Tel Aviv Gunmen's Families Describe Shock at Killings

In shooters' hometown of Yatta, now encircled by Israeli army, relatives say relatives' assault on Tel Aviv's Sarona Market caught them by surprise; high Palestinian casualties in Hebron area since October may have influenced them, mayor says.

A man checks the damage to the house of one of Palestinian assailants who carried out a shooting attack in Tel Aviv after it was raided by the Israeli forces, in Yatta near the West Bank city of Hebron June 9, 2016.

Residents of the West Bank town of Yatta woke up Thursday morning to a new reality. Granted, it’s Ramadan, when everything happens at a leisurely pace. But the Israeli army’s encirclement of the town and closure of all access routes, including dirt roads, showed that the coming days won’t be normal ones.

“It’s as if the mighty Israeli army intended to fight Yatta,” one resident told Haaretz by telephone from his home, where he was forced to remain. “Look, bro, we’re workers.”

It was from Yatta that cousins Khaled and Mohammed Muhamara set out to Tel Aviv, where they gunned down four people and wounded several others before they were apprehended by the police on Wednesday. Their families seemed to be utterly shocked. Musa Muhamara, Yatta’s mayor and a member of the same clan as the gunmen, told Haaretz that as far as he knows the men weren’t active in any Palestinian organization, let alone in such an organization’s armed wing. They also had no record of security offenses against either Israel or the Palestinian Authority, he said.

Police officers at the scene of a shooting attack in Tel Aviv, June 8, 2016.
Moti Milrod

The mayor said that gunman Khaled Muhamara, whose father is a lawyer, was in his fourth year of law school in Jordan. He was back in Yatta on vacation, but was due to return to Jordan sometime in the next two days. 

The other gunman, Khaled’s cousin Mohammed, does odd jobs, the mayor said.

“We were very surprised, and the only explanation for what happened is that the two were influenced by everything that has happened recently,” Muhamara said, adding that the Hebron region suffered many casualties since the latest wave of Palestinian terror attacks began last October.

Mohammad Ahmad Mahamra, left, and Khaled Mahamra, the two perpetrators of the shooting attack in Tel Aviv's Sarona marketplace on Wednesday night.

Muhamara said both cousins had left Yatta a few days ago, and he doesn’t know where they went next.

One relative said the two had been missing for three days. Their families initially thought they had gone to Ramallah, or perhaps to Israel, to go shopping, he said. Only when news of the attack broke in the Israeli media, including the news that the perpetrators were from Yatta, did the families begin to suspect the truth. At that point, they contacted the Palestinian security services in a quest for information. 

The relative concurred with Mayor Muhamara that the two men didn’t formally belong to any Palestinian organization. However, he added, they were undoubtedly ideologically closer to Hamas than Fatah.

Relatives also noted that two other cousins, Khaled and Taleb Muhamara, are both affiliated with Hamas, and both are in jail in Israel. Khaled was originally released in a 2011 prisoner swap for kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, but was rearrested after Hamas members kidnapped three Israeli teens in June 2014. Taleb is serving seven life sentences for involvement in a shooting attack near Yatta during the second intifada (2000-05).

Wednesday’s attack was cheered by many Palestinians in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In Gaza, there were mass celebrations, including the handing out of candy. In the West Bank, conduct was much more restrained, but the gunmen were widely praised on social media. 

Hamas rushed to adopt the gunmen as its own. Hamas spokesman Husam Badran said explicitly that they were Hamas members, and the organization published a statement terming the attack the first good tidings of Ramadan, while promising that more such tidings would come.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas, in contrast, issued a statement denouncing the attack. In the statement, published by the official PA news agency WAFA, Abbas voiced unequivocal opposition to any attack on civilians, regardless of the circumstances. He added that achieving a just peace and creating a positive atmosphere would remove the causes of tension and violence in the region, and that achieving such a peace would require everyone to stop taking actions liable to escalate the tension and violence.

This is the first condemnation of an attack Abbas has issued since the wave of terror, mostly stabbings and car-rammings, began last fall. He and other senior PA officials have generally defined such attacks as understandable responses to Israeli occupation and repression.

Israeli MK Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Arab parties’ Joint List, also condemned the attack. “I condemn and am pained by this terrible attack on civilians,” he said. “My heart goes out to the families. Attacks on innocents are always contemptible; there is and cannot be any justification for shooting civilians in the street.

“This government is only leading us all into deeper hatred and worse violence,” he continued. “Palestinian and Israeli civilians must be completely removed from this terrible cycle of bloodshed. We must fight together, in a just manner, in order to bring justice and peace to both peoples.”