Israel on Thursday stepped up preparations a day before a series of planned Arab protests, deploying thousands of troops and police across the country and along its borders in anticipation of possible violence.
On Friday, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are marking Land Day, an annual protest against what they say are discriminatory Israeli land policies. Supporters in neighboring Arab countries planned marches near the Israeli borders in a solidarity event they call a "Global March to Jerusalem."
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While organizers said the events would be nonviolent, Israel's army and police were girding for trouble after similar protests last year turned deadly. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has instructed the army to impose a full closure on the West Bank, which will be lifted in 24 hours barring any unforeseen developments.
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.
IDF machine gun near Gaza border (Photo: Moti Kimchi)
A month later, Israeli troops killed 23 demonstrators who crossed into the no-man's land between Israel and Syria in a demonstration against Israeli control of the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.
Israeli Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, who oversees the national police force, said officers would be spread out in potentially explosive areas Friday but would not enter Arab villages unless needed.
IDF preparations near Gaza (Photo: Moti Kimchi)
"The guidelines are to allow everyone to mark Land Day quietly ... We will keep a low profile," he told Israel Radio.
Police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said thousands of officers were on the move throughout the country Thursday in preparation for Land Day. He said the biggest deployments were near Arab towns in northern Israel and in Jerusalem.
IDF snipers practice (Photo: Moti Kimchi)
He said police were in touch with leaders of Arab communities in Israel in an attempt to keep protests peaceful.
"We're hoping there won't be any major incidents," he said. "If there are ... obviously the police will respond and deal with them."
In Jerusalem, the entrance to the Temple Mount compound will be limited. Thousands of police officers will be deployed in and around the capital.
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Mahmoud Aloul, a Palestinian leader in the West Bank involved in preparations, said 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. Other events were planned in Arab towns in northern Israel.
The Israeli military 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.
In a statement, the Israeli military said it was "prepared for any eventuality and will do whatever is necessary to protect Israeli borders and residents." It gave no further details.
As part of the preparations in north Israel, roadblocks will be set up at the entrances to major cities.
Activists in Gaza planned to hold a demonstration about a kilometer (half a mile) from the Israeli border, but said they did not plan to move closer, minimizing the chance of clashes.
The IDF has positioned snipers along the Gaza border fence for fear demonstrators may try to approach it.
Authorities in Lebanon and Jordan also said they would keep demonstrators far from the Israeli border. Several thousand protesters were expected in each place. It was unclear whether protesters would gather in Syria, which is in the midst of a vicious civil war that has left thousands dead over the past year.
Palestinian organizer Mustafa Barghouti said activists from 82 countries were expected to participate in Land Day activities.
Barghouti said the marches were aimed at "ending the apartheid regime and the ethnic cleansing."
It was reported this week that at least to of the Arab protest organizers were aboard the Mavi Marmara ship when it was raided by IDF commandoes while trying to violate the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza.
Meanwhile, dozens of Jordanians protested near the Israeli embassy in Amman on Thursday against Israeli presence in the Hashemite Kingdom. During the rally demonstrators burned Israeli and American flags and said they would continue to protest until the Israeli embassy "is removed from Jordanian land and Palestine is liberated. They chanted, "Arab, fight for your rights."
The rally was organized by a Jordanian group that has been protesting against the presence of the Israeli embassy in Jordan for a few months. The group has also been protesting against the Israel-Jordan peace treaty.
Roi Kais contributed to the report
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