A fresh bout of violence between Israelis and Palestinians erupted on Friday in the occupied West Bank, as Israeli forces clamped down following a spate of tit-for-tat attacks that local media speculated could be the start of a new "intifada," or uprising.
The violence came as Israeli security forces intensified a search for a gunman who got out of his car on Thursday and opened fire at a bus stop near the Ofra settlement in the central West Bank, killing two Israeli soldiers and wounding another soldier and civilian. No group has claimed credit for Thursday's attack, but Israel blamed Hamas.
Following the attack, the army set up roadblocks and entered Ramallah, the administrative and commercial center of the Palestinian administration, while raids were conducted across the West Bank leading to 40 arrests, among them 37 suspected Hamas activists, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) said.
On the second day of clashes between stone-throwing Palestinians and Israeli forces across the West Bank and Ramallah, the Palestinian Health Ministry said a 17-year-old was shot dead by Israeli fire. Dozens of Palestinians were injured.
In another incident, an Israeli soldier was wounded by a Palestinian assailant, who attacked him with a rock and knife at a military post near the Beit El settlement, the IDF said. Over the past two days, Israeli forces also killed two Palestinians that Israel said had tried to carry out attacks.
Elsewhere on Friday, Jewish settlers threw stones at Palestinian vehicles, while an Arab bus driver was beaten by ultra-Orthodox Jews in a West Bank settlement.
The upheaval on Friday coincided with the 31st anniversary of the foundation of the militant Hamas movement, which since 2007 has controlled the Gaza Strip but maintains cells in the West Bank, where the rival Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has limited self-rule.
Abbas has blamed both Hamas and Israel for the latest round of violence.
Separately, some 10,000 Palestinians on Friday demonstrated along the border fence between the Gaza Strip and Israel in a continuation of the weekly "March of Return" protests. At least 16 Palestinians were injured by Israeli forces, who said they were responding to protesters hurling rocks, Molotov cocktails and hand grenades.
Since March, more than 175 Palestinians and an Israeli soldier have been killed during the Gaza protests, which demand the Palestinian right to return to their former lands in what is now Israel as well as the end to a crushing Israeli-Egyptian blockade on the enclave.
Earlier in the week on Sunday, another Palestinian gunman wounded seven people in a drive-by shooting near a West Bank settlement. Among the injured was a pregnant woman, whose baby later died after being delivered prematurely. Hamas claimed credit for the attack.
On Wednesday, Israeli forces shot dead the Palestinian suspect behind the attack. Another Palestinian accused of killing two Israelis in October was also killed by Israeli security forces early on Thursday.
Netanyahu under pressure
The latest uptick in violence has put pressure Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces corruption scandals and holds five Cabinet positions, including the newly acquired Defense Ministry.
Netanyahu's Likud-led government is hanging by a thread with only a one-seat majority in the Knesset ahead of general elections scheduled for next year. He relies on the support of right-wing and pro-settler parties, who have threatened to take down the government if he does not take a hard line against Hamas, with which Israel has fought three wars since 2008.
Read more: Is Israel heading for early elections?
Netanyahu's government has responded to the violence by reinforcing troops in the West Bank and announcing new measures to support settlements, which are widely viewed as an impediment to peace with the Palestinians.
There are more than 400,000 Israelis living in West Bank settlements considered illegal by most of the international community.
In another move, the Israeli army on Saturday demolished the house of a Palestinian charged with killing an Israeli soldier in the West Bank. The operation, in Ramallah, involved dozens of soldiers and military vehicles and triggered clashes with angry residents.
It's part of a wider move to target the homes of any Palestinian attacker's family within 48 hours, a practice rights groups have criticized as collective punishment.
Israel occupied the West Bank in the 1967 Six-Day War. Palestinians claim the West Bank and East Jerusalem as part of a future state. Peace talks have long stalled, exacerbating Palestinian frustration.
mm, cw/ng (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)