A massive manhunt for an Arab Israeli gunman who carried out a deadly attack in Tel Aviv on Friday afternoon continued throughout Saturday, as the killer remained at large despite a rigorous search by security forces. Police believe that the gunman, who was named late Saturday as Nashat Milhem, is still in the area.
Thousands of police, Border Police and other members of the security forces were engaged in the manhunt for the killer. Police urged the Israeli public Saturday to be on the alert, and to report any suspicious individual to them.
Two people were killed and two others seriously wounded in the shooting near the Dizengoff Center Mall, just before 3 p.m. Friday. Five more were lightly or moderately injured when the gunman walked out of a health foods shop on Dizengoff Street, and began spraying bullets from his automatic machine gun.
Roads around the site of the attack remained closed as the manhunt continued Saturday. Security forces were also searching abandoned warehouses and building sites in the Tel Aviv area, Channel 2 television reported.
Police fear that the suspect may seek refuge in an apartment or in a crowded place, the Haaretz daily said, adding that special police units are on high alert for such an eventually. The police suspect that the gunman has a small sum of money that will allow him to get by in the short term.
In addition to the search in Tel Aviv, security forces are also active in the northern community in which the gunman’s family lives. They seized computers and other items they believe can help in the investigation into the attack. Police are also exploring the possibility that the attacker had help from another person in the area of the shooting.
Security sources said Friday that the gunman is a 29-year-old man from the village of Arara in the Wadi Ara area, who had carried out a “nationalistic terror” attack. Sources said his father recognized him in CCTV footage showing him leaving the health food store and then opening fire, and called the police. The father was questioned by police late Friday. Ahmed Milhem, a relative, said the suspect stole his father’s weapon from a safe at their home.
Another relative, Sami Milhem, who has also served as the suspect’s lawyer, said later he was “not of sound mind,” and noted that his father is a police volunteer.
The killer was acting out of “Islamist” motives, having been incited to violence, Channel 2 quoted security officials saying Friday evening. He had in the past served a five-year jail term for a 2007 incident in which he attacked an IDF soldier with a screwdriver and tried to grab his weapon.
Eyewitnesses to Friday’s attack said the gunman fired into at least three establishments in the busy shopping area — a bar, a restaurant and a cafe, and then fled. One of the cafe employees said several people chased after him, “but he disappeared” into a side street.
Witnesses said some 15 shots were fired, apparently in semi-automatic bursts from a Carl Gustav submachine gun.
Footage from the scene of the attack shows people sitting in a cafe and running for cover when the gunfire begins. The gunman can be seen coming into shot, as he sprays the street with his weapon.
Another video shows the gunman emerging from the natural foods store as he opens fire.
CCTV footage from the grocery store showed the gunman calmly buying nuts and dried fruit moments before the attack, taking the murder weapon out of his backpack, stepping out of the store, turning to his left, and opening fire. Officials highlighted the extraordinary calm he appeared to display, in the seconds before he began his killing spree. Former Jerusalem police chief Mickey Levy, now a Yesh Atid MK, said he had “obviously trained” for the attack.
Police said a copy of the Koran was found in his backpack afterwards, Channel 2 reported.
One of the fatalities, Alon Bakal, 26, was the manager of the Simta bar, which was targeted in the attack. The other, Shimon Ruimi, 30, was from Ofakim and had traveled to Tel Aviv to celebrate a friend’s birthday at the same bar.
Two of the seriously injured were in intensive care at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv after surgery Friday night, and were still in serious condition, the hospital said.
The three people who sustained moderate wounds were taken to Tel Hashomer Hospital in Ramat Gan, Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva and Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, according to the Magen David Adom rescue service. All were said to have improved late Friday.
The Shin Bet said it did not have any warning of an impending attack.
Nati Shaked, one of the co-owners of the Simta Bar where the shooting began, told Army Radio he saw “someone armed with an automatic rifle just walking in the street. He saw a lot of people here who he could shoot at, and started to shoot.”
The attacker “shot everywhere. There was hysteria and chaos.”
Another eyewitness said the gunman appeared in the doorway, “smiling,” and then opened fire indiscriminately.
The attack came amid more than three months of almost daily Palestinian terror attacks against Israeli civilians and soldiers. At least 25 Israelis have been killed, mostly in stabbings, shootings and car-ramming attacks. More than 130 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire, most while carrying out attacks or attempted attacks, and others during violent clashes with security forces.
Judah Ari Gross and Adiv Sterman contributed to this report.