MIDDLE EAST

Suspected Tel Aviv gunman killed in shootout, Israeli police say

After a weeklong manhunt, the man suspected of fatally shooting three Israelis in Tel Aviv was killed Friday by special police forces that surrounded his hiding place in the Wadi Ara area in northern Israel, authorities say. 

According to police, suspect Nashat Milhem emerged from a structure by a mosque and opened fire with a rifle. The forces returned fire and killed him.

The unusual slayings a week ago and the fact that the killer remained at large had concerned Israelis, and authorities aimed to deflect public criticism of the investigation.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan this week had defended the police force, which has come under criticism from the public and news media for a perceived sluggish response to the incident and its failure to capture the killer.

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It isn’t unheard of for criminals and murderers to escape for some time, Erdan said in a radio interview, adding that “there is no 100% guarantee of success in capturing terrorists.”

Milhem was being sought after a gunman last Friday opened fire on a group of people celebrating a birthday at the Simta bar on Dizengoff Street, a main commercial and entertainment stretch in Tel Aviv.

Alon Bakal, 26, and Shimon Ruimi, 31, were killed and several others injured, before the shooter fled the scene. Shortly afterward, a taxi driver was found shot dead in another part of town; his car was found later at another location.

Milhem, 29, was described as an Arab Israeli with a history of violence and instability, whose relatives notified the police after recognizing him on CCTV footage shown after the shooting. Milhem had served a five-year jail term for attacking a soldier in 2006, which he said was to avenge a cousin's killing by police during a raid. He was found fit to stand trial.

The family had denounced the shootings and reached out to Milhem via the news media to turn himself in. However, several of Milhem's relatives have been arrested, including his father, whose gun was used for the attack. 

Israelis were gripped by the Tel Aviv violence attributed to one assailant despite the dozens of stabbings, car rammings and shooting attacks carried out by Palestinians in recent months. Israeli and Palestinian clashes have resulted in deaths on both sides.

Many details of the Milhem case were under a court-issued gag order, but, according to police and media reports, Milhem scouted the area in the days before the attack and took his father’s gun. Before the attack, he turned off his cell phone and left it between residential buildings in Tel Aviv, where it was found by a schoolgirl after the shootings, according to reports.

After running from the scene of the bar shooting, Milhem reportedly got into a taxi driven by Amin Shaaban, a 42-year-old father of 11 from Lod.

Shaaban was found shot dead in a northern area of Tel Aviv. The car was found later at another location, not far away. The killer had reportedly disabled the cameras in the taxi.

Initially Milhem was thought to be hiding in northern Tel Aviv, in the area his trail cut off and which he knew well from a delivery job at a local greengrocer.

After armed forces combed the neighborhood for several days and many anxious parents kept their children home from school, police Tuesday announced that there was less reason for tension in Tel Aviv.

Authorities did not elaborate, but the large police and army forces were diverted farther north, where they searched Arab towns and villages in the Wadi Ara area.

On Friday, security and government officials congratulated police, army and intelligence forces. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon praised the forces' work and said the final result “proves Israel will hunt down all those who seek its harm.”

“I knew the terrorist would be caught sooner or later,” David Bakal, whose son Alon was killed in the attack, told reporters. “The only comfort in this is that none of our guys was scratched in the operation and he got what he deserved.”

Sobelman is a special correspondent.

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