Israel seals off West Bank to stop ‘March to Jerusalem’

Security forces ordered to ensure borders aren’t breached in Friday’s Land Day protests

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Israeli soldiers guarding the border with Syria near Majdal Shams on the Golan Heights. (photo credit: AP/Hamad Almakt)
Israeli soldiers guarding the border with Syria near Majdal Shams on the Golan Heights. (photo credit: AP/Hamad Almakt)

Israel imposed a general closure on the West Bank late Thursday night, while the army and police raised their level of alert ahead of Friday’s anticipated Land Day demonstrations and a so-called Global March to Jerusalem.

The march’s organizers have predicted that two million participants will  converge on Israel’s borders to join the protests after Friday prayers around noon. Israeli officials say they are braced for tens of thousands, and military sources said the army and policy have been instructed to act with maximal restraint while doing what is necessary to protect the country’s borders and citizens.

The security forces have been ordered to protect themselves and bystanders, to prevent any cross-border incursions, however brief, and to deny activists “a media victory,” Israel’s Channel 2 news reported Thursday night. In protests at the Syrian border last year, more than 100 activists broke through the border fence and entered Druze villages in the Golan Heights; one man even made his way to Tel Aviv.

Diplomatic officials sounded relatively unworried by the planned protests, although one source acknowledged that there was no way of knowing what might unfold on the Syrian and Lebanese borders, because Israel has no dialogue with anyone in authority on the other side of either of those lines.

Demonstrators gather along Syria's border with Israel before trying to cut through a line of barbed wire and head into the Golan Heights, as seen from the Druze village of Majdal Shams, on June 5 last year. (photo credit: Flash90)
Demonstrators gather along Syria's border with Israel before trying to cut through a line of barbed wire and head into the Golan Heights, as seen from the Druze village of Majdal Shams, on June 5 last year. (photo credit: Flash90)

Several hundred anti-Israel demonstrators are also planning protests in front of Israeli institutions worldwide.

In Jerusalem, access to the Temple Mount for Friday prayers has been limited to adult worshipers, and police have called in extra forces. Police deployments in hotspots nationwide are also being reinforced. Sources expressed concern at the prospect of violence in and around the Temple Mount in East Jerusalem as well as on the outskirts of Jerusalem, at known flashpoints such as the Kalandiya checkpoint.

There are also concerns that a settler takeover of a home in Hebron overnight Wednesday-Thursday may intensify frictions in the West Bank.

Stone hurling Palestinians clash with Israeli troops near the Qalandiya checkpoint on 'Nakba Day' last May. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Stone hurling Palestinians clash with Israeli troops near the Kalandiya checkpoint on 'Nakba Day' last May. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

“The IDF is prepared for any eventuality and will do whatever is necessary to protect Israeli borders and residents,” IDF spokesman Capt. Arye Shalicar told The Times of Israel.

IDF troops stationed along Israel’s borders have been placed on high alert. Organizers of the protest marches fear they could turn violent, Haaretz reported, mainly because of the involvement of international activists, some of whom have arrived in the area from remote places, including East Asia.

“This is just one more protest rally organized by Islamist and radical activist, nothing more and nothing less,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told The Times of Israel. “We abide by ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’: Don’t panic,” he said, referring to the catchphrase of a popular science fiction book.

Friday’s Land Day is marked annually by Israeli Arabs and Palestinians to commemorate fatal 1976 protests over land expropriation in which Israeli forces killed six Arab citizens. This year organizers are stepping up protests with the Global March to Jerusalem.

The campaign’s spokesperson, Zaher Berawi, said the participants of the march plan to “besiege Israel and its embassies over the world.”

As reported by The Times of Israel on Monday, organizers claim that two million protesters plan to march toward the borders of Israel and take part in activities designed to highlight Jerusalem’s Arab character.

Ribhi Haloum, general coordinator of the “Global March to Jerusalem,” said in a press statement this week that volunteers from 80 countries are taking part in the march. Jordan and Lebanon will send protesters to the border, whereas Egypt will organize a solidarity marathon from Cairo University to the pyramids in Giza and a large rally at Al-Azhar University.

“Why should we prepare anything? Land Day demonstrations happen every year. No special strategy is needed,” a diplomatic official said. “All this is of little consequence. The army is prepared for all eventualities, but if there are some demonstrations with some stone throwing, it’s not going to be a major diplomatic incident. Such things happen all the time.”

As long as the demonstrations take place outside of Israel’s borders, the government has no business getting involved, the official continued. “Only if a group of violent demonstrators gives it a go at a border run, might we have to act. As a sovereign state we cannot tolerate a breach of our territory by protesters from hostile countries.”

“Messages have been sent through a third country to the Lebanese authorities, messages to the effect that border incidents are of no interest to anyone and that we expect them to enforce law and order,” a diplomatic source said. “But we all know who really controls the South of Lebanon, so we don’t know really know what to expect,” he added, referring to Hezbollah fighters who might seek violent confrontation with Israeli troops.

Israelis and Jordanians routinely cooperate on military issues and thus it was not necessary to send any warning messages to Amman, the diplomatic official said. “The Jordanians know it’s against their interests to have any cross-border incidents.”

“The big question is what will happen near our borders with Syria and Lebanon. Nobody can forecast what’s going to happen. There is no one in Syria we can send any messages to, not even indirectly.”

Israeli officials’ uncertainty over what might ensue stems in part from last May’s Nakba Day and last June’s Naksa Day demonstrations, both of which saw border clashes. Over 100 protesters breached the poorly protected Syrian border fence on Nakba Day — which marks the “catastrophe” of the 1948 events that saw the founding of Israel — while Egypt and Jordan thwarted efforts by protesters to reach border areas. A month later, the army repelled further protests in violent confrontations at the Syrian border.

Lebanese forces prevented activists from reaching the Lebanon-Israel border last year, and there have been suggestions that Lebanese protests Friday will also be held in check. Given the anarchy in Syria, however, there are no confident assessments about how matters might play out on that border and the IDF is said to be deploying accordingly.

Activists in Gaza plan to hold a demonstration about half a mile from the Israeli border, but said they did not plan to move closer, minimizing the chance of clashes, AP reported.

According to various police sources, several hundred anti-Israel demonstrators are planning demonstrations in front of Israeli institutions worldwide. The Foreign Ministry is aware of several anti-Israel demonstrations planned for Land Day but seems undisturbed by them. “Our embassies are not on high alert, nor should they,” Palmor said. “It’s business as usual for the security forces in our embassies.”



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