A day after he was eliminated by special police forces, the saga of Tel Aviv shooter Nashat Melhem raised more questions – and concerns – than anyone had anticipated. The shooter, police discovered, had escaped to his home town of Arara and was there most of the week that he was missing after killing three people and injuring eight others a week earlier in central Tel Aviv.
Melhem was finally eliminated late Friday afternoon, when Yamam special police forces and Shin Bet officers surrounded the hiding place where he had been holed up. Melhem emerged from the building and opened fire at the forces, using the same weapon with which he had murdered Israelis Alon Bakal and Shimon Revimi at an outdoor café on Dizengoff Street, and Israeli Arab cab driver Amin Sha’aban north of Tel Aviv. Melhem was eliminated when Israeli forces shot him after he opened fire on them.
Five individuals who police said had helped Melhem get away and find safe houses in Arara were taken into custody after the shootout. Under questioning, they revealed that Melhem had been acting on behalf of an Islamic State cell, but police are still investigating that angle, and still believe that Melhem acted of his own volition. The five arranged for Melhem’s safe movement to different hiding places in Arara, provided him with food and cigarettes, and even provided a security detail for him.
But even more troubling, said Israeli security officials, that the large majority of residents of Arara knew that Melhem was in their midst, and that they assisted in hiding him, if not actively then passively by not reporting him. Melhem apparently was able to move between several hiding places without fear, to apartments that were provided to him by relatives and acquaintances in the town; at one point he even apparently took a walk to the local grocery store to buy himself some snacks.
Security forces combed the country for a week, looking for clues that would indicate where Melhem had escaped to after his shooting rampage in Tel Aviv, but according to sources it was a mistake by one of his accomplices – who made a call using a cellphone that belonged to the murdered cab driver – that tipped off security forces as to his whereabouts. Throughout the week, police conducted extensive searches in north Tel Aviv on the theory that Melhem was holed up there, but Shin Bet officials said on Motzoei Shabbos that it was clear to them that Melhem had returned to the Arara area and that they had kept up the pretense of searching for him in Tel Aviv in the hope that he would make a careless mistake that would allow them to target his exact whereabouts.
Melhem’s family has set up a mourner’s tent, and hundreds of residents and relatives have visited in the past day. Other mourning tents were set up in Arab villages in Yehudah and Shomron, where Melhem was feted as a “hero” and a “martyr.”
Earlier in the week, the Arara city council condemned the attack, saying that it was “a personal act that did not represent the people of our town, or the Israeli Arab public. This kind of behavior is foreign to the residents of Arara. We send our condolences to the families of the victims and hope for the speedy recovery of the injured.”
Speaking Motzoei Shabbos, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu congratulated Israeli security forces for their capture and elimination of Melhem. The forces “acted very professionally day and night to fulfill their mission of capturing him. Those who try to kill Israelis must know that sooner or later we will reach them, whether they hide inside or outside the borders of Israel. No one is exempt from being punished for their actions. We will reach all the murderers, and those who help them as well.”