Victims identified as Israeli citizen and his French cousin

Two worshipers killed in attack at Tunisia synagogue during pilgrimage

Assailant, a naval officer, shot dead by other guards protecting Djerba site, where some 5,000 Jews gathered for annual event; gunman’s motives probed

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Jewish worshippers 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)
Jewish worshippers 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)

Two worshipers were killed when a Tunisian naval officer opened fire at a synagogue on the island of Djerba Tuesday night, as hundreds of Jews held an annual pilgrimage there, Tunisian authorities said.

The victims from among the worshipers 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.

Three guards were also killed in the brazen attack on the heavily secured El Ghriba synagogue, including one who died hours after the attack. Nine others, including four civilians, were injured, the Tunisian Interior Ministry said Wednesday.

According to the ministry, the officer, affiliated with the National Guard naval center in the town of Aghir on Djerba, first turned his service weapon on a colleague, then grabbed more ammunition and made his way to the synagogue.

When he reached the area, he began shooting wildly at security units stationed at the synagogue, who responded with gunfire, killing him. The synagogue was locked down and those inside were kept secure, the ministry said.

Authorities are probing what led to the attack.

“Investigations are continuing in order to shed light on the motives for this cowardly aggression,” the ministry said, refraining from referring to the shooting as a terrorist attack.

Videos surfaced online shortly after the attack showing alarmed worshipers inside the synagogue, where hundreds of Jews from France, Israel and beyond were celebrating the Lag B’Omer holiday along with the tiny local Jewish community.

Ghayda Thabet, a member of the Tunisian Association for the Support of Minorities, was at the El Ghriba synagogue and appealed for help on Facebook. “They are shooting with live ammunition. Help us,” she pleaded in a post.

Tunisian authorities maintain a permanent presence around the synagogue, situated near a part of the island where hundreds of Jews live. Security is beefed up during Jewish holidays and especially on Lag B’Omer.

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.

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)

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.

Some 5,000 people were taking part in this year’s pilgrimage, French outlet BMFTV reported, citing organizers.

Many of those visiting were from France, which has a large community of Tunisian Jews. The French embassy in Tunisia said it opened an emergency hotline for pilgrims following the shooting.

Jewish pilgrims arrive on the first day of the annual pilgrimage to the Ghriba Synagogue, the oldest Jewish monument built in Africa, on April 26, 2021 in the Mediterranean Tunisian resort island of Djerba.(Photo by FATHI NASRI / AFP)

US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller condemned the incident early Wednesday, tweeting: “The United States deplores the attack in Tunisia coinciding with the annual Jewish pilgrimage that draws faithful to the El Ghriba Synagogue from around the world.”

“We express condolences to the Tunisian people and commend the rapid action of Tunisian security forces,” he added.

On Saturday, Tunisia’s Interior Ministry posted a video showing Minister Kamel Feki reviewing security arrangements on Djerba ahead of the pilgrimage.

Al-Qaeda terrorists set off an explosion outside the El Ghriba Synagogue in 2002, killing 20 people, including 14 German tourists.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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