Tel Aviv Attack: Manhunt Over, but Questions Begin for Security Services

The police finally tracked down suspected gunman Nashat Melhem on Friday, but how did he manage to hide amid the civilian population for so long?

Police and SWAT officers stand guard in the Arab town of Arara during the manhunt for Nashat Melhem, January 8, 2015.
Gil Eliahu

A week late, the hunt for suspected gunman Nashat Melhem ended. Not surprisingly, it ended with the death of the Israeli-Arab terrorist, who killed two Israelis on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street and another while fleeing the city on New Year’s Day.

It seems Melhem’s death has left many questions unanswered, or at least only partially answered. What were his specific motives (although investigators agree he was motivated by extreme nationalism)? Where was he during the time he was being pursued, and who helped hide him for seven days? What happened during those seven days will certainly not be a source of pride for security forces.

The police in particular were harshly criticized during the manhunt. Not all the complaints were appropriate and some seem to have been exaggerated. But the police’s main problem was not tactical; it was about their relationship with the Israeli public – specifically, the residents of the greater Tel Aviv area.

Police search a wooded area of northern Tel Aviv for Nashat Melhem, the presumed perpetrator of the Jan.1 shooting on Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Street, on Jan. 4, 2016. The photograph shows three police officers, guns drawn, climbing a grassy hill with trees in the background.
Moti Milrod

There is some truth to the argument of new police chief Roni Alsheich that the public cannot be privy to all the details of an investigation, and that Melhem could have benefited if too many details were released. But that still does not explain the silence Alsheich imposed on police brass in the first hours after the attack, and even afterward.

Unlike the Shin Bet security service, where Alsheich held a number of senior positions, the police are obliged to come into daily contact with citizens. Their absence from the picture at critical moments contributed to confusion and panic, which were also inflamed by the somewhat hysterical coverage by some media outlets. Thus, the damage was doubled: Unnecessary anger among the people, along with the terrorist’s likely sense of achievement at almost paralyzing Israel’s largest metropolis for a few days. It is no coincidence that Hamas, which adopted Melhem after his death, is waving precisely this card to taunt Israel for its weakness and fears.

Beyond this, there is an operational question relating to the police and, mainly, the Shin Bet. It begins with the claim of eyewitnesses – which are as yet unverified – that there were armed people on Dizengoff who did not open fire on the terrorist and allowed him to escape.

It is still unclear how Melhem managed to get out of Tel Aviv after he abandoned the taxi whose driver he allegedly murdered. The decision by the police not to release a recent picture of Melhem certainly did not help. Even the insistence on keeping a gag order on the connection between the attack on Dizengoff and the taxi driver’s murder is hard to fathom.

The greatest gap involves the place where Melhem was eventually tracked down and shot to death. There were indications from the beginning that he had returned to his home area of Arara, in the Wadi Ara region. A search was mounted there as well as in Tel Aviv and the West Bank, but another tense week went by before he was found, in a complex that belongs to his clan. It seems that a number of people, including relatives, helped hide him in Wadi Ara for that week.

Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv.
Ofer Vaknin
Nashat Melhem's hideout in Arara.

The delay in finding Melhem exposes gaps in the quality of cover by the Shin Bet. It may also show weakness in the service’s intelligence when it comes to thwarting terror by Israeli Arabs, as opposed to Palestinian terror. The bottom line is that an armed murderer was able to hide in an Israeli civilian population for a week until someone dared report him to the authorities.

The last point is also important with regard to the Arab community itself. Melhem is an extreme exception, and it may be assumed that the great majority of his family and neighbors object to his actions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ugly, opportunistic speech at the site of the attack was unnecessary, as was the political exercise by which the plan for huge investment in Arab communities is currently on hold.

But there is clearly potential for more attacks from among Israel’s Arab population, both in light of mounting violence in the territories as well as the “Islamic State effect,” with turmoil in the Arab world spurring more young people to commit individual acts of terror.

One does not need to be a radical Muslim to follow the example of ISIS. Sometimes, it is enough to be a criminal on the edges of society, frustrated by a personal situation and seeking revenge on the state and its Jewish citizens. The extremism of the act must not be ignored: It is not by chance that Melhem opened fire on Dizengoff Street, and not in the center of Umm al-Fahm.

Israel must prepare as best it can for the possibility that Melhem was not a one-time phenomenon.