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Palestinian lawyer killed in Israel West Bank clashes

Israeli troops clash with Palestinians in Nablus after entering the West Bank city with Jewish builders to carry out repairs at a flashpoint religious site. ©AFP

Nablus (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - A Palestinian rights lawyer was killed in clashes Wednesday close to Nablus, the fifth day of Israeli operations in the West Bank following a spate of attacks in the Jewish state, Palestinian officials said.

Violence also erupted at a flashpoint religious site in Nablus that is sacred to Jews, Joseph's Tomb, which was vandalised days ago by Palestinians, heightening tensions.

The Israeli army said its troops were "conducting counterterrorist operations" in Nablus, the militant bastion of Jenin and several other cities in the occupied West Bank, without immediately commenting on the lawyer's death.

The Palestinian health ministry said human rights lawyer Muhammad Hassan Muhammad Assaf, 34, "died after being shot in the chest by the Israeli occupation army during the aggression on the city of Nablus".

Witnesses told AFP he was standing by the roadside, having just taken his nephews to school, when he was hit by a bullet as Israeli forces fired while pulling out after an incursion into Nablus.

He was mourned as a "fierce defender of his people" by the body he worked for, the Colonisation and Wall Resistance Commission of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority. 

Asked by AFP, the Israeli army did not say whether its soldiers had opened fire in Nablus Wednesday.

Israel has poured additional forces into the West Bank and reinforced its barrier with the territory after being hit by a wave of attacks that have claimed 14 lives in Israel, most of them civilians, in the past three weeks.

The latest was a shooting rampage last Thursday in the heart of the coastal metropolis of Tel Aviv that claimed three lives before the gunman, who hails from Jenin, was killed after a huge all-night manhunt.

Israeli forces have killed 16 Palestinians, including assailants, in the same period, according to an AFP count. 

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has warned Israel is now "on the offensive" and determined to arrest militant suspects.

The Palestinian Prisoners Club on Wednesday reported 14 new arrests overnight across the West Bank. 

Contested holy site

Violence flared at Joseph's Tomb as Israeli forces escorted Jewish construction workers sent in to repair the tomb after it was vandalised over the weekend.

The army said troops securing the tomb encountered "hundreds of Palestinians" who rioted, burned tyres and hurled firebombs and stones at troops and that "soldiers responded with riot dispersal means and live ammunition".

Bennett vowed on Sunday that "we will not abide such an assault on a place that is holy to us -- on the eve of Passover", the Jewish festival.

The military commander of the operation told the soldiers deployed to secure the settler-led repair works that "we get to restore the honour to this land and the people of Israel", Israeli media reported.

The Palestinian Red Crescent medical service reported 31 people injured at the site and in a nearby village, including 10 people hit by live rounds.

The site is a frequent flashpoint between Israelis and Palestinians and was partially destroyed in 2000 during the second Palestinian intifada, and also torched in 2015.

Palestinian authorities consider the wider site to be an Islamic archaeological monument where the cleric Sheikh Yussef Dweikat was buried two centuries ago.

The Israeli army said Tuesday it had arrested one Palestinian suspected of involvement in the act of vandalism.

Jewish pilgrims can usually visit Joseph's Tomb under escort by the Israeli army. 

On Monday, two Israelis were shot and wounded there after entering Nablus without military protection.One of the men told public broadcaster Kan they had gone to inspect the tomb.