Israeli forces on Sunday, after an extensive manhunt, arrested a suspected terrorist who is believed to have stabbed to death Rabbi Itamar Ben-Gal near Ariel in February, the Shin Bet security service said.
On February 5, 19-year-old Abed al-Karim Assi, an Israeli citizen, is believed to have attacked Ben-Gal, 29, at a bus stop outside Ariel, a West Bank settlement.
Assi fled the scene, leading security forces on a month-long manhunt that ended with his arrest in the predawn hours of Sunday in the West Bank city of Nablus, the Shin Bet said.
The security service said he was found inside a house in the city.
According to the Israel Defense Forces, Assi was injured during the early morning arrest raid and received treatment from army medics. The military would not elaborate on how he sustained his wounds.
“The arrest was carried out by the Shin Bet, Israel Police Special Patrol Unit and Israel Defense Forces. It was the culmination of extensive efforts since the terror attack, during which a number of accomplices, who are suspected of either helping [Assi] or knowing his whereabouts, were interrogated,” the Shin Bet said in a statement.
In addition to Assi, a number of people who were with him at the time of his arrest were also taken into custody, the service said.
Following news of the arrest, Israeli leaders praised the security forces for bringing in Assi.
“A morning of pride for our security forces, who caught the lowly murderer of Rabbi Itamar Ben-Gal (may his memory be blessed). All those who try to raise a hand against us will know: We will chase you, find you and bring you to justice,” President Reuven Rivlin wrote on Twitter.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said Assi’s arrest had brought closure and praised the security services for “a successful intelligence operation.”
In her own statement following Assi’s nabbing, Ben-Gal’s widow Miriam said, “The truth is that I do not feel anything. This will not bring him (Itamar) back home to me…and it will not prevent another terrorist from destroying another family’s life.”
She called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to authorize the construction of 800 housing units in the family’s settlement of Har Bracha.
“This is our consolation and the consolation of all the people of Israel. This will be the real answer to Itamar’s murder,” she concluded.
Assi had been thought to have been hiding out in Nablus, where his father lives, since the attack. Before the attack he had used his Israeli citizenship to spend time on both sides of the Green Line, including with his mother, who lives in Haifa.
He had received social service assistance from Israeli authorities, including at the Shanti Home in Tel Aviv for at-risk youth.
The facility’s coordinator, Hilit Levy, told Channel 10 that she was “shocked” to hear he was suspected in the stabbing attack last month. She said that Assi had decided to leave the home in November 2016 after staff told him he could no longer continue making weekly visits to his family in Nablus.
“He came from a broken family that did not support him,” Levy added.
The Welfare Ministry released a statement after the attack saying Assi “was known to social services.”
“Over the years, attempts were made to help the young man who was abandoned by his parents,” the statement said, adding that the 19-year-old had more than once left the housing and rehabilitation programming in which he had been participating.
Footage from the scene of the attack showed Assi crossing a road toward Ben-Gal, who was standing in front of a bus stop, and stabbing him. Ben-Gal then fled across the street with the stabber in pursuit.
Medics tried to resuscitate Ben-Gal, who was stabbed three times in the chest. He was taken to Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikvah, but succumbed to his wounds.
He was laid to rest in a cemetery in the Har Bracha settlement where he lived with his family. He is survived by his wife and four children.
Jacob Magid contributed to this report.