Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich on Thursday denied that police had covered up information on a sighting of the terrorist Nashat Milhem in the aftermath of his New Year’s Day Tel Aviv shooting spree, which cops failed to follow up on.
During the afternoon of Friday, January 1, Milhem opened fire at the Simta bar in central Tel Aviv, killing Alon Bakal and Shimon Ruimi. He then commandeered a taxi and killed driver Amin Shaaban, who he feared would turn him in, before abandoning the vehicle — apparently because he couldn’t operate it.
Shortly after that, two young women — sisters Noa, 20, and Ofir, 25 — saw Milhem in a bloodstained sweatshirt board a bus in northern Tel Aviv. They warned the driver and then attempted to alert police, but were ignored despite the massive manhunt launched by security forces after the attack, Israel Radio reported Wednesday. Their employer called the police several times on the Friday, and they all called again over the next few days, but were shrugged off.
“There is hardly an event that has no lessons. For those who ask why we hid the claims until now, [I answer that] we did not hide them. We are in the middle of the investigation and are not publishing information at this time,” said Alsheich.
“The main thing that we have to consider is whether what has been done disrupted or did not disrupt operational activities,” he said.
One of the two sisters told the radio station they recognized Milhem “from the distinctive glasses we saw him wearing in the photographs of the gunman on TV.”
“He was leaning over a black duffel bag the whole time, and we also noticed small blood spatters on his sleeves,” she said.
The sisters tried to alert the bus driver at the time, but he shrugged them off, they said.
“When he got off the bus, the driver told him what connecting bus he needed to take to get to Wadi Ara” in northern Israel, one of the girls said. It was in his hometown in Wadi Ara that Milhem hid out after the attack, and it was there that he was killed in a shootout with police a week later.
The two told their boss, who called the police hotline repeatedly, but said that law enforcement officers never followed up on the calls. They made several calls on the day of the attack, a Friday, and the following Sunday and Monday.
“They told us that if we saw him on Friday, then our sighting wasn’t relevant to the investigation,” they said.
According to the report, police only looked into the sisters’ tip after Israel Radio alerted them to it.
In response to the report, police issued a statement saying that although their hotlines were inundated by “thousands” of phone calls by tipsters in the hours after the attack, the girls’ report was given due attention.
“The calls were investigated in accordance with a range of variables taken into consideration,” the statement released Wednesday said. “The tip was investigated, and the bus driver as well as other relevant witnesses were questioned.”
According to the statement, Alsheich has ordered an internal investigation of police’s handling of attack and the ensuing nationwide manhunt for Milhem. The gunman was finally tracked down and confronted on January 8, a full week after the killings, and was shot dead when he fired on security forces who had come to arrest him.
Meanwhile Wednesday, the Shin Bet security service released other details of its investigation into Milhem’s attack, and revealed the gunman was planning to carry out additional attacks before being killed in a shootout with security forces in his hometown of Arara.
Ayoub Rashid, Muhammad Adel Milhem and Amin Milhem, the latter two relatives of the terrorist, were indicted in Haifa District Court Wednesday on charges of helping Milhem hide out in Arara, and bringing him food, a cellphone, cigarettes and narcotics. Judge Yehiel Lifshitz extended their remand until a February 7 trial.
The Shin Bet linked Milhem to the ultra-radical Islamic State group and noted that he used terminology similar to that used by IS operatives. He also specifically detailed his hatred toward Russians.
His phone contained clips in which he filmed himself drinking, smoking and ranting about his deep hatred of “the enemies of Islam,” including Shiites, Jews and Christians.
“Obama, the crusader,” Milhem is seen saying to the camera in a clip published by the Shin Bet, “convert to Islam. You won’t convert? Let’s see if the cross helps you, you son of a whore.” He appears inebriated in the clip.