Israel Reluctant to Accuse IS Over Tel Aviv Shootings

Israeli policemen search for Meshet Melhem in the northern Tel Aviv neighborhood of Ramat Aviv. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
Israeli policemen search for Nashat Melhem in the northern Tel Aviv neighborhood of Ramat Aviv earlier this month. (Reuters/Baz Ratner)

It appeared to have hallmarks of the first Islamic State attack in Israel: A Muslim citizen opened fire on a Tel Aviv restaurant days after the terror group threatened the country, and left behind a black IS banner.

But security officials are steering clear of definitively linking him with Islamic State.

“This really was not a classic ISIS terrorist attack,” a security official told Reuters on Thursday after the Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency and Justice Ministry issued their findings on the Jan. 1 shooting rampage by Nashat Melhem that killed three people.

The 31-year-old was killed a week later in a gunfight with police.

An Israeli indictment against three Arab citizens for abetting Melhem’s escape said he had “sought to help the enemy, including the IS group, fight Israel.” He left a black banner in Tel Aviv with the group’s name in handwritten Arabic and Hebrew as well as a flag with Koranic text, the indictment says.

In recordings released by the authorities, Melhem is seen holding a bullet and vowing to hit “the Jews” again in Tel Aviv, cursing Shia Islam and telling U.S. President Barack Obama: “Become a Muslim, you Crusader, if you want to be saved.”

The security official described Melhem’s behavior as inconsistent with Islamist piety and a reason the Shin Bet believed he acted alone. Another was the absence of any evidence he received direct instruction from Islamic State.

By contrast, the Shin Bet last year arrested several Israeli Arabs it said were trying to form an armed cell under orders from two fellow citizens fighting with Islamic State in Iraq.

Israel faces more active threats from armed Palestinian terrorist factions like Hamas, as well as from Hizbullah in neighboring Lebanon, though officials point to Islamic State affiliates in the Egyptian Sinai as having the potential to launch cross-border attacks too.

What constitutes genuine Islamic State action outside its Middle East fiefdoms is a question bedeviling security agencies worldwide. They must weigh media outreach, which is designed to inspire “lone-wolf” strikes, but are reluctant to exaggerate the scope of the threat.

Yoram Schweitzer, a terrorism expert with Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, said Israel was especially mindful of the impact of Melhem’s actions on fellow Arabs citizens, who make up a fifth of its population.

While often sympathetic to the Palestinians, Israeli Arabs seldom resort to political violence – a fact often noted by the Shin Bet. But with dozens of Israeli Arabs having left to join Islamic State, authorities worry that the domestic danger is growing.

“I think that while the IS menace cannot be ignored, what is more important is not to inflate it,” Schweitzer said.

“Israeli authorities have an interest in this regard, as no one wants to see Melhem copycats – not least because he managed to kill three people and get away, in what made them look like a bit of a circus.”