Israeli police are searching intensely for an American student who disappeared five days ago in the Jerusalem Forest, the same site where a Palestinian teenager was found murdered more than two months ago.
While thanking those searching for their son, the family of Aaron Sofer, 23, of Lakewood, New Jersey, and state officials are demanding the investigation be widened to include help from the Israel Defense Forces.
“What I want to say to the Israeli government is this: Treat Aaron as if he was a missing Israeli soldier. … We know what the Israeli government does when an Israeli soldier goes missing,” New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind said Tuesday.
Police units continued to search the area of his disappearance, bolstered by helicopter surveillance, a canine unit and hundreds of volunteers.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that police have not ruled out that a terrorist attack could be behind Sofer’s disappearance Friday when he set out with a friend on a hiking trip.
Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said Tuesday that the police were investigating various possibilities, including “nationalistic motives,” suggesting Palestinian militants could have been involved.
Sofer’s parents recorded a statement pleading for information on his whereabouts.
“Please, please, please, I beg of you, beg you. Please, if anyone has seen … Aaron, please call the police immediately,” said his mother, who was overcome with emotion.
JTA reported that Sofer and his friend were separated as they descended down a steep incline in the forest. The friend, who was not named, alerted the police when Sofer – who is a student at a religious seminary – did not appear during a time on Friday afternoon traditionally used by observant Jews to prepare for the Sabbath.
“A physically, mentally and emotionally healthy young man does not go missing for 72 hours,” family spokesman Dov Hirth told the Jerusalem Post. “The family is not satisfied with the way the search and rescue operation has been handled thus far.”
In June, a Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir was found murdered in the same forest after being kidnapped off of the street, a killing that was viewed as a revenge attack for the killing of three Israeli teenagers.
“It’s well known that a murder took place in that forest, and especially with the ongoing tensions with Palestinians, we feel there should be a military presence and involvement in the search for Aaron,” Hirth added.
Sofer’s father said in the video message that the FBI was involved in the search, though he did not say how.
Prayer vigils have been held in Sofer’s hometown of Lakewood to pray for his safe return.
“It’s scary to think what possibly could be the ramifications,” Sofer’s neighbor Tzvi Meth told CBS in New York. “Great fear is that he was accosted, he was taken away, kidnapped.”
A reward of 100,000 New Israeli Shekels, or $28,000, has been offered by Sofer’s family for information that could lead to finding him, Yeshiva World News reported.