With a Killer on the Loose, Tel Aviv Struggles With 'Business as Usual'

Israeli ethos demands restoring normalcy in the face of terror, but with shooter still at large, residents of the country’s most liberal and vibrant city start the new year under a pall of fear.

Two women sit at a Tel Aviv cafe with a window pane cracked by a bullet near the Simta Bar, the site of Friday's shooting attack.
Jillian Jones

Outside the café on fashionable Dizengoff Street, two young women sat on tall stools next to a table on Saturday, chatting intensely over cappuccino and cigarettes. Everything about them appeared perfectly normal – unless one noticed they were sitting in front of a completely cracked pane of glass, a bullet hole clearly visible, a reminder of the lethal New Year’s Day shooting attack that had taken place less than 24 hours earlier at the nearby Simta Bar. 

Like the women in front of the cracked window, residents of Israel’s most vibrant and irrepressible metropolis were spending the days following the shooting doing their best to return to routine, even as evidence that the situation was anything but normal stared them squarely in the face.

Across the news and social media, reports that Neshat Melhem, the alleged perpetrator of the attack that killed two young men and injured eight other people, was still on the loose and strongly suspected to still be in the Tel Aviv area. Rumors flew around as to the specific locations where police believed he might be hiding and possibly planning another attack. 

Both as individuals and a society, Israelis like to think of themselves as resilient, and pride themselves on putting up a brave front under extreme pressure. Shortly after the November terror attacks on Paris, when Brussels was under lockdown for nearly a week as law enforcement combed the city for terror suspects, many Israelis scoffed. They knew better, they said with a superior air. Hunkering down at home for extended periods of time was a signal to the terrorists that they were winning: the best way to combat them was to get out there and show no fear. 

According to the Israeli ethos, normalcy after a terror attack must be restored as quickly as possible. From shootings to bombings, as soon as is humanly possible, windows are repaired, furniture replaced, stores and restaurants reopen, public transportation resumes service. The attitude dates from the earliest days of the state, particularly in Tel Aviv, famous for its refusal to stop drinking and dancing under the most difficult of circumstances. 

But that instinct was challenged this week by the knowledge that the perpetrator of Friday's shooting was at large and believed to be hiding somewhere in the affluent northern neighborhoods of Israel’s most vibrant city – the equivalent of Manhattan’s Upper East and West Sides. 

Mourners place candles at the scene of a deadly shooting attack in downtown Tel Aviv on January 2, 2016.
Ofer Vaknin

The general ambivalence as to proper behavior as the manhunt was underway – particularly where children were concerned – was evident in the instructions given out by the city’s mayor, Ron Huldai, regarding school attendance.

Instead of giving city residents clear signals by opening schools and encouraging parents to send their kids – or, alternatively, closing them because it was unsafe and telling them to keep their children home – he chose an unusual middle path. He opened all schools for business while publicly stating that he understood parents who might choose to keep their children home, saying, "I understand parents' feelings in light of existing tensions."He added that school absences on Sunday would be automatically excused. 

Many appreciated the flexibility and in North Tel Aviv, a full 50 percent of parents ended up keeping their children home – the numbers climbing higher in the Ramat Aviv neighborhood where Melhem worked and where, it was revealed later, his cellphone had been discovered.

With no police spokesperson reassuring the public – and investigators keeping details under wraps – the feeling of uncertainty led many parents to decide to play it safe.

Inbal Kedar Lahav, a human resources manager in a high-tech company, was not one of them. After receiving an email reassuring her that security at her school would be heightened, the gate kept locked at all times and the area outdoors where the children play limited to areas inaccessible to public view, she brought her four kids to school.

“As a working parent you have to get to work,” she said. “I felt fine with them locked behind a gate. It was when I left the school and walked the streets of Tel Aviv that I felt nervous. I was actually more worried about myself than the kids.” 

Many junior high school and high school aged students decided to stay home for reasons other than safety. Jasmine Levi-Schuster, an eighth-grader, said she wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to stay home. Some of her classmates, she said, were more eager than she to attend classes but stayed home to appease their worried parents, who “don’t want their kids going to school with such a dangerous man on the loose.” She said Sunday that she planned to go to school the next day whether or not the terrorist was caught, “because I have an important test.” 

While she enjoyed her day off, she felt “the parents forcing kids to stay at home are really overreacting.” 

In the immediate vicinity of the attack, the trauma that pierced a sleepy Friday afternoon and transformed a tranquil neighborhood into a scene from an action thriller, with sirens, police furiously searching from house to house, and helicopters flying overhead, remained fresh.

On Friday evening, the next-door bar and restaurant owners, many of whom knew Simta manager Alon Barkal who was killed in the shooting, decided to close their doors out of respect and reopen the next day. Other bars further away on Dizengoff remained open and drew customers, some posting defiantly on Facebook that they refused to be cowed into hiding at home.

The following days saw regular customers like the cappuccino-sipping women arrive, as well as mourners lighting candles in memory of the victims, curiosity-seekers, and an endless parade of local and international media crews reporting on the story, shooting photos and videos of the bar and nearby natural foods store, where Melhem was caught on camera lurking and pretending to shop before he attacked. 

As Tel Avivians worried, they also asked themselves how Melhem managed to get away, unlike the vast majority of attackers in the recent wave of terror. There was much discussion in the city of the fact that, unlike attacks in the West Bank and Jerusalem, no bystander shot at the attacker, neutralizing him. It was unclear whether or not that was because there were no arms on hand – at least, none that could properly threaten a man armed with a machine gun.

Dudi Malka, the Simta bar, owner told Haaretz that some armed bystanders had refused to shoot, even after they were asked to use their weapons. While some saw this anecdote as illustrating Tel Aviv’s weakness and vulnerability, others, like author-journalist Igal Sarna, took it as a point of local pride, writing in a widely shared Facebook post: “I love you, Tel Aviv. Even when you are hurting, you don’t turn into Tehran or Jerusalem. You are sad and restrained. Much more like Paris than like Jerusalem. There is no shouting or cries for revenge. There are no assassinations on the scene and customers drinking their coffee or cocktails don’t transform in a moment into commandos who shoot in all directions.” 

After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed up at the scene Saturday night and used it as a backdrop for tough talk against Israeli Arabs, he was roundly blasted by the locals, led by Mayor Huldai, who called Netanyahu “frustrated” by the fact that “he has no idea how to solve security problems” and “is looking for others to blame in this situation.” Huldai told Army Radio that Netanyahu “is a person who has no answers, and instead of addressing the nation and telling them that, he lashes out at a different population.”

Not only Huldai, but other Tel Aviv leaders made it a point in their media appearances to draw a distinction between Netanyahu’s words and what they viewed as the spirit of their city. 

“We are an open, liberal city where people accept outsiders and people who are different than us. The principle of live and let live is what drives us to continue to live our lives, even in the face of terror attacks” Tsipi Brand Frank, a Tel Aviv city council member, said in a television appearance. She noted that even amid the parental fears of a terrorist on the loose, there were Arab kindergarten workers who were “welcomed with open arms” as the school week began.

Sitting alongside Frank in the studio was Nitzan Horowitz, a former Knesset member who unsuccessfully challenged Huldai for mayor in 2013. He disputed the perception that Tel Avivians lived in an elite bubble cut off from the nation’s realities, contending that his city was more “genuinely Israeli” than any other place. 

Comparing Tel Aviv to other cosmopolitan cities like London, Paris and New York, Horowitz said Tel Aviv will always symbolize diversity, tolerance and normality – and as a result has been, and will remain, a target for terrorists. For that same reason, he said, it must fight to remain true to its spirit, even in the face of dangerous circumstances and deep fear.

“It is important for Israel that a place like this exists,” he said. “It’s crucial to our sanity.”