An AWOL Israeli soldier wearing a uniform and a yarmulke opened fire aboard a bus in an Arab town in northern Israel on Thursday, killing four people and wounding a dozen in an attack that Israeli officials quickly labeled Jewish terrorism.
The 19-year-old shooter, who reportedly had said he boarded the bus to kill Arabs, was beaten to death by an angry mob of Shfaram residents.
All four of those killed, including the driver, were identified as Israeli Arabs.
Israeli media said the soldier from the town of Rishon Le Zion, outside Tel Aviv, had abandoned his army unit two months ago after refusing to participate in the government’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank.
The shooting spree was quickly condemned as an effort to spark further violence and derail the evacuation that is scheduled to begin in less than two weeks.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other leaders urged calm in the face of worries that the shooting might incite rioting by Arab citizens similar to unrest in 2000 that left 13 Arabs dead. Israeli officials have been concerned about possible attacks on Arabs or Jewish leaders by ultranationalists.
Police in northern Israel, home to many Arab Israelis, were placed on alert after the shooting, and there was concern over possible flare-ups surrounding Muslim prayers today.
“This was a reprehensible act by a bloodthirsty Jewish terrorist who sought to attack innocent Israeli citizens,” Sharon said in a statement. “This terrorist event was a deliberate attempt to harm the fabric of relations among all Israeli citizens.”
The soldier was identified as Eden Tsuberi, but Israeli TV reports said he had enlisted in the military as Eden Natan Zada.
He was described as an observant Jew who had been spending time in the West Bank settlement of Tapuah, known as a hotbed of hard-line religious and nationalist views, residents there said. Acquaintances described him as newly devout and quiet. He found adherents of the banned ultranationalist Kach movement through the Internet, residents said.
Israel Radio reported that Zada’s parents had urged the army to find their son and confiscate his military-issued weapon after they discovered he was associating with people with extremist views in Tapuah.
Many of Tapuah’s 100 or so families are followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who called for the expulsion of Arabs from Israel and the West Bank. He was assassinated in New York in 1990.
When he deserted his military unit, Zada wrote a letter in which he said, “Just as I couldn’t carry out an order that desecrates the Sabbath, I cannot be part of an organization that expels Jews,” according to the website of the daily Yediot Aharonot newspaper.
An Israeli police spokesman, Chief Supt. Avi Zelba, said authorities had yet to establish the young man’s motives. “It’s very hard to label things,” Zelba said. “However, this is a very, very serious incident.”
But some Israeli leaders, including Sharon, were quick to condemn the shooting as an act of terrorism. Security around Sharon has been especially tight in recent months amid fears of violence linked to the pullout.
“Terrorism by civilians against civilians is the most dangerous thing affecting the future of the state of Israel and its stability as a democracy,” Sharon said.
The act was also condemned by Jewish and Arab groups across the world.
“This brutal attack on innocent civilians once again demonstrates that terrorism and extremism can rise out of any faith,” said a statement by the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington.
American Jewish Committee Executive Director David A. Harris said, “Today’s attack on innocent Arabs inside Israel appears to be a product of the incitement by a small minority opposed to the disengagement from Gaza. Their words and actions must be condemned in the harshest language.”
The gunman opened fire as the passenger bus traveled through Shfaram, a town of Arab Muslims, Christians and Druze near the port city of Haifa.
Israeli media reported that the shooting took place after an argument broke out. The town’s mayor, Ursan Yassin, told Israeli Channel 10 television that the shooter declared he wanted to kill Arabs.
“He got on the bus to shoot Arabs, that’s what he told people. This is exactly what he said when he got on the bus,” Yassin said.
According to Israeli news reports, witnesses said Zada had boarded the bus in Haifa. The slain driver was identified as Michel Bahous, who was in his 50s. The three other victims included a pair of sisters in their early 20s.
Settler leaders opposed to Sharon’s plan to exit Gaza also condemned the shooting. “We are all as shocked as everyone else at this madness perpetrated by a madman,” said one of those leaders, Benzi Lieberman.
Some Israeli Arab politicians have accused right-wing activists of incitement during their campaign against the pullout.
For months, many of the protests have been led by Israeli teenagers and preteens, who have blocked highways and scuffled with police and soldiers.
Thousands of protesters marched in southern Israel this week but were blocked by police from approaching the Gaza Strip’s main block of settlements, where they had hoped to demonstrate and disrupt the planned pullout.
Past marches and protests have been largely peaceful affairs, despite scuffles between protesters and police. Settler organizers said they planned more protests next week.
For some, Thursday’s incident revived memories of a 1994 shooting spree in which Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein, a Brooklyn-born physician armed with an assault rifle and wearing a military uniform, killed 29 Muslim worshipers at a mosque in the West Bank town of Hebron. Like Thursday’s shooter, Goldstein was killed at the site of his attack.
The year after the mosque killings, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Amir, a 25-year-old law student involved in right-wing causes that included illegal expansions of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Times special correspondent Ilan Mizrahi in Jerusalem contributed to this report.