Death toll in Tunisia synagogue attack rises to five

Third guard dies of wounds, after two Jewish worshipers and two other guards are killed by rogue officer who opened fire on Djerba synagogue during annual pilgrimage

Tunisian soldiers secure an area near the Ghriba synagogue following a shootout on the resort island of Djerba on May 10, 2023. (Fethi Belaid/AFP)
Tunisian soldiers secure an area near the Ghriba synagogue following a shootout on the resort island of Djerba on May 10, 2023. (Fethi Belaid/AFP)

The number of people killed after a terror attack on a synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba during an annual Jewish pilgrimage has now risen to five, Tunisia’s TAP news agency said Wednesday. They include two Jewish pilgrims and three Tunisian police guards.

One police guard died from his injuries following Tuesday’s attack, according to a medical official cited by TAP. Two other officers died at the scene, Tunisian officials said in the immediate aftermath of the assault by a guard affiliated with the National Guard naval center on Djerba.

Benjamin Haddad, left, and his cousin, Aviel Haddad, who were killed in a shooting in Djerba, Tunisia on May 9, 2023. (Courtesy of the family)

Four other injured members of security forces were hospitalized in Djerba after they were wounded, including one in critical condition, according to TAP.

The Tunisian Foreign Ministry said the civilians killed were a 42-year-old French national and a 30-year-old Tunisian.

They were identified as Aviel Haddad, a 30-year-old dual citizen of Tunisia and Israel living in Netivot, Israel, and his 42-year-old cousin, Benjamin Haddad, a French-Jewish businessman living in France, the chairwoman of the World Federation of Tunisian Jewry in Israel, Dr. Miryam Gez-Avigal, told The Times of Israel.

Four civilians were also injured, the Tunisian Interior Ministry said. The attacker was killed by guards as he tried to storm the synagogue after shooting a colleague and stealing his ammunition.

The shooting occurred as thousands of Jews were gathered on Djerba for an annual pilgrimage to the ancient El Ghriba synagogue.

In a statement, the French Foreign Ministry expressed its “deep sadness” at the attack.

Jewish worshipers attend the annual Jewish pilgrimage at the El Ghriba synagogue in Tunisia’s southern resort island of Djerba, on May 8, 2023. (YASSINE MAHJOUB / AFP)

France paid tribute to the “rapid intervention of the Tunisian security forces and stands by Tunisia to continue the fight against antisemitism and all forms of fanaticism,” the statement said.

Once home to a thriving Jewish community, Tunisia today counts only a small number of Jews, the majority having fled to France or to Israel after its creation. The country has sought to restore its image as a prized tourist destination despite political turmoil and Islamist violence.

The pilgrimage drew thousands to Djerba until 2002, when a truck bomb exploded next to the synagogue during the Lag B’Omer event, killing 20 people and leading Tunisia to up security as attendance dwindled in subsequent years. Some 5,000 people were taking part in this year’s pilgrimage, French outlet BMFTV reported, citing organizers.

The motive for the attack was under investigation.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli said the attack had occurred following “a tense period of shouts and harassment of the Jewish community at the site,” according to his office.

The European Jewish Congress expressed its “shock and outrage.”

“Terror attacks continue to target Jews around the world even when they are gathered in prayer, as we know from countless experiences over the years including at this very synagogue,” EJC President Ariel Muzicant said in a statement.

Every year, Jews from around the world convene on Djerba for the Hilula of Ghriba – a feast that features a festive procession on or near Lag B’Omer. The procession traditionally ends at the El Ghriba synagogue, thought to have been established by Jews fleeing persecution some 2,500 years ago.

The current building was constructed in the 19th century and is sometimes referred to as the oldest existing synagogue in Africa, according to Georgetown University’s Berkley Center.

File: A tourist visits La Ghriba, the oldest synagogue in Africa, on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, Oct. 28, 2015 (AP Photo/Mosa’ab Elshamy)

Aviel Haddad’s sister, Rona, told Kan radio that the entire family had immigrated to Israel from Tunisia and that her brother, a jeweler, traveled to Djerba frequently.

She said she and her family tried unsuccessfully for hours after the attack to contact him and later learned the news through family friends.

The family plans to bury Haddad in Israel, Rona Haddad said.

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