A masked gunman slipped into a community center for gay teenagers in Tel Aviv and sprayed the room with automatic rifle fire late Saturday, killing two people and wounding at least 10 in what activists called Israel's deadliest crime against homosexuals.
Police set up roadblocks in central Tel Aviv and launched a citywide search for the assailant, who fled on foot. Witnesses said the gunman was dressed in black and apparently acted alone. Police said the motive was unclear.
The crime shook the freewheeling coastal city, which has a reputation as a relatively tolerant place for gay people, and focused criticism on Israel's ultra-Orthodox religious community for calling homosexuality an "abomination."
Or Gil, a 16-year-old who was wounded in the attack, told the newspaper Haaretz from his hospital bed that the gunman appeared quietly in the small basement room about 10:40 p.m. during a weekly gathering of teens. They were listening to music and sharing experiences with discrimination.
"I thought it was a joke at first, but he immediately opened fire," Haaretz's website quoted Gil as saying. "People took cover under the bed and tables, but there were no screams. It's a small place. . . . Once you're inside there's nowhere to run."
The wounded struggled or were carried up a staircase to the street.
"We saw a woman running toward us covered in blood," Adi Shimoni, a patron at a nearby cafe, told Israel's Channel 10 television. "We saw the gunman flee. He was wearing what looked like a ski mask."
Shimoni said he rushed into the center and saw "many wounded and a lot of blood."
Authorities identified the dead as a 24-year-old male counselor and a 17-year-old girl. Two of the wounded were listed in critical condition early today.
Tel Aviv Police Chief Shahar Ayalon said there had been no recent threat against the 15-year-old center or its patron, the Tel Aviv Gay and Lesbian Assn. He said it was unclear whether the shooting was a hate crime, adding that "all avenues of investigation are open."
Israel's internal security minister, Yitzhak Aharonovitch, said he believed the attack may have had a "homophobic" motive. He said police have stepped up security around other potential targets associated with the gay community.
Despite officials' uncertainty about the motive, gay activists said they had no doubt their community was targeted.
"This is undoubtedly the worst incident aimed at the gay community in Israel," said Nitzan Horowitz, the only openly gay member of Israel's 120-member parliament. "It has the characteristics of a hate crime, of someone who attacked to blindly strike out at every person on the spot."
Gay community members converged on the site with placards and candles early today for a spontaneous rally.
Many demonstrators accused Shas, the ultra-Orthodox religious party, of inciting the killings. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who wear black religious garb, have inveighed against gays and Shas has worked in parliament to limit their legal rights. "Their blood is on your hands," one placard read.
Shas' parliamentary delegation issued a statement calling for the attacker to be found and put on trial. "Murder is, of course, against the Torah's path and every attack is a contravention of the religion of Israel," it said.
Gay life in Israel has tentatively emerged from underground over the last two decades. The Jewish religious establishment frowns on open displays of homosexuality, and gay groups have fought to gain acceptance.
Although same-sex marriage is forbidden in Israel, the courts have ordered the government to recognize such unions performed abroad. Like nearly every Israeli Jew, gay men and lesbians are drafted into the army and given an opportunity to advance up the ranks.
Violent attacks on homosexuals in Israel have been scattered, relatively rare and often punished. In 2005 an ultra-Orthodox Jew was convicted of stabbing three marchers in Jerusalem's gay pride parade. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
In Tel Aviv, gays have found a more tolerant atmosphere than in Jerusalem and other Israeli cities. That, Israeli officials said, made Saturday's shooting all the more upsetting.
"These teenagers came to this center to talk to one another and receive help," said Yaniv Weisman, chairman of the Israeli Gay Youth Organization. "This was supposed to be a safe place for them."