Israel Police Chief: Hotline Glitch Didn’t Mar Hunt for Tel Aviv Gunman

Incident will be studied and conclusions drawn, Police Commissioner Alsheich says, following reports that two women called hotline after spotting Nashat Melhem hours after attack.

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Nashat Melhem, suspected of killing three in Tel Aviv on January 1, in a Hadera courtroom in 2007. He was killed in a shoot-out with security forces last Friday.
Melhem, in a Hadera court in 2007. Lawyer Buerat said the family is trying to arrange a quiet burial “without noise.” Credit: Itzik Ben-Malki

Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich denied Thursday that a police hotline mishandled a call with potentially valuable information in the aftermath of a shooting attack in Tel Aviv on January 1, but said the incident would be investigated and any necessary lessons would be learned.

The incident started when two sisters spotted a tense, nervous man with bloodstained clothes on the northbound bus they were riding shortly after the attack. Some hours later, when police published photographs of the suspect, Nashat Melhem, the sisters concluded he was the man they had noticed. They told one sister’s boss, who called the police hotline twice and was ignored. But their information could have clued the police in earlier to the fact that Melhem had left Tel Aviv and headed back to home: When Melhem got off the bus, the sisters heard the driver tell him he could catch a bus to Wadi Ara from there.

Commenting on the incident during an officers’ promotion ceremony on Thursday, Alsheich said, “It seems to me the main thing we need to address, insofar as we can address it now, is whether what happened did or didn’t impair our operational activity. Insofar as there are any lessons beyond that, and there’s almost no incident without lessons, we’ll investigate, we’ll learn them and we’ll also inform the public of the main lessons.”

The hotline’s conduct, he insisted, “certainly had no operational impact on anything in the [police’s] decision making, [but] that doesn’t mean there won’t be lessons.”

Asked why police had concealed the women’s call from the public, he responded, “We truly didn’t hide it. We’re in the midst of a probe, and in the midst of a probe, we don’t publish details before we can state what the lessons are.”

Israel Radio reported on Wednesday that when the sister’s boss called the police hotline, the hotline operator promised to get back to him, but hours passed and nobody called him back. At midnight, he called again, and was transferred to a different hotline, which doesn’t deal with urgent calls. That hotline kept him on hold for half an hour, at which point he got tired of waiting and hung up.

On Wednesday night a different senior police officer, Maj. Gen. Aharon Aksol, also said that questioning the sisters in real time wouldn’t have led to any change in the police’s conduct. “We were aware of the possibility that Nashat was up north,” he said, noting that police had raided houses in the Wadi Ara region that same evening.

Terming the claim that the hotline screwed up “a tempest in a teacup,” he added that the first call placed by the boss came five hours after the shooting.

“The information was passed to the police intelligence officers dealing with the investigation,” he said. “You have to remember there were thousands of calls about the suspect, and they were sorted according to the type and importance of the information, and we responded to these calls quickly.”

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