Stabbed body of Israeli soldier found in occupied West Bank

Killing of Israeli soldier sparks manhunt by security forces and risks boosting tensions with Palestinians weeks ahead of Israeli elections.

MIGDAL OZ - An Israeli soldier's body was found with multiple stab wounds near an illegal Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank on Thursday in what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called a "terrorist" attack.

The incident sparked a manhunt by security forces and risked boosting Israeli-Palestinian tensions weeks ahead of September 17 Israeli polls.

It occurred between Bethlehem and the flashpoint occupied city of Hebron in the West Bank.

"Today in the early morning hours, a soldier's body was found with stabbing marks on it adjacent to a community north of Hebron," Israel's army said in a statement.

It did not elaborate on the circumstances or say whether he was in uniform at the time.

Troops, police and the Shin Bet intelligence agency were searching the area, it said.

Netanyahu called it "a serious stabbing attack."

"Security forces are now in pursuit to capture the lowly terrorist and settle accounts with him," he said in a statement.

Hours later, Netanyahu attended a previously scheduled ceremony in the West Bank settlement of Beit El, where he laid a cornerstone for the construction of 650 new housing units.

He said Jews would not be driven from the area by Palestinians and "we will deepen our roots in our homeland".

Troops, police and the Shin Bet intelligence agency were searching the area, notably the nearby Palestinian town of Beij Fajjar.

Dozens of Israeli security personnel arrived in around 20 vehicles and were going house-to-house while seizing security camera footage. Low-level clashes broke out between the Palestinian residents and the Israeli forces.

'Dead or alive'

The soldier was later identified as 19-year-old Dvir Sorek, from the Jewish settlement of Ofra. The newly drafted soldier was a student at a yeshiva - or Jewish seminary - in the settlement of Migdal Oz, near where the body was found.

The body appeared to have been found around 30 to 40 metres outside the gate of the settlement. Army spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said that the soldier was neither armed nor in uniform when his body was found.

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

"The soldier left for Jerusalem during the afternoon to buy a gift for his teachers," rabbi Shlomo Wilk said.

"He was in contact half an hour before he was murdered. He was on the bus to the yeshiva.

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

Israeli police were blocking access to the area around where the body was found on Thursday and medics were at the scene.

The body appeared to have been located around 30 to 40 metres outside the gate of the settlement.

Palestinian attacks against Israeli security forces and settlers occur sporadically in the West Bank, occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six-Day War. Attacks and harassment of Palestinians by Jewish settlers and the Israeli soldiers who protect them is far more common.

Such attacks and Israeli arrest raids that follow often boost tensions.

Thursday's incident came at a sensitive time, with Israel heading towards a general election on September 17. It also occurred just ahead of the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday.

Netanyahu is widely seen as wanting to avoid a major flare-up in either the West Bank or the Gaza Strip before the elections, but he will also likely face political pressure to act firmly.

His main challenger, ex-army general Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White Alliance, sent condolences to the soldier's family and 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.

Obstacle to peace

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but the Palestinian militant group Hamas issued a statement praising the killing of the soldier.

"We salute the hero fighters, sons of our people, who carried out the heroic operation which killed a soldier of the occupation army," Hamas said in a statement.

Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad also welcomed the attack and called it a "natural reaction to the occupation's terrorism and crimes against the rights of our people, our land and our holy places."

Around 600,000 Israelis now live in settlements in the West Bank next to some 2.6 million Palestinians.

Netanyahu, who is courting ultra-nationalist Jewish support ahead of the September election, pledged in April to annex settlements in the West Bank, which would be a deeply controversial move.

Annexing settlements on a large-scale could be the death knell to already fading hopes for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel seized the West Bank, along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians claim the territories as part of a future state.

Most of the international community considers Israel's West Bank settlements illegal and an obstacle to creating a two-state solution. Israel considers the territories "disputed," and says the fate of the settlements should be determined through negotiations, which have been moribund for years.

Earlier this week, Israel advanced plans for more than 2,300 settlement homes, leading to firm criticism from the UN envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Nickolay Mladenov.

He said settlement expansion was a "flagrant violation of international law" and called for it to "cease immediately and completely."

Last week, Israel had said it would build 6,000 new homes for Jewish settlers in the West Bank - a move Palestinian leaders decried as showing Israel's "colonial mentality".

Yair Golan, a former army general and a Democratic Union party candidate in the elections next month, said in an interview with Israel's Kan television that the settlements near where Sorek was found "needed to be encircled ages ago with a security fence that would help to separate between the Jewish population and the Palestinian population."

He added that a diplomatic solution to the conflict was necessary.

Israel is holding an unprecedented repeat election on September 17 after Netanyahu failed to form a government following April's vote.