Israeli forces on alert for Land Day demonstrations

Israeli forces are on high alert ahead of expected mass demonstrations as Palestinians prepared for a day of marches throughout the region.

The Land Day rallies are an annual event marked by Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who protest at what they say are discriminatory Israeli land policies.

Supporters in neighbouring Arab countries are also planning marches near Israel’s borders in solidarity events.

Similar demonstrations turned deadly last year, and thousands of Israeli troops and police have been deployed in anticipation of possible violence.

Many Palestinians, energised by Arab Spring uprisings that have overturned decades-old regimes, see massive, co-ordinated marches as one of the most effective strategies to draw attention to their cause.

“After the Arab revolutions, there’s awareness of the importance of popular participation,” said a prominent Arab activist, Jafar Farah. “This has rattled the Arab regimes, and now it’s frightening the Israeli government.”

Israel’s military closed off the West Bank to all but humanitarian emergencies, saying the move was “in accordance with security assessments.”

The West Bank is a hilly territory on Israel’s eastern border where over 2.5 million Palestinians live, alongside hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jewish settlers. The closure will not apply to the settlers.

Police also restricted access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, Islam’s third holiest site and a frequent flashpoint for Palestinian-Israeli violence. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said only men over 40 years of age may enter the compound, while women may freely do so.

The age restriction applies to Palestinians from Jerusalem who carry residency permits, and for West Bank Palestinians – though few of them are expected to be allowed into the city because of the military’s closure of the territory.

Israeli-Arab citizens, regardless of age, will be allowed to enter, Rosenfeld said.

Thousands more policemen were deployed into northern Israel, where Israel’s Arab citizens are expected to hold a large demonstration in the village of Deir Hanna.

Israel was also preparing for possible trouble along the borders with Lebanon and Syria in the north, Jordan to the east, and Egypt and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip to the south.

Mahmoud Aloul, a Palestinian leader in the West Bank involved in the marches, said the demonstrations were to be held in Jerusalem, the Qalandiya checkpoint - a frequent flashpoint of violence on the outskirts of Jerusalem – and in the West Bank town of Bethlehem.

While organisers said the marches would be non-violent, similar protests last year turned deadly.

At least 15 people were killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers when they tried to cross the Syrian and Lebanese borders with Israel in a May protest marking Palestinian sorrow over Israel’s creation in 1948.

A month later, Israeli troops killed 23 demonstrators who crossed into the no-man’s land between Israel and Syria in a demonstration against Israel’s control of the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the 1967 war.

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