The Key Clue That Could Have Located TA Gunman Right Away

A watch stolen from one of Nashat Melhem's victims, broadcast a signal that pinpointed his position in the north.

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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
Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich

The Shin Bet security service and police officers overlooked a major clue that would have alerted them to the whereabouts of terrorist Nashat Melhem just hours after he shot three people in Tel Aviv on New Year’s Day. Melhem stole a watch phone from the taxi driver he murdered, which broadcast his location in the Wadi Ara town of Arara about two hours after the attack.

The police found cabdriver Amin Shaaban’s car near Glilot Junction, north Tel Aviv, on the afternoon of January 1, with his two cell phones inside. His body was found a few hundred meters away, and the Shin Bet and police soon realized there was probably a connection between Shaaban’s murder and Melhem’s shooting spree on Dizengoff Street in downtown Tel Aviv, which left two dead and seven wounded.

However, because they were unable to confirm this, the crime scene evidence – including bullets and casings – was sent for testing to determine whether the two attacks had been carried out by the same weapon.

Later that same Friday, when Shin Bet and police officers arrived at Shaaban’s house in Lod, their uncertainty over the connection between the Tel Aviv attacks and Shaaban’s murder led them firstly to try and ascertain whether the taxi driver was part of the plan; they had to rule out whether a falling out between Melhem and Shaaban had led to the latter’s murder.

Shaaban’s three brothers said investigators only asked them “about the taxi, who owned it, when Amin had left home, and who we knew. They didn’t let us in on the information they had. We just answered what they asked us,” one of the brothers told Haaretz. “After this conversation, they left and we didn’t hear from them again [that weekend].”

Two days later, on the Sunday morning, the results of the ballistics tests showed clearly that Shaaban had been murdered with the same weapon that had been used in the shooting at the Simta pub in Tel Aviv, and that Melhem was the shooter.

So, on Sunday evening Shin Bet and police investigators returned to the Shaaban home. By now they had realized that Shaaban was an innocent victim and told the family what they had found at the murder scene. “We quickly understood that his two cell phones had been found in the cab, but they didn’t find the watch phone on my brother’s body and we told them that straight away,” a brother told Haaretz.

It was only then, more than 48 hours later, that the investigators realized Melhem had left the scene with a watch that functioned exactly like a cell phone. They then tracked the signal, using it to pinpoint Melhem’s location in northern Israel.

The next day, Monday, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan broke a gag order when he told Israel Radio that there was no reason to believe Melhem was still in Tel Aviv. He added that he could not divulge further details.

That evening, investigators confirmed that Melhem was in his hometown of Arara, and the investigation’s focus moved to the Arab town. On Tuesday morning, police chief Roni Alsheich announced that the residents of the greater Tel Aviv area had no need to worry that Melhem was in their area. Until Monday, though, the Shin Bet and police had been hunting for Melhem in Tel Aviv, while other forces were looking for potential accomplices in Arara.

The fact that the Shin Bet and police had been unaware to ask for crucial information from Shaaban’s family on the Friday prevented them from locating Melhem a mere two and a half hours after the shooting – and at the town from which he had left to perpetrate the attack.

This failure joins another misstep from that Friday afternoon: two young women had seen Melhem, wearing bloodstained clothing, on a bus traveling to Wadi Ara. They told their boss about it and the latter reported the matter to the police 100 hot line, but no proper action was taken.

The more details surface, the clearer Melhem’s almost-reckless flight from Tel Aviv becomes: he ran through the city’s main streets brandishing a weapon, murdered a taxi driver, left the taxi running in the middle of a main road and boarded two buses, where his actions aroused the suspicion of passengers, and then reached Wadi Ara. It is also now clear that he was holding a device that broadcast his location.

The police declined to comment for this report.

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