In just a few minutes, two 21-year-old terrorists shattered the calm that Israelis were cautiously starting to enjoy after over half a year of regular terror attacks.
A little after 9:00 p.m., the two men — cousins, according to police; brothers, according to Palestinian media reports — were seated at an outdoor table in Max Brenner’s, a fashionable international restaurant chain known for its rich chocolate desserts, in Tel Aviv’s upscale Sarona Market.
The young Palestinian men wore black suits, white shirts and black ties. They looked “like lawyers,” Yousef Jabbarin, a bartender at the restaurant, told journalists after the attack.
Some initial reports claimed the two had dressed up as ultra-Orthodox Jews, but Jabbarin put that rumor to bed.
Warning: Graphic footage
“One of the waitresses is also Arab. She said, ‘They’re Arab. They look attractive. I’ll take their orders,’ said Jabbarin, who is originally from the Arab city of Umm al-Fahm.
“I told her, they’re from the West Bank. You can see from how they are dressed,” he told reporters.
Barely five minutes after he made that claim — and hours after the attack — police confirmed what Jabbarin had realized the moment he saw the two gunmen. They two men were from Yatta, a small village in the hills near Hebron in the West Bank, police said.
The two men, named in Palestinian media as Muhammad and Khalid Muhamra, ordered “Milky Fudge Brownies,” the Max Brenner bartender said. The decadent dessert is made of “milk chocolate truffle cream, fudge brownies, white chocolate pieces and whipped cream, and is served with a hot fudge sauce.”
But the terrorists never ate their “Milky Fudge Brownies,” Jabbarin said. “They left it on the table for a few minutes and then they started the shooting.”
Approximately 15 minutes after they walked in, the two men took out Carl Gustav-style submachine guns and indiscriminately opened fire at the restaurant’s patrons.
In CCTV footage, one of the terrorists can be seen gunning down a diner at point-blank range.
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“The restaurant was full,” Jabbarin said. “I don’t know how many people, but it was full.”
The shooting lasted for just about a minute, he said.
But that was enough. Panic broke out — not only in Max Brenner’s, but in the surrounding restaurants and shops as well.
Judy Grund, who was visiting Israel from Los Angeles, was eating next door in a restaurant called Arais. When she heard the gunshots, “I started running. Everyone was stumbling over everyone else,” Grund told The Times of Israel.
Grund, who is visiting with friends and family in Israel, got separated from her group, adding to her anxiety. She ran to take cover in the Sarona Market’s main building.
“I went into a cellphone store. We had them close the… what’s it called.. the shutter,” she said, still noticeably shaken by the experience.
Eventually she ran again, from the tiny mobile phone store to another restaurant, Claro. “There were more people there,” which was reassuring Grund said. “But I was still frightened.”
During that time, police officers, private security guards and soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces’ headquarters across the street streamed into the Sarona Market complex.
When the two terrorists finished shooting — it wasn’t immediately clear whether this was from a weapon jam or if they ran out of bullets — they tried to flee the scene, police said.
In April, Israeli police moved to close down Sarona outdoor complex over fears that the commercial center was not sufficiently secure, but the site’s management said in the wake of the attack that it would stay open.
At the time, police asked the Tel Aviv municipality to revoke Sarona’s business license, arguing the lax security put the public at risk.
Max Brenner’s does not have its own security guard, Jabbarin said, and the Sarona Market’s security guards and the police were slow to arrive.
The two men fled in the direction of Ha’arba’ah Street, near the city’s Cinematheque movie theater, where they were caught by private security guards. One of the gunmen was taken in without the use of force, while the second was shot as he fled and was seriously injured.
Tel Aviv Police Chief Chico Edri, Israel Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich, Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Herzl Levy all arrived at the scene to speak with investigators and assess the situation, and they were joined by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Likud Knesset member Amir Ohana, who lives nearby.
In the initial confusion, police believed a third man had also been involved in the attack and launched a large-scale manhunt to locate him, but later called it off.
At least two helicopters buzzed overhead, and scores of police officers and volunteers rushed to the area to aid in the search. Approximately 45 minutes later, the police called off the search.
At least four people were killed in the terror attack and many more were injured to varying degrees, including three in serious condition and two who were lightly wounded. They were treated in Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital, along with the terrorist who had been shot.
In cellphone video footage from the scene, bystanders can be heard encouraging the security guards who shot and captured the terrorist to “confirm the kill” and “shoot him in the head.” Meanwhile, a photograph circulating on social media allegedly showed the injured gunmen surrounded by a team of doctors and nurses working to save him.
Neither Hamas nor any other terrorist organizations have taken credit for the devastating attack, though many have expressed solidarity and support for the two terrorists.
The past three months have seen a marked drop in the number of terror attacks that have struck Israel and the West Bank. The last multi-casualty event took place in mid-April when a Palestinian teenager detonated an explosive device on a Jerusalem city bus, injuring nearly two dozen people.
Though few have been so bold as to declare the “terror wave” of the past year finished, many people — including former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon — have pointed to statistics showing the violent period trailing off.
However, the month-long Ramadan holiday, which began on Sunday night, has often been a time of increased conflict between Muslim Palestinians and Israel.
Hamas has latched onto this idea and promised this attack was only “the first of the surprises that await the Zionist enemy during the month of Ramadan,” the organization said in a statement.
This attack not only called into question the notion that the previous 10 months of terror had come to an end, but it also represents the first serious security incident since Avigdor Liberman took over as defense minister from Ya’alon last month.
After a meeting with the heads of Israel’s security forces in the army’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — not Defense Minister Liberman — spoke to reporters early Thursday morning about the incident and Israel’s response.
“We’re in the middle of a complex period,” he said, referring to both the month of Ramadan and the upcoming Jewish holiday of Shavuot.
“We will act decisively and intelligently,” Netanyahu said, vowing “determined action by the police, IDF and security agencies to locate all collaborators who took part in this murder, and to prevent future attacks.”
A number of questions still linger about the terror attack. As the terrorists did not have valid work permits, how did they enter Israel from the West Bank? Was the attack directed by a terror group?
And most importantly — is this the beginning of a bloody Ramadan?