The Israeli government on Wednesday deployed hundreds of soldiers to cities across the country and gave police the authority to seal off Palestinian neighborhoods in occupied East Jerusalem as part of a series of measures that are aimed at bolstering security but that rights groups slammed as a recipe for abuse.
The army deployed six companies to the country's urban areas, two weeks after tensions between Palestinians and Israelis gave way to attacks and confrontations that have so far seen seven Israelis and 31 Palestinians killed.
At a meeting of the security cabinet that finished in the early hours of Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also allowed revocation of residency rights of Palestinians deemed to have committed attacks and an increase in demolition of their homes. The cabinet agreed that it would forbid new construction at those sites. Such tactics have often been threatened, but court challenges frequently held up the process.
In addition, the cabinet approved an expansion of the national police, extra guards on public transport and the deployment of army units in sensitive areas along Israel’s steel and concrete separation barrier in the West Bank.
Addressing Palestinians for the first time since the violence began, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said in a recorded televised speech he supported "peaceful and popular" struggle against Israel.
The new Israeli measures came after what was billed as a Day of Rage, during which three Israelis were killed in attacks by Palestinians. At least two Palestinian were also killed in the violence on Tuesday. The death toll continued to rise Wednesday, with a Palestinian man killed by police at the entrance of the Damascus gate in Jerusalem. Authorities say the man attempted to stab a policeman at the time of the incident. A second Palestinian was shot dead on Wednesday after allegedly stabbing an Israeli woman at a bus station, Palestinian Ma'an News Agency reported.
The recent surge in violence was initially sparked by increased restrictions on Palestinian access to Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and a heavy-handed response by Israeli authorities against protesters. The violence spread after two attacks said to be perpetrated by Palestinians killed two Israelis in East Jerusalem and two Israeli settlers in the West Bank. Israeli settlers rioted after those killings, assaulting Palestinian at random and destroying their property. A spate of protests, clashes and back and forth stabbings have ensued.
Palestinian protesters are calling for unrestricted access to worship at Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam. Jews revere the site as the location of two ancient temples. Demonstrators also want Israel to end its occupation of the Palestinian territories and cease settlement building, both of which are illegal under international law.
Israeli military affairs commentators questioned the value of the threatened lockdown in occupied East Jerusalem, saying that those determined to carry out attacks will still find ways to do so while the strong-arm tactic could fuel more anger.
Human Rights Watch on Wednesday said the measure, which has not yet been imposed but could be carried out if the wave of violence continues, was “a recipe for harassment and abuse.”
“Locking down East Jerusalem neighborhoods will infringe upon the freedom of movement of all Palestinian residents rather than being a narrowly tailored response to a specific concern,” it said in a statement.
Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem also criticized the measure.
“This racist government has turned Jerusalem into a war zone … We are being chased out of our homes, our streets,” said Aziz Abbasi, who lives in the Old City. “The streets and alleyways of Jerusalem’s old town are empty of Arabs and settlers. In every corner, alleyway in Jerusalem, there are armed men, border police, army, intelligence officers.”
Another resident, Islam Younes, said he was attacked by Israeli soldiers and that the situation in the city was “very tense,” with security measures at every entrance leading to the Old City.
“I only came to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque, but everybody is on edge, expecting violations and attacks to take place at any time,“ he said.
Al Jazeera and wire services