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The Israel Defense Forces yesterday designated Bil'in and Na'alin as closed military areas every Friday until mid-August, in a bid to halt the weekly demonstrations against the separation fence in those West Bank villages.

On Sunday night dozens of troops, some wearing masks, entered the villages and plastered storefronts and home windows with notices announcing the closure order signed by the GOC Central Command, Maj. Gen. Avi Mizrahi.

The order officially runs from February 18 to August 17. The 12-hour closure will apply to the area stretching from the separation fence to the edge of the villages' built-up areas.

Weekly demonstrations against the fence have been held in Bil'in for the past five years. Over the last three years the villages of Na'alin and Al-Ma'sara have also become weekly protest spots, attracting not only Palestinians but activists from Israel and abroad. Similar rallies were held in Jayyous, Budrus, Beit Liqya and Bidu.

In all, 23 Palestinians - including 12 minors - have been killed at five rallying sites by IDF fire directed at protesters. Six were killed in Bidu and five in Na'alin.

Dozens of protesters have been injured by IDF fire, including rubber-coated bullets and direct hits from stun grenades and tear gas. Two weeks ago, a boy from the Ramallah-area of village Nabi Saleh was seriously hurt by a rubber-coated bullet as protesters rallied against settlers' seizure of village lands on which a spring is situated.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Fatah leaders like Jibril Rajoub and Nabil Sha'ath have supported the fight against the wall and taken part in several rallies.

The IDF Spokesman told Haaretz, "Every week violent, illegal disturbances occur in Na'alin and Bil'in, during which security forces are hurt and serious damage is caused to the security fence and public property. In an effort to prevent the arrival of individuals inciting violent unrest in the area, GOC Central Command Maj. Gen. Avi Mizrahi signed an order three weeks ago designating the area between the security fence and the villages Na'alin and Bil'in as closed military zones."

The order, it said, "applies to Israeli citizens, foreigners and Palestinians who are not residents of the villages on Fridays between 8 A.M. and 8 P.M., and will remain in force for six months. Note that the order does not apply to village residents, who will be allowed free movement."

The order states that individuals will be allowed entry if they have been "given authorization ... to enter and remain in the closed military area" by GOC Central Command or the Binyamin Brigade commander or his representative.

It remains unclear whether issuing the permits will require bureaucratic action similar to that undertaken by the Civil Administration in granting access to individuals owning land on the western side of the separation fence. Village residents said that in the past, their own entry to areas designated as closed military zones was routinely denied.

Last year the IDF and Shin Bet security service made a number of night incursions into Na'alin and Bil'in to carry out mass arrests. Minors and mentally ill people were detained first, and in Shin Bet and police interrogations produced lists of people who had supposedly participated in illegal activity such as stone-throwing and "incitement."