Barely 12 hours earlier, terrorists had opened fire at patrons of the Max Brenner restaurant, killing four and wounding 6. By mid-morning Thursday, there was no evidence of the horrific scene that had unfolded at this Tel Aviv restaurant the night before. The broken glass had been swept away, the bloodstains had been wiped clean, and personal belongings left behind had long been retrieved.
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It was business as usual at the branch located in the upscale Sarona Marketplace of the restaurant chain known for its chocolate-themed desserts. Even more than usual.
As famous politicians, flanked by bodyguards, paraded through for the requisite photo ops, television camera crews, both local and international, jumped into action.
Outside on the veranda, Israelis, young and old, ordinary folks and VIPs, crowded around tables determined to deliver the following message: We will not let terrorists scare us away. Some, like Yael Kapitolnik, paused to light a candle in remembrance of Israel’s latest terror victims, before picking up a menu.
A 78-year-old grandmother, Kapitolnik says she felt a special need to be here today. Last night, her granddaughter and daughter-in-law had been sitting at the restaurant next door, when the shooting began. ״I’ve lived here my whole life and have experienced many terrible things,” she says, “but this is the first time I have ever seen someone in a state of mental shock. My 16-year-old granddaughter was shaking for hours. She just couldn’t come out of it. I told her to come back with me today, that is was important to get back on with life, but she begged me, ‘Grandma, please don’t go.’”
At a nearby table, Gefen Izmirli, an 18-year-old soldier from Eilat is having coffee with Tzipi Schwartz, one of her supervisors at Israeli military headquarters located directly across the road from Sarona. “We wanted to show our solidarity,” says Izmirly.
Although she works very close by, Schwartz says she usually takes her lunch break in her office. This day, though, she decided to make an exception. “It was frustrating sitting in an office just two minutes away from here, after everything that happened last night,” she says. “We felt we had to be here, so we just picked up and came.”
Batia and Shimon Tan, a retired couple, live in the high-rise apartment building on top of the popular marketplace, opened just a few years ago. By chance, they were visiting their daughter in the town of Modi’in, about 30 minutes away, when they started receiving messages on WhatsApp about the attack. “Our daughter wanted us to sleep over, but we really felt we should come back home,” recalls Batia.
Following last night’s attack, the bloodiest since the beginning of the latest wave of terror that began in October, Shimon says he is more convinced than ever that the solution is “to complete building the separation wall between us and the Palestinians.”
His wife is less militant. “What we need is a real, and I mean a real, peace plan for this entire region,” she says.
It was 9:30 P.M. when two Palestinian gunmen, dressed in suits, began firing at restaurant customers at point blank range. Surveillance cameras inside the restaurant showed a scene of bedlam, with customers running desperately for cover, some racing out of the restaurant and others throwing themselves under tables.
The assailants, two cousins from the West Bank town of Yatta outside Hebron, also aimed their gunfire at patrons of the restaurant next door, Benedict.
One of the assailants was caught by security guards near the site of the attack and another was shot and wounded by police while trying to escape on a nearby street.
Trying to escape the gunmen, many of the restaurant customers ran for cover into a clothing shop about 100 meters away. As Meital Ganon, the 24-year-old manager of the local Castro branch recounts, the scene was total mayhem. “It was not long before closing time, and we heard shots, and then more shots and more shots,” she says. “One of my sales girls fainted on the spot, and another simply ran out of the store. The police told me to lock the door, but people started banging on it begging me to let them in, so I just kept opening it up. How could I say no?”
Still shaken up this morning following a sleepless night, Ganon pauses to accept a package from a deliveryman. It’s a box of chocolates from Max Brenner – a token of appreciation for her bravery the night before. “I’m not a hero,” she says. “I did what any person would do.”
On the lawn outside, several dozen young Israelis have gathered in a circle, singing sad songs as they strum their guitars. Participants in a gap year program at a kibbutz near the Gaza border, they were on a trip in northern Israel, when news broke of the terror attack at Sarona.
“We decided to change all our plans and come to Tel Aviv to express our solidarity,” says Dael Friedler, a 19-year-old participant in the program who hails from the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut.
Meanwhile, a delegation of Chabad activists have set up camp right outside Benedict, a non-kosher restaurant popular for its all-day breakfast menu. “We’ve come to strengthen Israel’s security by getting more men to lay tefillin,” one of them explains their mission, as he beckons over some passersby.
The Australian ambassador makes an appearance to express his shock and sympathy. So, too, does Shelly Yacimovich, the former Labor party leader, arriving, Tel Aviv-style, on her bicycle. Tzipi Livni, her fellow oppositionist from the Zionist Union and a former Israeli foreign minister, is just minutes behind. Two of Israel’s best-known female politicians, Yacimovich and Livni grab some seats at Max Brenner and convene for a chat. A few tables away, MK Michael Oren (Kulanu), the former ambassador to the United States, is holding his regular Thursday meeting with some fellow history buffs. But instead of their usual venue, a popular café in the nearby town of Ramat Hasharon, they’ve decided to convene at Max Brenner this morning.
“We want to show our solidarity,” says Oren. “This was a significant terror attack in Tel Aviv, a city known for its openness, and we have to make sure it remains open.”
Another first-time Knesset member, Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union), had planned a meeting at this very spot long before it was targeted by terrorists. “I hold meetings here at least once a week, and I had no intention of moving it just because of what happened,” she says. “Life has to go on, but at the same time, we really need to be making some diplomatic moves.”
Amnon and Leah Cohen, a retired couple who had lived for 30 years in Los Angeles, are regular patrons of Max Brenner and had no second thoughts about where they wanted to be this morning. “We absolutely love this place,” says Leah, as they grab another round of Diet Cokes.