Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said Saturday that a shooting attack at the Brussels Jewish Museum that killed three people and critically injured a fourth was caused by anti-Israel attitudes in Europe.
“This act of murder is the result of constant incitement against Jews and their state,” Netanyahu said in a statement hours after the attack. “Slander and lies against the State of Israel continue to be heard on European soil even as the crimes against humanity and acts of murder being perpetrated in our region are systematically ignored. Our response to this hypocrisy is to constantly state the truth, continue a relentless fight against terrorism and build up our strength.”
Liberman echoed Netanayhu while also tying the attack to “calls to boycott Israel and boycott Israeli products.”
“Throughout history,” he said in a statement, “anti-Semitism has taken on many forms but at bottom has always been based hatred of Jews merely for being Jews, whoever they may be and wherever they live… That’s why activity termed ‘pro-Palestinian,’ activity that once again, just like in those dark days, calls for the boycott of ‘Jewish goods,’ and aggressively targets the only democracy in the Middle East, is nothing but anti-Semitic.”
Liberman added that the attack in Brussels, as well as previous attacks on Jewish targets in Toulouse, France, and in Kansas City, “are a large, blinking warning light to all those who, consciously or not, collaborate with this incitement when they are so quick to condemn Israel, time and time again, and compare the construction of a house for a Jewish family in our ancestral land to murderous and cruel terror attacks carried out by villainous anti-Semites and terrorists, whether in Gaza or in Brussels.”
Earlier Saturday, Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo told a hastily called news conference that Belgians stood “united … faced with this hateful attack,” while Belgium’s King Philip expressed his “indignation over this act of violence closely affecting the Jewish community.”
It was the first fatal attack on a Jewish center since the early 1980s in Belgium, home to some 40,000 Jews, roughly half of them in Brussels, the remainder in the port city of Antwerp.
“Two women and one man are dead, a third person is in hospital,” Interior Minister Joelle Milquet said at the scene. “We don’t yet know if they were tourists or staff, they haven’t been identified.”
Asked whether she believed it was an anti-Semitic attack, she said it was too early to say with a police and judicial inquiry just underway, but that given the target “there are strong grounds for presuming so.”
A deputy public prosecutor, Ine Van Wymersch, said police had detained and were interrogating a “suspect” who admitted to having been on the scene at the time of the attack but denied all responsibility. An inquiry had been opened for “murder with premeditation,” she said.
Van Wymersch said that after talking to eye-witnesses, police believed two men were involved, one who left the scene at the wheel of a car and was in police custody and one who escaped on foot and who had not yet been identified. Detectives were working on camera footage in and outside the museum for further leads.
“This is an odious attack,” said premier Di Rupo. “Everything is being done… to identify and arrest its author or authors.”
A Jewish community figure, Joel Rubinfeld, told AFP it clearly “is a terrorist act” after two men were seen driving up and double-parking outside the museum.
One opened fire, allegedly shooting indiscriminately in the entrance hall and further inside before getting away.
The area around the museum was closed off and security beefed up to maximum level across the country in places associated with the Jewish community in Belgium, Milquet said.
The shooting took place at around 4 pm (1400 GMT), with the victims shot in the face and throat.
A fourth person was critically hurt and fighting to survive.
A bystander, Alain Sobotik, told AFP he saw the corpses of a young woman and a man just inside the doors of the museum. A picture shows them lying in pools of blood.
“The young woman had blood on her head. She was still holding a leaflet in her hand, she looked like a tourist,” he said.
Also at the scene shortly after the shooting was Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders, who told reporters that the two other victims had been shot inside the museum. I hope we will identify those responsible very quickly,” he said.
Reynders said he had been nearby when he saw people fleeing and heard shots and rushed to help. When he saw “bodies on the ground in pools of blood” he called the 112 emergency number and rounded up eye-witnesses to assist the police.
“I am shocked by the murders committed at the Jewish museum, I am thinking of the victims I saw there and their families,” Reynders said on Twitter. While stopping short of calling it an anti-Semitic act, he said “evidently one thinks of that.”
The Jewish Museum of Belgium, which was not answering calls, is located in the heart of the Sablon district which is home to the city’s top antique dealers.
It is a popular weekend haunt for shoppers and tourists, hosting the city’s best chocolate shops and many cafes.
“Four innocent people were hurt and a deeply symbolic place was struck,” said Di Rupo. “The government expresses all its support to our country’s Jewish community.”
The attack comes on the eve of elections in Belgium for a new federal government as well as for its regional parliaments and the European Parliament.
In 1982, a gunman opened fire at the entrance of the synagogue in Brussels, wounding four people, two with serious injuries.