Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta Monday evening, telling him that the “Israeli people identified with the pain of the Kenyan people,” and adding that Israel appreciates Kenya’s determined struggle in the war against terrorists, according to a statement released by the Prime Minister’s Office.
As of Monday evening, with Kenyan forces reporting that they have gained control of all floors of the Nairobi mall where a face-off has been developing for three days with al-Qaeda-linked terrorists, no Israeli citizens were known to be among the dead, the Israeli ambassador to Kenya said.
Westgate Mall, the upscale shopping center targeted Saturday by what Kenyan authorities say is a multi-national crew of terrorists, is heavily frequented by Israelis, some of whom witnessed the first moments of the attack, which by Monday evening had claimed more than 60 lives and wounded some 200.
Gilad Millo, a Nairobi-based Israeli, said Sunday two Israeli men and a woman who were in the mall when the attack began were unharmed and safe.
Businessman Yariv Kedar, who at the time of the attack was one of the three Israelis in Israeli-owned restaurant Artcaffe, told Channel 2 on Sunday he “heard the gunfire getting closer” and that bullets whizzed “over our heads” before he managed to escape.
“We started by hearing gunshots downstairs and outside. Later we heard them come inside. We took cover. Then we saw two gunmen wearing black turbans. I saw them shoot,” said Patrick Kuria, an employee at Artcaffe.
Israelis are a visible part of Nairobi’s large expatriate community. They run businesses in a number of fields, and they have opened several cafes and restaurants — including at least four in the Westgate mall, which is situated in Nairobi’s affluent Westlands area and is frequented by expatriates and rich Kenyans. Millo said it was “the most popular spot in Nairobi” for Israelis and Westerners.
“There are always a large number of Israelis in the mall,” Yaki Lopez, deputy Israeli ambassador to Kenya, told Israel Hayom on Sunday. Shortly after the attack, a team from the embassy, led by Lopez, arrived at the scene. He said that there was initially great concern for the Israelis in the mall, but they were all eventually accounted for.
One Israeli citizen, who owns one of the restaurants at the mall, escaped by hiding in a storage room, the deputy ambassador said, and another suffered light wounds from shrapnel.
Businessman Kedar, in a separate interview with the paper, said that he hid under a table for 30 minutes after the attack began, and, realizing that a terror attack was in progress, hid all his Israeli identification and called Israeli embassy officials to inform them of the assault. He later was able to escape unharmed, but “saw how many wounded there were in this horrible terrorist attack. There were mothers running out of the mall carrying their children and wounded people taken out in shopping carts.”
Since the Saturday attack began, conflicting reports have surfaced as to whether or not the Westgate mall itself is owned or partially owned by Israelis. However, one witness said that “I know with certainty that the mall is owned by an Israeli Jew… He is an Israeli of South African descent, whose entire life and business enterprise is in Africa. The locals know he owns the mall.”
On Monday, Israeli defense officials said a security team had been dispatched to Nairobi within hours of the hostage crisis, confirming Sunday media reports. The officials, who declined to be identified because they were discussing a confidential security matter, would not say what types of services were being provided, but said armed fighting units were not part of the delegation.
Israel believes the incident was a domestic Kenyan concern and that the terrorists were targeting Westerners and Western-owned businesses, not specifically Israelis, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said on Sunday.
Because of the mall’s Israeli and foreign connections, officials have warned in the past that it would become a target.
Somalia’s al-Qaeda-linked rebel group, al-Shabab, claimed responsibility for the attack in which gunmen used grenades and assault rifles and specifically targeted non-Muslims. The attackers apparently included some women. The Islamic extremist rebels said the attack was retribution for Kenyan forces’ 2011 push into neighboring Somalia.
Israel has close ties to Kenya going back many years. In recent years, Israel has identified East Africa as an area of strategic interest and stepped up ties with Kenya and other neighboring countries, due to shared threats posed by al-Qaeda and other extremist elements. In 2002, militants bombed an Israeli-owned luxury hotel near Mombasa, killing 13 people, and tried to shoot down an Israeli airliner at the same time.
In August, Mossad agents, along with officials from the FBI, aided in investigating whether a massive fire at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport was a terrorist attack. According to foreign media reports, the Mossad runs an outpost in Nairobi, tasked with maintaining security ties with Kenya and other East African nations.
President Shimon Peres, in a Sunday letter to the Kenyan president said, ”I wish to extend my deepest condolences to the people of Kenya on the horrific terror attack in Nairobi. From the Holy Land we pray for the release of the hostages, the full recovery of the injured, and comfort for the families of the victims.”
“Terrorism is a global threat and those who perpetrate it make no distinction between young and old, men and women,” Peres wrote. “There is no justification for the murder of innocent civilians and Israel stands shoulder to shoulder with the Kenyan government and people at this difficult time. We in Israel know the pain of terror and will do whatever we can to support the people of Kenya.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.