“He was smiling, he was smiling when he was shooting,” Noa Keren said on Friday, still trying to grasp being a witness to a shooting attack that killed two people in Tel Aviv earlier in the afternoon.
Keren had just sat down with her sister at a table inside the Sidewalk café on the corner of Dizengoff and Gordon streets, when they heard what sounded like a quick series of gunshots.
Moments later, a man wearing all black appeared at the window a few meters in front of them, raised his gun and opened fire.
All the while, he had a smile on his face, Keren said.
At least two shots were fired into the café; one lodged into a table against the front window just moments after a diner had left to go to the bathroom, according to Keren and her sister.
Witnesses said the shooter then continued on foot down Gordon toward Rabin Square, vanishing before police arrived at the scene.
The shooter has yet to be found, and the city of Tel Aviv greeted the New Year with two dead and several wounded in the terrorist attack.
The heart of the attack was a few doors down from Sidewalk at the Simta pub, a bar busy with patrons braving the cold and rain for a birthday party and a Friday afternoon drink when the shooter stepped out of the grocery store next door, pulled a gun from his bag and began spraying the bar’s patrons with bullets before making his way north on Dizengoff to Gordon Street.
By evening, after the police and the press had mainly cleared away, loved ones and passersby continued to file past the bar, lighting candles and stopping to mourn.
Inside the bar, life was suspended – stools were still overturned and half-empty beers on the tables gave testament to the lives stopped short in an instant.
One witness, Mor, was across the street from the bar with her friends when they heard what sounded like gunshots and saw people racing in their direction.
Mor said they ran up Dizengoff and ducked inside a store, hiding inside of a storeroom as panic consumed those on the street outside.
“We waited inside and we didn’t know what to do. Even now, we want to go home but we’re afraid because we don’t know if they found him or not.”
Police were far from finding the shooter, and confusion seemed to be the order of the day.
Plainclothes detectives, anti-terrorism officers, special patrol units, and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) officers ran up and down Dizengoff and the surrounding streets, occasionally breaking suddenly into a run in one direction or another before stopping.
The police – including YASSAM special patrol officers in combat gear – would huddle and then break, walking down the side streets with their assault rifles, checking each apartment building.
At one point, a number of plainclothes officers could be seen hitching rides on the back of bicycles ridden by Israeli civilians, as they raced north on Dizengoff after a false alarm that a suspect had been seen on Nordau Street.
The police began to make their way back south toward Gordon Street. Along the way, two detectives marveled at the cafes and restaurants just two blocks north of the crime scene that were still full of patrons, even as the shooter remained at large.
As of nightfall, the main mission of the police and the security services working with them in the city remained finding the shooter as soon as possible.
“We are now on a manhunt with all of the police in the organization and the Shin Bet taking part,” Yarkon police subdistrict commander (Dep.-Ch.) Yehuda Dahan said on Friday evening, speaking to reporters outside city hall.
“The residents of Tel Aviv must remain aware of their surroundings and listen to police warnings,” Dahan said, though he said there was no police order for civilians to remain indoors, and repeated the usual call for people to maintain their normal routine.