Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday said it remained unclear whether the Istanbul bomber had deliberately targeted Israelis, hours after Turkish reports indicated the suspected Islamic State operative had followed the tour group from their hotel.
Initial speculation had indicated the Israeli group, visiting Turkey on a culinary tour, had been the victims of bad timing when they crossed paths with a suicide bomber Saturday, but Netanyahu said it was still unclear.
“Our intelligence services are working to clarify whether the attack was targeting Israelis; it’s still unclear,” he said at a weekly faction meeting in Jerusalem.
Three Israelis and an Iranian were killed in the deadly bombing Saturday in central Istanbul. The Israeli victims were identified as Yonathan Suher, 40, Simha Dimri, 59, and Avraham Goldman, 69. Suher and Goldman were also named as United States citizens by the State Department.
The bodies of the Israelis killed, and 11 other Israelis who were wounded in the blast, were flown home Sunday amid increased cooperation between Israeli and Turkish authorities.
“I thank the IDF and Magen David Adom for their dedicated and effective efforts to bring home the Israelis who were hurt in the terror attack in Turkey,” the prime minister said.
Turkish media reports on Monday said the suspected Islamic State bomber followed the tour group from their hotel to the restaurant and waited outside for them before detonating his explosives.
The reports, published in the Turkish media, appeared to contradict earlier assessments that the bombing didn’t deliberately target the Israeli tour group.
These reports, however, were unsourced and couldn’t be independently verified.
Turkey remains a popular vacation destination for Israelis, despite chilly ties between the countries in recent years.
A blast in Istanbul last year near the Blue Mosque, another popular tourist destination, killed 10 German tourists. That blast was also blamed on the Islamic State and was thought to have targeted Turkey’s tourism industry, but not the Germans specifically.
In his remarks at the opening of the weekly Likud faction meeting, the prime minister also hailed a covert operation to airlift 17 Yemenite Jews to Israel.
Netanyahu praised the secret operation, which included bringing seven children to Israel, and which wrapped up overnight Sunday-Monday, bringing an end to the emigration of tens of thousands of Yemenites over the last seven decades.
The prime minister emphasized that past experience showed that though Yemen’s Jewish community was all but severed, it would live on in Israel.
Several years ago, he said, he visited a school in Migdal Haemek “and there I saw small children who had just immigrated from Yemen, reading from a Torah scroll and continuing the legacy of our nation,” he said. “It moved me to the depths of my soul.”
The prime minister also reiterated that Israel was committed to resuming Ethiopian immigration. His comments came a day after hundreds of Ethiopian Israelis marched in Jerusalem against the government’s decision to push off the immigration of their relatives. Earlier this year, the government green-lighted the plan, but did not designate a budget to carry it out, later postponing it indefinitely.
“We also have a commitment to bring our brothers in Ethiopia to Israel,” he said.
“We will bring hundreds of them this year, and the rest later on,” Netanyahu pledged.
Ilan Ben Zion contributed to this report.