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Israel closes off Gaza Strip, West Bank for Passover holiday

Jewish festival has also seen the temporary release of Israeli soldier charged with manslaughter of fatal shooting of wounded Palestinian
The al-Aqsa Mosque, part of a Jerusalem site held sacred by Jews, Muslims and Christians, pictured behind barbed wire (AFP)

Israel closed all points of entry between the occupied West Bank, the Gaza strip, and Israeli territory on Friday for the Jewish holiday of Passover, announcing that the lockdown will continue into Saturday.

Tensions are high in Israel following a wave of violence that has killed 201 Palestinians and 28 Israelis since October.

The blockade was decided after "an evaluation of the security situation", a military spokesperson told AFP without giving specifics.

The Israeli government regularly closes off access to Israel for Palestinians during major Jewish religious festivals.

Exceptions will be made for humanitarian and medical cases, the spokesperson said.

Friday also saw the temporary release of Elor Azaria, the Israeli army medic charged with manslaughter for allegedly shooting dead a wounded Palestinian at point-blank range in an incident that has divided Israeli society.

Azaria, 19, was released from military detention to spend the Passover holiday with his family – images published in Israeli news sites showed him, wearing his army uniform, being carried aloft along a street surrounded by well-wishers following his temporary release.

Israeli security forces undertook a wave of arrests in Jerusalem on Thursday night and into Friday morning, detaining around 20 young men according to local news site Palestine Today.

Thousands of Jewish pilgrims flock to Jerusalem and other holy sites during the eight-day holiday of Passover, which commemorates the Jewish exodus from Egypt in Biblical times.

"As Passover approaches, all sorts of extremists will spread lies about our policy concerning the Temple Mount," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week, referring to a historical site in Jerusalem considered sacred by Jews, Muslims and Christians.

"We will act against these provocateurs by deploying security reinforcements in areas of friction," he said.

Most of the Palestinians killed in recent months were carrying out knife, gun or car-ramming attacks, according to Israeli authorities.

Earlier this week a suicide bus bombing in Jerusalem wounded 20 people, with Israel blaming Hamas, the rulers of the Gaza Strip.

Many analysts say Palestinian frustration with Israeli occupation and settlement-building in the West Bank, the complete lack of progress in peace efforts and their own fractured leadership have fed the recent unrest.

Israel blames incitement by Palestinian leaders and media as one of the main causes of the violence.

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