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West Bank tensions rise after Palestinian stabbings in Israeli settlements

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli troops shot and wounded a Palestinian teenager who stabbed a pregnant Israeli woman in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Monday, amid signs of Palestinians stepping up attacks on Israelis inside Jewish settlements.

The husband and daughters of Dafna Meir, 38, mourn during her funeral at a cemetery in Jerusalem January 18, 2016. Meir, a female resident of the West Bank Jewish settlement of Otniel, was stabbed to death in her home on Sunday when an assailant broke into her house and attacked her, the Israeli army and a local settlement official said. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

The military ordered Palestinian labourers to leave their workplaces in some settlements as the violence spread from streets and bus stops in the West Bank and Israel to within the usually well-protected Israeli enclaves.

Hospital officials said the woman stabbed in Tekoa, a settlement near Bethlehem, was in moderate condition at a Jerusalem hospital, with the foetus unharmed. The stabber, 17, was in serious condition after being shot in the leg. He was being treated at another Jerusalem hospital.

The stabbing was the second at a Jewish settlement in as many days. On Sunday, an assailant stabbed to death a mother of six at her home in the southern West Bank. The attacker is still being sought.

The wave of Palestinian violence, now in its fourth month, has been fuelled by various factors including frustration over the 2014 collapse of peace talks and the growth of Jewish settlements on land Palestinians seek for a future state.

Also stoking the strife has been Muslim opposition to increased Jewish visits to Jerusalem’s al Aqsa mosque complex, which is one of the holiest sites in Islam and is revered in Judaism as the location of two ancient biblical temples.

The Israeli military ordered all Palestinian labourers who work in the large Gush Etzion bloc of settlements in the southern West Bank to quit their places of employment after the Tekoa attack. Some were seen being driven away in the back of a large dump truck.

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“In light of situation assessments and following recent terror attacks ... Palestinian workers have been instructed to leave (Gush Etzion) communities,” an army statement said.

The U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, condemned the recent stabbings as “barbaric acts of terrorism” but also criticized Israel for not doing enough to stop violence by far-right Israelis against Palestinians in the West Bank.

“Too many attacks on Palestinians lack a vigorous investigation or response by Israeli authorities, too much vigilantism goes unchecked, and at times there seem to be two standards of adherence to the rule of law - one for Israelis and another for Palestinians,” he said at a security conference.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement later rejecting Shapiro’s comments, calling them “unacceptable and untrue. Israel enforces the law on Israelis and on Palestinians”.

Analysts said increased tensions could prompt settlers who have a strong voice in Israel’s right-wing government to lobby for tougher travel and employment restrictions on Palestinians, a step that could in turn further inflame the atmosphere.

“The more settlers feel vulnerable to such brutal attacks, their influential leaders would increase their pressure on the government to more sharply separate Palestinians from settlers,” Ofer Zalzberg of the International Crisis Group think tank said.

“If (the) past is precedent, such separation, notably the allocation of some West Bank roads exclusively to settlers by diverting Palestinian traffic to secondary tortuous ones, would further radicalise Palestinians.”

On Sunday, Daphne Meir, a hospital nurse, was stabbed to death as she tried to fend off an attacker who broke into her home. Neighbours in the settlement of Otniel said they heard one of her daughters screaming for help.

Netanyahu promised that police would find the attacker and bring him to justice. He added that Israel would bolster the settlements’ security, although he did not elaborate.

The latest bloodshed occurred a few days after Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon declared that grassroots Palestinian violence was on the wane.

Since Oct. 1 when the upsurge in violence began, Palestinian stabbings, car-rammings and shootings have killed 25 Israelis and a U.S. citizen. At least 148 Palestinians have been killed, 94 of whom Israel has described as assailants. Most of the others died during violent demonstrations.

Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Mark Heinrich