Israeli security forces launched a massive search effort after the body of a yeshiva student who had been stabbed to death was found outside a settlement in the Gush Etzion area of the West Bank in the predawn hours of Thursday morning. Authorities were treating the killing as a terror attack.
Palestinian media reported that Israeli troops were operating extensively in the village of Beit Fajjar, outside Bethlehem, confiscating security camera footage and conducting searches in order to locate the killer or killers. Army Radio reported that Palestinian security forces were also taking part in the search effort.
The village is adjacent to the settlement of Migdal Oz, where Dvir Sorek 19, studied, and near where his body was found Thursday morning.
The Israel Defense Forces confirmed that soldiers were conducting operations in Beit Fajjar, but would not comment further on the details of its manhunt. Details of the investigation were put under a court-issued gag order.
Following the attack, the military said it was bringing additional infantry troops into the West Bank. “In light of a security assessment, it was decided in the IDF to bring in infantry reinforcements to the Judea and Samaria region,” the army said in a statement, using the biblical name for the West Bank.
The IDF said it would not comment on how many troops were being brought into the area.
As of Thursday morning, no Palestinian terror group 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 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.
Sorek, 19, studied at the Machanayim yeshiva in the Migdal Oz settlement as part of a military program known in Hebrew as hesder. Though formally a soldier, Sorek was unarmed and not in uniform at the time of the attack, nor had he yet undergone military training.
Sorek had been missing since Wednesday evening. His body was found at approximately 3 a.m. along a road leading to Migdal Oz, a settlement south of Bethlehem.
He had last been seen leaving Migdal Oz for Jerusalem to buy books.
Initial findings indicated that the off-duty soldier was not killed where his body was found, but may have been abducted elsewhere, stabbed to death and then left along the road outside Migdal Oz.
The military was investigating if this was an attempted kidnapping, similar to the abductions and murders of Naftali Fraenkel, 16, Gilad Shaer, 16, and Eyal Yifrah, 19, in the same area of the West Bank in June 2014.
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 who were operating under the instruction of Hamas in the Gaza Strip and who were 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.
Large numbers of troops from the IDF, Israel Police and Shin Bet were brought in to conduct searches throughout the Etzion area south of Jerusalem, the army said.
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 account,” said Prime Minister Benjamin 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.
“He went to Jerusalem to buy gifts for his rabbis and on the way back there was an attack. He was found clutching the books that he’d bought,” the principal of his seminary, Rabbi Shlomo Wilk, told Army Radio.