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Violence, Coinciding Anniversaries Increase West Bank, Gaza Strip Tensions

Thousands of Palestinians are expected to turn out this weekend to mark ‘Land Day,’ as well as a year since the beginning of the weekly ‘March of Return’ protests

The West Bank is going through a wave of violence that is expected to expand due to anniversaries that intersect.

Several guards and Palestinian security prisoners were injured during clashes at a prison in southern Israel on Sunday night, reportedly over a move by the Prisons Authority to jam cell phone signals to and from prisoners. Israeli officials have often accused senior Palestinians serving jail sentences of directing anti-Israel violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip through the use of smuggled cell phones.

“Repression forces used [stun] and [tear] gas bombs, as well as bullets against the prisoners who faced them by stabbing two of the jailers,” the Palestinian Prisoners’ Association said in a statement, referring to the incident at what Israel calls the Ketziot Detention Center and the Palestinians Naqab Prison.

The prison clashes came a day before a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip destroyed a home in central Israel, wounding seven civilians. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu cut short a trip to Washington in light of the incident, which could bring a wave of Israeli retaliatory strikes.

The West Bank has also seen an uptick in violence, with recent attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians that left two Israelis dead, and Israeli military operations that killed at least three Palestinians.

Now, nationalist and Islamist forces in the West Bank are urging Palestinians to participate “widely” in this year’s Land Day, being marked on Saturday, March 30.

Land Day commemorates an incident in 1976 in which Israeli police killed six Arab citizens protesting the government’s expropriation of Arab-owned land for military purposes. Since then, each commemoration has seen mass protests – many of them turning violent, and some deadly – by Israeli-Arabs, but also by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The date has become a major event on the Palestinian political calendar, one that emphasizes Palestinian resistance to the Israeli “occupation.” In a statement, Land Day organizers in the West Bank called on Palestinians to “ignite” what have been flashpoints, including checkpoints and entrances to Palestinian villages and towns.

“We call for extensive participation in various demonstrations in Ramallah and Al-Bireh, as well as demonstrations organized by the Arab Liberation Front in Khan al-Ahmar,” the statement said, referring to a Bedouin encampment near Jerusalem that Israel has vowed to dismantle.

Issam Baker, a coordinator of the nationalist and Islamist forces in the Ramallah area, told The Media Line that this year’s Land Day is expected to draw the largest turnout since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994. As reasons, he cited Israeli activities such as “stealing lands, building settlements and attacking our prisoners,” as well as “attempts to declare the West Bank and the Golan Heights [as being] under ‘Israeli control’ rather than ‘occupied.’” He was referring to a recent US State Department report reflecting such terminology.

Activist Jamal al-Ahmed told The Media Line that Palestinians consider Land Day a national holiday representing their struggle for freedom.

“After all of the biased American decisions, we expect a huge number of people to partake in activities,” Ahmed said.

He confirmed that 300 olive trees would be planted as a counterpoint to the Israeli presence in the West Bank to further instill the sense of Palestinian rights there.

Baker called the demonstrations slated to mark Land Day “the start of a chain of events that will expand until Nakba Day,” referring to an annual day in May on which Palestinians commemorate what they call the “disaster” of the establishment of the State of Israel.

This year, Land Day comes at about the same time that Palestinians will mark the first anniversary of the “March of Return” protests, which have been held almost every Friday along the border fence between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

Despite their ostensible non-violent intent, the fence protests have invariably descended into chaos, so far resulting in the deaths of at least 150 Palestinians and the wounding of many thousands more, as well as the wounding of numerous Israeli soldiers.

Israel has sought to quell the disturbances – which often see demonstrators attempting to breach the Gaza border fence with everything from wire cutters to explosive charges and sniper fire – by using tear gas, stun grenades and live ammunition.

Meanwhile, informed Palestinian sources say a delegation from Egypt’s intelligence services arrived in the Gaza Strip on Sunday to complement “understandings of a truce” between Hamas and the Israeli government.