preferred offense to defense," said Katzover.

The army's plan, expected to cost several million shekels, includes a number of stages. Along the 300 meters of the eastern end of the road, from the southwest gate of Kiryat Arba known as "the pishpash," the nook, to the Erez Alley, where one part of the ambush took place, a 1.5-2-meter-high wall will be built on both sides of the road, blocking the thoroughfare from the neighboring Palestinian houses.

IDF guard posts will also be put up on the road.

From the Erez Alley to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, another few hundred meters, the road will be widened by about five meters on each side, necessitating the demolition of at least 15 Palestinian properties.

The army says most of the properties are abandoned.

But a Ha'aretz survey found that some are still occupied, while others belong to people who left the homes to move elsewhere in Hebron, after continued harassment from settlers passing by.

The Civil Administration has already notified some of the Palestinians of the plans to expropriate their properties, but the Palestinians say they have yet to receive official notices.

"It is difficult to fight a plan when the orders haven't been given to the families," Palestinian Governor Arif Al Jabari said. "But when it happens, the Palestinians will use legal means to fight the plan. If the plan is implemented, it will be a `road map' to war."

New settler outpost on Worshippers' Way

So far, the IDF has not taken any action against the settler outpost set up opposite the site of the ambush. When the settlers moved in, the army indicated that they would be allowed to remain for the seven days of the mourning period.

Since then, the defense establishment has not done anything to prevent the outpost from growing, though no official decision has been made to grant the site legal status.

Military sources say that as far as they can tell, "nothing will happen on the issue until the elections are over."

Meanwhile, Col. Hagai Mordechai is slated to get the official appointment Monday as commander of the Hebron Brigade, replacing Weinberg.

Mordechai was on a study-year in the United States when he was called back to take up the position and will begin working in the Hebron area later this week.