JERUSALEM (AP) _ The Palestinians suspended security coordination and joint patrols with Israel in Bethlehem on Tuesday to protest what they said was illegal construction at an Israeli enclave in the biblical West Bank city.

The decision to stop joint patrols in Bethlehem came hours before Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak were to hold their first working meeting. Security cooperation is a key element in interim peace deals between the two sides.

The suspension came after Israel began construction near its enclave of Rachel's Tomb despite Palestinian objections, said Col. Amin Farouk Amin, the head of the Palestinian liaison office with Israel in the Bethlehem district.

The Bethlehem municipality said bulldozers were excavating near Rachel's Tomb to build covered stairways for the compound. Rachel's Tomb is a site revered by observant Jews as the burial site of the biblical matriarch.

The army said it was checking Amin's complaints. Security cooperation continued normally elsewhere in the West Bank.