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Israel closes off West Bank ahead of Purim holiday

Restrictions also imposed at al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, with Palestinian men under 50 banned from entering to worship
Dressed up Israeli settlers take part in a parade during the festivities of the Jewish holiday of Purim on 5 March 2015 in the West Bank town of Hebron (AFP)

Israel has sealed off the occupied West Bank ahead of a Jewish holiday that starts on Wednesday night, the army said.

The heightened security measures, which will hinder thousands of Palestinian workers in the West Bank from working inside Israel, will remain in place until Saturday.

Exceptions will be made for humanitarian and medical cases, an army spokeswoman confirmed, adding that the Israeli government had agreed to the closure of the West Bank after an “evaluation of the situation”. No further details were given.

The unusual decision comes amid a wave of Palestinian knife, gun and car-ramming attacks since October.

Violence since October has killed 198 Palestinians, 28 Israelis, two Americans, an Eritrean and a Sudanese.

The Jewish holiday Purim, which commemorates the Biblical account of the saving of Jewish people from an ancient Persian vizier, ends on Thursday night.

Purim sees street parades, costume parties and an increase in the number of Jewish faithful visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City.

Further restrictions were levied on the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, with the general director of compound telling local media that Palestinian men under the age of 50 were banned from entering to worship.

The compound was shut down on Tuesday and 17 Palestinians were arrested, the director said.

Israel has regularly closed off the West Bank during Jewish holidays such as Passover and Yom Kippur, though less often for Purim.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Jewish Israelis including settlers converged on religious sites across the West Bank in which many Palestinians considered to be a “provocative” move, said local Maan news agency.

Locals told Maan that settlers had used the loudspeakers of the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron, also known as the Cave of Patriarchs to Israelis, “to sing racist songs that call for the expulsion of Arab Palestinians from Hebron”.

Settlers congregated at the site since late on Tuesday night and were under heavy protection of Israeli forces, who had closed off the premises to Palestinians and prevented them from accessing the surrounding areas.

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