x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Manhunt for Israel's gay club killer

Police impose blackout on details of their investigation after two shot dead and at least eight wounded in Tel Aviv club shooting.

An injured man is treated at the Ichilov hospital after the shooting in a  club in Tel Aviv yesterday which killed two and wounded eight.
An injured man is treated at the Ichilov hospital after the shooting in a club in Tel Aviv yesterday which killed two and wounded eight.

TEL AVIV // Hundreds of Israeli police scoured the streets of Tel Aviv yesterday in a manhunt for the masked killer of two people at a gay youth club in the city in what appeared to be the worst attack ever against the country's homosexual community. The shooting prompted police to take security measures including conducting a door-to-door search for the killer in the area close to the scene of the crime and blocking some main roads to check cars leaving Tel Aviv. Police have so far imposed a complete blackout on details of their investigation, and have urged gay establishments in Tel Aviv to remain vigilant. Such security measures are more commonly implemented by police in the city following Palestinian suicide attacks that have declined in recent years.

The killing drew national attention and dominated Israeli television and radio reports yesterday because it took place in a city viewed as liberal towards gays and lesbians, hosting an annual gay pride parade and housing a city-sponsored open home for the community. Benjamin Netanyahu, the country's prime minister, called the attack "shocking" during his weekly cabinet meeting and added that he urges all Israelis to "respect all people as they are".

Shimon Peres, the country's president, said in a separate statement: "The horrifying murder last night is one that a cultured and enlightened nation cannot accept." Ron Huldai, Tel Aviv's mayor, said the attack would not alter the city's stance as "a bastion of pluralism, tolerance and openness". According to witness accounts and police, late on Saturday a masked, black-clad man brandishing an automatic weapon stormed into the Tel Aviv Gay and Lesbian Association building at the heart of Israel's seaside commercial and cosmopolitan centre. Entering the building's basement, where teenage homosexuals were gathered for a weekly support meeting, he began shooting in all directions, police said. The gunman killed a 26-year-old man who worked as a counsellor at the centre and a 16-year-old woman on the spot and wounded at least eight others before escaping on foot. Most of the casualties were minors, police said.

According to Israeli media, the police were following two main lines of enquiry for the killer's motives including homophobia as well as a possible act of revenge for a romantic affair gone wrong. David Cohen, Israeli police commissioner, said: "The police are investing major resources and means to capture this murderer and his accomplices." The police added that the motive remained uncertain since the Tel Aviv Gay and Lesbian Association has not received any threats recently of the possibility of such attacks. Still, Israeli media reported yesterday that in the past, swastikas were painted on the door of the association's building as an attempt to stigmatise the city's homosexual community.

Representatives of the gay community denounced the attack, which they blamed on homophobia. Overnight on Saturday, thousands of people - some waving rainbow banners or holding candles - gathered in Tel Aviv to protest the assault. Yesterday, hundreds of people, including several lawmakers, congregated in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the southern city of Beer Sheba in a show of solidarity, some holding up signs saying: "We are all together without hatred and fear" and "There is no democracy without equality". Furthermore, some Israeli users on Facebook changed their profile picture to that of a rainbow flag.

Nitzan Horowitz, the only openly gay legislator in Israel's 120-member parliament, told journalists: "This is the worst attack ever against the Israeli gay community. This was a blind attack against innocent youths and I expect the authorities to exercise all means in apprehending the shooter." Some gay activists blamed incitement - especially by members of Israel's ultra-Orthodox community - for prompting such attacks. Last year, Shlomo Benizri, a former lawmaker for the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which is part of Mr Netanyahu's governing coalition, was criticised for saying during a special parliamentary session on seismic activity that homosexual behaviour was the cause of earthquakes.

However, the Shas party yesterday issued a statement denouncing the killing and saying that "murder contradicts the way of the Torah". This was not the first attack against Israel's gay and lesbian community. In 2005, an ultra-religious man stabbed three marchers at a gay pride parade in Jerusalem, a religiously tense city where such events are typically greeted with much controversy and opposition by ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Mai Pelem, president of Tel Aviv's gay and lesbian community, told reporters: "It's not surprising that this kind of crime is committed given the incitement of hatred against homosexuals." vbekker@thenational.ae