Tel Aviv shooting may have been Israel’s first taste of Paris-style jihadism
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Analysis

Tel Aviv shooting may have been Israel’s first taste of Paris-style jihadism

Nashat Milhem, a 29-year-old Israeli, doesn't quite fit the profile of a Palestinian terrorist. Is Israel becoming vulnerable to a new kind of homegrown terror?

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

File: Memorial candles spell out the names of victims Alon Bakal and Shimon Ruimi, outside the Simta pub on Dizengoff Street in central Tel Aviv, on January 02. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
File: Memorial candles spell out the names of victims Alon Bakal and Shimon Ruimi, outside the Simta pub on Dizengoff Street in central Tel Aviv, on January 02. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

At this point in the investigation, while the main suspect in Friday’s attack in Tel Aviv has yet to be apprehended, it is hard to see many similarities to the Palestinian terror attacks we have known in the last three months, or even in past years.

If the fatal Dizengoff Street attack was indeed carried out by Nashat Milhem, a 29-year-old Israeli citizen from Arara, a village in northern Israel — as police suspect — then it is not part of the “third intifada,” or an attempt to identify with the Palestinians. It’s different in style, in method, in the attacker’s flight from the scene. It wasn’t a suicide attack, or the sort of self-sacrificial attacks that took place in 2001, when armed Palestinians would charge restaurants or other entertainment venues and shoot indiscriminately until they were shot dead.

No one has taken responsibility (at least thus far); nor has any organization gloried in the murder of innocents. It is not inconceivable that this latest terror attack is another “lone wolf” act — only this time, it may have been inspired by terror attacks carried out abroad under the ideological influence of the Islamic State group.

The similarities to the November 13 attacks that killed 130 in Paris are obvious: the perpetrator’s flight, as well as his chosen target — young people sipping coffee on a bustling city street. It is clear that the terrorist intended to survive, and continues (at least thus far) to flee for his life.

Was Nashat Milhem inspired by IS? Possibly. The Shin Bet busts cells or individuals planning to launch Islamic State-inspired attacks on an almost weekly basis. Islamic State succeeded in inspiring more than a few Arab Israelis to go fight in Syria and Iraq. It is possible others prefer to remain in Israel and murder apostates here, rather than make the long journey to the lands of IS. It is possible that, ultimately, someone from the Israeli Arab community will be able to evade and penetrate Israel’s imperfect intelligence coverage in order to carry out an attack of this sort.

File: Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi giving a sermon. (screen capture: YouTube)
File: Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi giving a sermon. (screen capture: YouTube)

Islamic State’s own leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, emphasized the importance of the Palestinian theater in his last public address, even vowing to attack the Jews, so it is not unreasonable to conclude that the speech may have inspired a few bad seeds in the Arab Israeli community, or even a single bad seed who reportedly already suffered from other problems, including a drug habit.

The suspect in the January 1, 2016 shooting attack in Tel Aviv, 29-year-old Nashat Milhem, seen after a 2007 arrest. (Channel 10 news)
The suspect in the January 1, 2016 shooting attack in Tel Aviv, 29-year-old Nashat Milhem, seen after a 2007 arrest. (Channel 10 news)

Milhem’s family claimed he suffered from severe mental illness. Yet the method of the attack testifies to cool-headed planning far beyond what might be expected from someone purportedly suffering from severe mental illness: the choice of target, the theft of the firearm from his father, the shooting, the flight, the possible killing spree that followed (with the possible killing of cab driver Amin Shaaban about an hour after the attack), and his survival until now.

To be sure, the motive for the attack may have been more complex than straightforward ideological inspiration. The intersection of mental illness, religious radicalization and a troubled past (including a prison term for attempting to steal a soldier’s firearm, a cousin killed by cops, drug use) may have created an especially dangerous mix. But the totality of his actions cannot be explained simply as mental illness or a psychotic break.

It is possible that Milhem’s case exposes the extent to which the State of Israel may be vulnerable to a new kind of homebrew terror of the IS model. This is no longer just Europe’s problem, or the Arab world’s. Just as the jihadist group succeeded in “inspiring” Muslims in Paris, Germany and Belgium, it is certainly possible that it is succeeding in instilling hatred and inspiring violence among Muslims in Israel, and pushing these “lone wolves” to take up arms and murder Israelis — Jews and Muslims alike.

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