Israel braces for annual Arab protests

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.

Today 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 another development Thursday, a Palestinian prisoner held by Israel agreed to end her hunger strike after 43 days, her supporters said.

Hana Shalabi agreed to be expelled to the Gaza Strip for three years in exchange for halting the strike, said Qadoura Fares, who heads a group representing Palestinian prisoners.

Shalabi, 30, is a supporter of the militant Islamic Jihad group in the West Bank, which lies on the opposite side of Israel from Gaza.

She launched her strike on Feb. 16 to protest "administrative detention," an Israeli military policy that kept her jailed without formal charges.

The Israeli military confirmed the details of the deal, saying Shalabi agreed to "avoid any involvement in terror activity." She is expected to be sent to Gaza in the coming days.

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.