12 March 2010
Israel’s government has ordered the IDF to seal off the West Bank for 48 hours until midnight on Saturday, an army spokesman said. The action had been taken "for security reasons" including a risk of attacks. Israeli police also said they would bar Muslim men under the age of 50 from prayers on Friday at Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque for fear of unrest. The moves come after violent clashes at the site – which is holy both to Jews and Muslims – during last week's Muslim prayers, and fresh tensions over Israeli plans to build 1,600 homes in east Jerusalem.
The army said medical and religious workers, teachers, journalists and others would be exempted from the closure. "The IDF will continue to operate in order to protect the citizens of Israel while maintaining the quality of life of the Palestinian population in the area," the Defense Ministry said in a statement.
Meanwhile, John Holmes, the UN official in charge of providing humanitarian aid, has called on Israel and Egypt to soften its blockade of the Gaza Strip. Following a visit to the Hamas-controlled territory, Holmes said: "Obviously we have called for the release of [hijacked IDF solcier Gilad] Shalit, and that he should be treated in accordance to the Geneva conventions, but the link between that and the fate of 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza does not seem to us a reasonable one."
He told journalists in New York that there had been some progress as the Israelis had allowed into Gaza goods such as glass to fix broken windows, but in general Gaza was being pushed backward because it was not possible to repair war damage and revive the economy. Holmes said the situation in Gaza was so bad that even though smuggling tunnels to Egypt were fostering a "gangster economy", the situation would become unsustainable if they were blocked.
On Thursday, Palestinians in Gaza fired a rocket into southern Israel, damaging an empty kibbutz workshop, but causing no casualties. Israel’s Air Force retaliated by hitting two targets in southern Gaza on Friday.
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