The Israeli army clampdown on the movement of Palestinians raised tension already high due to the continued erection of the apartheid wall and Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank.

"Based on a decision by the political authorities and the assessment of the situation, a complete closure of Judea and Samaria (West Bank) and the Gaza Strip will start on Friday ... through to the Yom Kippur," which ends on Monday night, Israel's army said in a statement.

The holiday - during which airports, ports and borders are closed - is the holiest in Judaism.

Wall extension

Israel also appeared determined to extend the apartheid wall which will cut deep into the West Bank despite criticism from its US ally and fierce condemnation from the Palestinians.

A first section of the barrier, which is aimed at preventing infiltrations by Palestinian resistance fighters, was completed in July and the Israeli cabinet has just approved the phased construction of the next part.

Keen not to draw the ire of the White House, which has been unusually outspoken in its criticism of the project, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government decided not include large settlement blocs inside the main barrier.

The apartheid wall near the West Bank town of Jenin

However, separate horseshoe-shaped fences will be erected around the settlements which will be linked later up to the main barrier, meaning a de facto annexing of large swathes of land or splitting Palestinian villages in two.

According to B'Tselem, the main Israeli group monitoring human rights in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, some 11,000 Palestinians will end up on the Israeli side of the barrier, while some 72,000 will be surrounded by fences on both sides.

In addition, the estimated 250,000 Palestinians who live in east Jerusalem will be cut off from the rest of the West Bank.

Hamas unbowed

The Palestinian resistance group Hamas vowed on Friday that the wall would not put a stop to its attacks, including suicide bombings.

"The wall built by Israel will not stop the operations and we will succeed in breaching it," the Islamic group's representative in Lebanon, Usama Hamdan, told hundreds of supporters at a southern Palestinian refugee camp.

Washington, has threatened economic sanctions over the barrier, which it fears will complicate negotiations on the Palestinian state it has committed itself to.

The army has started loosening the rules of engagement in the vicinity of the fence, making it easier for soldiers to open fire on suspects approaching it.

In another defiant move which Washington has promised to punish by deducting money from huge loan guarantees for Israel, Sharon's government announced that tenders had been issued for building more than 550 new homes in West Bank Jewish settlements.

Russia also called on Israel to stop the construction of its "security barrier" in Palestinian territory and halt the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Anti-peace efforts

Palestinian president Yasir Arafat condemned the Israeli decisions, describing the barrier as the "wall of racism" while other Palestinians officials also denounced both decisions as an Israeli attempt to sabotage peace efforts and the two-state vision promoted by Washington.

But the Palestinians lack a strong voice with the United States: prime minister-designate Ahmad Quraya is still struggling to form his new government.

Quraya again postponed the official presentation of the new cabinet line-up, which is expected to be announced on Wednesday and include only half the number of ministers initially planned.

According to parliamentary sources, the repeated delays were caused by Quraya's attempts to seek US and Israeli guarantees over the fate of Arafat and differences within his own Fatah party over the composition of the government.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (L) with prime minister designate Ahmad Quraya

In comments published Friday, Quraya hinted that the campaign against the West Bank barrier would be central to his government's action.

He painted a bleak picture of peace prospects if Israel went ahead with its fence plans.

"The Israeli government decision to continue building this wall shows it is not serious in its quest for a peaceful settlement and intends to unilaterally determine borders and prevent the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.

"Without the creation, within the June 4 (1967) borders, of a geographically continuous Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, there will be no solution with the Israelis," said the premier.

Israel argues that the barrier is crucial to its security, and on Friday a spokesman announced that the army had started loosening the rules of engagement in the vicinity of the fence, making it easier for soldiers to open fire on suspects approaching it.