Tunisia president condemns ‘cowardly’ synagogue shooting, insists country still safe

Kais Saied denounces attempt to disturb ‘stability’ as authorities probe guardsman’s motive for killing 5 outside Djerba’s historic Ghriba synagogue

Police officers and soldiers stand near Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia, May 10, 2023. (Moncef Abidi/AP)
Police officers and soldiers stand near Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia, May 10, 2023. (Moncef Abidi/AP)

Tunisian President Kais Saied sought to reassure the world over the safety of his country, an important tourist destination, after a police officer shot dead five people, most of them outside Africa’s oldest synagogue.

The mass shooting on Tuesday sparked panic during an annual Jewish pilgrimage at the historic Ghriba synagogue on the resort island of Djerba.

Authorities were investigating the motive of the gunman, who was shot dead after killing three police officers and two visitors, a French-Tunisian and an Israeli-Tunisian man both of whom were Jewish.

At a national security council meeting on Wednesday, Saied denounced the “criminal and cowardly” attack, according to a video issued by his office.

“I want to reassure the Tunisian people and the whole world that Tunisia will remain safe despite this type of attempt intended to disturb its stability,” he said.

Saied said the attack aimed to “sow discord, sabotage the tourist season and attack the state.”

Tunisia’s President Kais Saied speaks during a media conference at an EU Africa summit in Brussels, February 18, 2022. (Johanna Geron, Pool Photo via AP)

Investigations are continuing to probe the motive behind the “cowardly attack,” the interior ministry said, refraining from referring to the shooting as a terrorist attack.

The assailant, a guardsman affiliated with the naval center in the island’s port town of Aghir, first killed a colleague with his service weapon before seizing ammunition and heading toward the Ghriba synagogue, the ministry said.

When he reached the site, he opened fire on security units stationed at the temple. The guards fired back, killing him before he reached the entrance, the ministry said.

Israeli and Tunisian authorities and family members identified the civilian victims as cousins: Aviel Haddad, 30, who held dual Tunisian and Israeli citizenship, and Benjamin Haddad, 42, who was French. Four civilians were also wounded, the Tunisian Interior Ministry said.

The island’s historic Ghriba synagogue, thought to be one of the world’s oldest Jewish temples, is a popular pilgrimage destination, but it was unknown if the assailant, a member of the Tunisian National Guard, specifically targeted Jews in Tuesday’s attack.

The death toll from the attack rose to five Wednesday when a police guard who was hospitalized in the immediate aftermath died of his wounds, according to a medical official cited by Tunisia’s TAP news agency. Four other members of Tunisia’s security forces remain hospitalized in Djerba, including one in critical condition.

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)

‘Evil hatred’

French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to keep up the fight “against antisemitic hatred,” and Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said the bloodshed proves “evil and hatred are still there.”

Cohen spoke with Tunis Chief Rabbi Haim Bitan, and “told him that Israel stands alongside the community in this difficult hour.” He said he instructed ministry officials to provide all needed aid. Israel and Tunisia don’t have formal diplomatic relations.

The US embassy in Tunisia issued a statement Tuesday saying “The United States deplores the attack in Tunisia which coincides with the annual Jewish pilgrimage that draws faithful to El Ghriba Synagogue from around the world.”

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

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,” said US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller.

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

The Ghriba pilgrimage was previously targeted in a 2002 suicide truck bombing that killed 21 people.

Tuesday’s rampage came as the tourism industry, vital in a heavily indebted, troubled economy, had finally rebounded from pandemic-era lows, as well as from attacks in 2015.

It was Tunisia’s first deadly attack on foreigners since 2015, when Islamist gunmen in Tunis and Sousse killed dozens of foreign holidaymakers.

More than 5,000 Jewish faithful, mostly from overseas, participated in this year’s event, said organizers. The annual pilgrimage only resumed in 2022 after two years of pandemic-related suspension.

Coming between Passover and Shavuot, the pilgrimage to Ghriba is at the heart of Jewish tradition in Tunisia, where only about 1,500 members of the faith still live — mainly on Djerba — compared with around 100,000 before independence in 1956.

Pilgrims travel to the site from Europe, the United States and Israel, although their numbers have dropped since the deadly bombing in 2002.

Tunisia suffered a sharp rise in Islamist militancy after the Arab Spring mass protests ousted longtime despot Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.

But authorities say they have made significant progress in the fight against terrorism in recent years.

The Ghriba attack also comes during Tunisia’s severe financial crisis. It has worsened since Saied seized power in July 2021 and rammed through a constitution that gave his office sweeping powers and neutered parliament.

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, File)

Jews have lived on Djerba, a picturesque island off the southern coast of Tunisia, since 500 BCE. The first Jewish arrivals were said to have brought a stone from the ancient temple of Jerusalem that was destroyed by the Babylonians.

The stone is kept in a grotto at the synagogue. Women and children descend into the grotto to place eggs scrawled with wishful messages on them.

Djerba’s Jewish population is one of North Africa’s biggest, although in recent years it declined to 1,500, down from 100,000 in the 1960s.

Most left following the 1967 war between Israel and Arab countries, and the economic policies adopted by the government in the late 1960s also drove away many Jewish business owners.

Djerba, a dusty island of palm trees and olive groves, lures hundreds of thousands of tourists every year — mainly Germans and French — for its sandy beaches and rich history. The Ghriba synagogue itself, said to date to 586 BCE, once drew up to 2,000 visitors per day, Jewish leaders have said.

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

FILE – Ghriba synagogue is seen in Djerba, Tunisia, April 12, 2002 (AP Photo/Hassene Dridi, File)

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,” Congress President Ariel Muzicant said in a statement.

In 2002, a truck bombing killed about 20 people at the entrance to the same temple during the annual Jewish pilgrimage. Al-Qaeda claimed that attack, whose victims included German and French tourists as well as Tunisians.

In 2015, an attack in Tunisia at the Mediterranean resort of Sousse killed 38 people, mostly British tourists. The Islamic State group claimed the attack, along with attacks that year on the famed Bardo Museum in the capital Tunis and on a bus carrying presidential guards.

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