Manhunt after Israeli off-duty soldier killed in West Bank

Michael Blum with Mike Smith in Jerusalem
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Israeli soldiers stand guard next to the site where the soldier's body was found near the settlement of Migdal Oz in the occupied West Bank

Israeli soldiers stand guard next to the site where the soldier's body was found near the settlement of Migdal Oz in the occupied West Bank (AFP Photo/Menahem KAHANA)

Ofra (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - An off-duty Israeli soldier was found dead with stab wounds near a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank on Thursday in what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called a "terrorist" attack, sparking a manhunt.

The killing between Bethlehem and the flashpoint city of Hebron risked raising Israeli-Palestinian tensions weeks ahead of September 17 polls in Israel.

The body of 19-year-old Dvir Sorek was found in the early hours of Thursday "with stabbing marks", the Israeli army said in a statement.

An army spokeswoman said he was not in uniform at the time.

Around 2,000 people attended Sorek's funeral, held Thursday evening in the Ofra settlement, part of which was aired by Israel's public broadcaster KAN.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a visit to the settlement of Migdal Oz, vowed security forces would quickly find "those who perpetrated this heinous murder".

Sorek's body was found near the settlement, where he had been studying at a Jewish seminary.

Israeli media reported that investigators were examining the possibility that he had been killed in a botched kidnapping attempt.

Troops, police and the Shin Bet intelligence agency searched the area, notably the nearby Palestinian town of Beit Fajjar.

The army said it was sending reinforcements to the West Bank.

- 'Twisted terrorists' -

On a visit to the Israeli settlement of Beit El near Ramallah in the West Bank, Netanyahu blamed "twisted terrorists (who) come to destroy while we are here to construct."

The premier inaugurated 650 new homes at the settlement before travelling to Migdal Oz where he visited the crime scene.

Sorek was in a programme that combined military service with religious study, the seminary head told Israeli public radio.

He had been in Jerusalem "to buy a gift for his teachers" and was returning to the seminary when he was killed, rabbi Shlomo Wilk said.

"He was in contact half an hour before he was murdered," he went on.

"About 100 metres (yards) from the bus stop, before he entered the settlement, he was murdered."

Sorek's father Yoav, speaking to local media, said "Dvir had light in his eyes, and someone with murder in his eyes killed him".

Israeli media reported that the victim's grandfather was also killed in an attack in 2000.

Israeli police blocked access to the area around where the body was found on Thursday morning and medics were sent to the scene, an AFP correspondent reported.

The body appeared to have been found around 30 to 40 metres (yards) outside the gate of the settlement.

In Beit Fajjar, dozens of Israeli security personnel arrived in around 20 vehicles and went house-to-house, seizing security camera footage, the correspondent said.

Low-level clashes broke out between residents and the Israeli forces before they withdrew later in the day.

- 'Dead or alive' -

Palestinians sporadically attack Israeli security forces and settlers in the West Bank, occupied by Israel since the Six-Day War of 1967.

Such attacks, and the Israeli arrest raids that follow, often stoke further tensions.

Thursday's incident came at a sensitive time, with Israel heading towards a general election on September 17 and the Islamic Eid al-Adha holiday due within days.

Netanyahu is widely seen as wanting to avoid a major flare-up in the Palestinian territories before the poll, but he is likely to face political pressure to act firmly.

His main challenger, ex-armed forces chief Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White alliance, spoke in stark terms.

"The (military) and Israeli security forces will know how to get their hands on these loathsome terrorists, dead or alive," he said in a statement.

Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules the Gaza Strip, as well as its ally Islamic Jihad, welcomed the attack.

"We salute our heroic people's fighters who carried out the heroic operation that killed a soldier in the occupation's army," a Hamas statement said.

Around 600,000 Israelis live in settlements in the West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem, next to some three million Palestinians.

Netanyahu pledged in April to annex settlements in the West Bank, a deeply controversial move.

Palestinians and many governments around the world warn that continued settlement construction by Israel in the West Bank is eating away at hopes for a two-state solution to the conflict.

Annexing them on a large scale spell the end of such a solution.