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Israel braces for Arab protests on Friday

By Josef Federman

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, March 29 2012 11:10 a.m. MDT

Israeli soldiers stand on the border fence between Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights, and Syria, as security is tightened ahead of Land Day, Thursday, March 29, 2012. March 30 is traditionally marked by Israeli Arabs as "Land Day," a time of protests against the confiscation of Arab-owned lands by Israel. In recent years, Palestinians have joined in.

Hamad Almakt) ISRAEL OUT, Associated Press

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JERUSALEM — 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."

While organizers said the events would be nonviolent, Israel's army and police were girding for trouble after 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 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.

"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.

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."

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.

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.

Likewise, authorities in Lebanon and Jordan 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.

In other developments Thursday, Israeli police said about 30 Israelis entered an abandoned three-story building in the volatile West Bank city of Hebron, claiming they purchased it.

Hebron is revered by Jews and Muslims as the burial place of the patriarch Abraham, or Ibrahim. More than 600 Jews in heavily guarded enclaves amid 170,000 Palestinians in the city.

A spokesman for the Palestinian Hebron municipality, Azez Nofal, called the settlers' claims "baseless."

Also Thursday, Israeli police arrested six people suspected of incitement in a Jerusalem mall Monday, Rosenfeld said. The suspects were among 200 fans of the Beitar Jerusalem football team who entered the mall and began shouting "Death to Arabs" before brawling with Arab cleaners and food servers.

Also, police indicted a Palestinian resident of east Jerusalem who is suspected of stabbing a soldier on a train in mid-March, Rosenfeld said. He will be charged with attempted murder.

Associated Press writers Daniella Cheslow in Jerusalem, Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, Zeina Karam in Beirut, Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, and Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed reporting.

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