JERUSALEM — A yeshiva student and aspiring soldier was found stabbed to death in the West Bank early Thursday, setting off a large-scale hunt for the assailant by the Israeli army, which was treating the killing as a terrorist attack.
The army sent in reinforcements and canceled all furloughs for troops stationed in Judea and Samaria, as Israel calls the West Bank, both to aid the search and as a precaution in case of an escalation of violence, said Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus, an army spokesman.
The victim, Private Dvir Sorek, who would have turned 19 on Tuesday, vanished while returning from a trip to Jerusalem to buy gifts for his teachers, authorities said. He was found with multiple stab wounds in the Gush Etzion region, north of Hebron, the army said, between the settlements of Migdal Oz and Efrat.
Investigators were pursuing the possibility that the killing had resulted from a botched abduction.
Large numbers of soldiers, police officers, and other security forces were searching for the attacker in Beit Fajr, the nearest Palestinian village.
Sorek was a student at the Robert M. Beren Machanaim Hesder Yeshiva in a program that allows religious scholars to study and then to serve together in an army combat unit. He formally enlisted in the army in February but was to continue his studies at the yeshiva. He would not have reported for basic training until March.
“He was unarmed, in civilian clothing — there was no military indication on him whatever,” Conricus said. “He could not be recognized as somebody in the military.”
Rabbi Kenneth Brander, president of the yeshiva’s parent network, Ohr Torah Stone, said Sorek went to Jerusalem on Wednesday afternoon to buy gifts to thank his rabbis; Thursday was the last day of the academic year. One rabbi had asked for the new David Grossman novel, “Life Plays With Me.”
On the bus back to the yeshiva, Sorek called his study partner and said he would arrive on time for their last regular 8:30 p.m. learning session, Brander said. The subject was a section of the Talmud that deals with jurisprudence, including criminal law and punishment and “how to create a just and righteous society,” he said.
But Sorek did not show up as promised. His body was found about 3 a.m. near Migdal Oz, the army said. He was clutching the Grossman novel.
Sorek had apparently been waylaid between the nearest bus stop and the yeshiva’s entrance — a distance of roughly 100 yards — along a road that is generally considered safe for Jews, the rabbi said.
The small, eight-year-old yeshiva had never before been touched by violence, Brander said, and emphasizes interfaith dialogue. It recently hosted an Egyptian cleric, who told students including Sorek that it was time for religious leaders to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to ensure security and freedom of worship for all.
Sorek was posthumously promoted to corporal.
In the Gaza Strip, the militant group Palestinian Islamic Jihad praised the killing, as did Hamas, which called it a “heroic and courageous act” and urged Palestinians to harbor the perpetrators.
In Israel, there were calls to expand settlement construction in retaliation for the attack. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, laying a cornerstone for 650 new homes in the Beit El settlement, vowed to “ensure our sovereignty” in the West Bank, repeating a campaign promise to annex territory that the Palestinians want as a future state.
“We know that the land of Israel is acquired through suffering,” he said, alluding to Sorek’s killing.
“These vicious terrorists, they come to uproot; we come to plant. They come to destroy; we come to build,” Netanyahu said. “Our hands will reach those who are out to take our lives, and we will deepen our roots in our homeland, in all parts of it.”
Friends and teachers said Sorek, the third of seven siblings, was a flautist and a philosopher who loved nature, tending to wounded animals, and planting flowers on the campus of his yeshiva. He also single-handedly planted a grove of more than a dozen olive trees in Ofra, the settlement north of Jerusalem where he was raised.
“He was a gentle spirit and a kind soul,” Brander said.
Sorek’s father, Yoav Sorek, a philosopher, writer, and occasional columnist, wrote in a journalists’ WhatsApp group Thursday, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.”
Sorek later told reporters that his son was tested two months ago in karate “and did not get so high a grade because the teacher said he was doing the moves great but he had no murder in the eyes.”
“He had light in the eyes,” Sorek added, “and someone with murder in his eyes took him.”