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Israeli army closes off and occupies Hebron as West Bank violence flares

Security measures in West Bank's largest city described as most substantial steps since run-up to 2014 Gaza war
Israel says security measures in Hebron will be in place for an 'extended period' (AFP)

Israeli troops locked down Hebron, the occupied West Bank's most populous city, and surrounding villages on Saturday after two Israelis were killed in nearby attacks.

Troops locked gates and set up barriers blocking access routes to villages in the area and closed all exit roads from the city except for the northern one through the town of Halhul towards Jerusalem, an AFP correspondent reported.

The army announced on Friday that it would close off the flashpoint city in the wake of a spate of violence in the past week. Two additional units from the elite Golani Brigade were sent to the city.

The measures were described by Isreali army spokesperson Peter Lerner as the "most substantial steps on the ground" since 2014, when Israeli forces carried out a huge search operation in the southern West Bank for three young hitchhikers abducted and later murdered by Palestinian militants.

Overnight on Saturday, Israel bombed four sites in the Gaza Strip, causing damage but no injuries after Palestinian militants fired a rocket that struck a building in southern Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel will reduce the amount of tax funds transferred monthly to the Palestinian Authority as part of measures to be taken following the attacks.

"Netanyahu has ordered that the entire amount of support for terrorists and their families be deducted from the tax revenues that Israel transfers monthly to the Palestinian Authority," his office said.

Hisham Sharabati, an activist with the Popular Committee to Defend Hebron, told Middle East Eye that several villages east and south of Hebron had been besieged for days, affecting about 100,000 people.

“The main roads to the villages are closed. Banie Naa'em village is completely besieged. There was one exit that people could use but that was closed this afternoon by the army,” he said.

Sharabati said there were still ways to reach Hebron, but that the restrictions were already making life difficult for residents.

“There are 700,000 living in Hebron and it would be a catastrophe if it was closed. Those worst affected are those who need to reach hospitals, children and old people,” he said.

Sharabati said Israeli security forces were already conducting raids and arresting people, and some residents were fearful that they could be planning to take military action during next week’s festival of Eid.

“People are waiting to see what will happen. There is a lot of concern about what will happen next,” he said.

The developments came just hours after an Israeli man was killed in a drive-by shooting on Friday afternoon on a road leading to the Israeli settlement of Otniel, just south of Hebron.

Pictures of the aftermath showed an overturned car on the road, apparently having flipped over after shooting broke out.

One man was killed in the attack, Israeli news site Haaretz reported, while at least three others were wounded.

Israeli police did not immediately make public whether an assailant had been identified. 

The incident came after a 63-year-old Palestinian man identified as Mohammed Mustafa al-Habash was killed and at least 40 others were injured on Friday during fierce clashes at the Qalandia checkpoint.

Habash died of exposure to tear gas, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.

Fadi Asmar, a paramedic at the scene, told Middle East Eye that soldiers at the checkpoint prevented an ambulance from entering a terminal to help Habash.  

Instead, Asmar said, he walked into the terminal and brought Habash out to the ambulance. Habash died on the way to the hospital.

"Had he received medical treatment in time, he would have lived," Asmar said.

Ahmed Bitwai, director of the Ramallah hospital where Habash was taken, said he died from being "directly subjected" to tear gas.

The clashes broke out at the main checkpoint between the West Bank and northern Jerusalem after Israeli authorities prevented Palestinians under the age of 40 from crossing into Jerusalem to pray at al-Aqsa Mosque on the last Friday of the holy fasting month of Ramadan.

Tear gas at the Qalandia checkpoint on Friday (MEE/Issam Rimawi)

About an hour earlier, a Palestinian woman - related to the perpetrator of an attack a day earlier - was shot dead by Israeli police after allegedly attempting to stab a guard at a flashpoint West Bank holy site.

Israeli officials said no police were wounded in the stabbing attempt at the Hebron site, known to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque and to Jews as the Cave of the Patriarchs.

"A female terrorist armed with a knife approached a border police post at one of the entrances to the Cave of the Patriarchs and suddenly drew a knife and tried to stab one of the policemen," a police statement said.

"He responded and shot the terrorist."

The woman, identified by Palestinian media as 27-year-old Sara Tarayra, was reported to have been pregnant.

Her 19-year-old family member Mohammed Tarayra on Thursday morning stabbed to death Hallel Ariel, a 13-year-old American-Israeli, in her home at the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba adjoining Hebron, before being shot dead by security guards.

The West Bank has seen the increase in attacks in recent days amid tensions flaring over access to the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem.

A site sacred to both Jews and Muslims, the compound is regularly closed to Muslims, with the exception of women and men over the age of 40 or 50, particularly during times of political strife. Non-Muslims, including Jews, are allowed to visit the site during set hours, but are barred from praying to avoid provocation.

During the last 10 days of Ramadan, there is a tacit ban on non-Muslim access to the site, but Islamic officials accused Israel earlier this week of breaking the ban, which added to tensions.

In an effort to relieve social pressures, Israeli authorities said on Tuesday that they were closing the compound to non-Muslim visitors.

Alaa Daraghmeh contributed to this story.