Manhunt widens on 2nd day; security forces seek to nab killers, prevent attacks

Fearing terrorism and violence could spread, IDF deploys more troops in West Bank, conducts overnight raids in towns near site where Dvir Sorek was found stabbed to death

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

IDF troops conduct search operations in the Bethlehem area after the body of a student, Dvir Sorek, later found near the settlement of Migdal Oz in Gush Etzion, on August 8, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF troops conduct search operations in the Bethlehem area after the body of a student, Dvir Sorek, later found near the settlement of Migdal Oz in Gush Etzion, on August 8, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

Security forces on Friday expanded their search efforts to find the terrorists behind a deadly stabbing attack in the West Bank on Wednesday night, as the manhunt entered its second day.

The military fears the assailants, who fled the scene after stabbing to death yeshiva student Dvir Sorek in the Etzion Bloc, may attempt to carry out additional attacks or serve as inspiration for other would-be terrorists. These concerns were especially heightened in light of the upcoming Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha and the Jewish fast day of Tisha B’Av on Sunday.

Israeli security officials refer to this tendency of terrorist activities to occur in waves as “terror attack breeds terror attack,” or in Hebrew pigua rodef pigua. This could be seen most recently late last year, when a terror cell committed two deadly shooting attacks within a number of days in the northern West Bank before its members were arrested or killed by Israeli forces.

In an effort to locate the terrorists who carried out the Wednesday night attack outside the Migdal Oz settlement, the Shin Bet security service, assisted by the Israel Defense Forces and Israel Police, launched a massive manhunt in the surrounding area on Thursday morning and the military deployed additional troops throughout the West Bank.

Initially, the search effort focused on the Palestinian village of Beit Fajjar, near Bethlehem, which is adjacent to Migdal Oz. Palestinian media reported that soldiers confiscated surveillance camera footage from businesses in the town in an apparent effort to track the escape route of the assailants.

On Thursday night and early Friday morning, security forces expanded their operations to the Palestinian town of Halhul, north of Hebron, according to Palestinian media.

Security forces were also reportedly concerned the terror cell behind the deadly stabbing attack may have split up, making the search effort more difficult. The group is believed to be getting assistance in evading capture.

IDF troops conduct search operations in the Bethlehem area after the body of a student was found near the Gush Etzion settlement on August 8, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

The lifeless body of Dvir Sorek, who would have turned 19 next week, was found covered in stab wounds outside the Machanayim religious seminary in the Migdal Oz settlement, near Bethlehem, where he was studying as part of a military program known in Hebrew as hesder.

On Wednesday night, Sorek’s family and people from the yeshiva told authorities that they lost contact with him after he traveled to Jerusalem, where he had purchased a number of books as end-of-term presents for his rabbis, including a recent novel by David Grossman.

Investigators found that Sorek returned to the area from Jerusalem shortly after 8 p.m. Wednesday and began walking from his bus stop near the Efrat settlement toward the back entrance of Migdal Oz.

Dvir Sorek, a yeshiva student and off-duty IDF soldier who was found stabbed to death outside a West Bank settlement on August 8, 2019 (Courtesy)

As he was walking along the path, an assailant got out of a car and attacked Sorek. His body was found a short distance from the site of the stabbing, on the side of the road — and some 200 meters from his yeshiva — at approximately 3 a.m. on Thursday. He had not been pulled into the vehicle, as was initially suspected.

Sorek’s funeral was held in the Ofra settlement’s cemetery late Thursday night, drawing thousands of people, where he was eulogized by his father Yoav as “a gift that spread light and goodness both inside the family and outside it.”

Relatives, friends and other mourners attend the funeral of Dvir Sorek, 18, at his hometown settlement of Ofra, Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019. Sorek was stabbed to death hours earlier in a terrorist attack in the West Bank south of Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

On Thursday evening, Israeli security forces dismissed their initial suspicion that the deadly stabbing attack was a failed kidnapping attempt, instead deeming it a premeditated murder.

It was not immediately clear if the attack was carried out by members of a terror group or by unaffiliated terrorists.

Though only one person is believed to have carried out the stabbing, an as-yet unknown number of people were in the car and assisted in the attack.

The Israel Defense Forces refused to publicly comment on details of the case because it is still under investigation. A court also placed many details of the attack under a gag order.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF chief Aviv Kohavi visited the scene of the attack on Thursday and spoke with the commanders leading the search effort.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the site where the body of an Israeli seminary student killed in a terror attack was found, outside the West Bank settlement of Migdal Oz, on August 8, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

As of Thursday night, no one had taken responsibility for killing Sorek. However, two of the largest Palestinian terror groups — Hamas and the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad — praised the attack and indicated it was a response to a recent wave of East Jerusalem demolitions carried out by Israel last month.

“The Etzion operation is the greatest response to the talk of attempts to annex the occupied West Bank to the occupation,” a Hamas spokesperson said in a statement.

“The heroic operation is a natural response to the occupation’s terrorism and crimes at the expense of our people, land and holy sites. It is the right of our people to push back against the destruction and demolition of citizens’ homes in Wadi Hummus, a crime that requires a painful and deterring response,” PIJ wrote in a statement on its website.

In recent months, the Shin Bet security service warned that the Gaza-based Hamas has put considerable effort and resources into recruiting operatives to carry out attacks in the West Bank and Israel.

“A number of Hamas military cells have been uncovered in the Judea and Samaria area in recent weeks, operating under the instruction of Hamas in the Gaza Strip and planning to carry out terror attacks against Israeli and Palestinian Authority targets,” the Shin Bet said Tuesday.

“The operatives in the West Bank were instructed to form cells in order to carry out kidnappings, shootings and stabbings, purchase weaponry, and find and recruit additional operatives for terrorist activities,” the security service said.

Israeli soldiers stand guard during a house-to-house search operation in the West Bank village of Beit Fajjar near Bethlehem on August 8, 2019, following a fatal stabbing attack of Dvir Sorek, 19 (Hazem Bader / AFP)

The killing, which came amid a period of relative calm in the West Bank, drew swift and furious responses from Israeli leaders.

“Security forces are now engaged in a manhunt to catch the reprehensible terrorist and settle the score,” said Netanyahu, who is also defense minister.

Sorek was the son of Yoav Sorek, the editor of the influential Tikvah Fund’s Shiloach Journal, and the grandson of Rabbi Binyamin Herling, who was killed in a terror attack on October 19, 2000 in the northern West Bank.

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