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Human rights groups yesterday cast harsh criticism against the Israel Defense Forces' announcement earlier this week that the West Bank villages of Bil'in and Na'alin would be designated closed military zones one day a week for several months.

Military officials said the order, issued by GOC Central Command Avi Mizrahi, is aimed at preventing the unrest brought by the rallies held every Friday at the sections of the separation fence opposite the two communities. The order, they said, will not apply to residents themselves, who will retain complete freedom of movement.

"The IDF is trampling on freedom of speech in a place that has turned into a symbol of protest," advocacy group Yesh Din said yesterday

Over the past few years Bil'in and Na'alin have turned into focal points for anti-fence protests, attended not only by Palestinians but by Israeli and foreign activists as well.

The United Nations recently released a statement recognizing demonstrators in Bil'in as "defenders of human rights" entitled to protection from security forces.

Limor Yehuda, a lawyer with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said yesterday, "This order will specifically prevent Israeli and foreign activists - recognized as moderating forces at the rallies - from participating, and therefore raises questions about the considerations behind it."

Michael Sfard, a legal adviser to Yesh Din, added, "Whoever signed this new order has apparently lost all sense of shame and pretense of representing a regime respecting freedom of speech and the rights of individuals to protest. The grassroots rally in Bil'in has turned into a symbol of the cooperative Palestinian-Israeli campaign against the injustice and land appropriation caused by the separation fence."