Reporter's notebook: Scenes from the Tel Aviv terror attack

Confusion and the determination to carry on with life made for some unusual situations in the aftermath of Friday's attack.

January 3, 2016 17:02
4 minute read.
A woman sits with her dog after being questioned by police at the scene of a shooting incident

A woman sits with her dog after being questioned by police at the scene of a shooting incident in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Confusion was the order of the day in the minutes after a gunman opened fire on a pub and a café on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street Friday afternoon, killing two and wounding eight before vanishing without a trace.

A rumor caught wind – from a reporter, maybe, or a police officer – that a suspect was spotted a few blocks north on Nordau Street, and plainclothes cops with assault rifles started to give chase. It was then that something I’d never seen before happened: A female cop with an M-16 hopped on the back of a civilian’s electric bicycle. A detective and a third plainclothes officer followed suit on two other bikes, their assault rifles held high as they set off on a moderately fast, low-carbon footprint pursuit of a possible attacker further up Dizengoff.

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As a cameraman and I gave chase on foot, another strange thing happened.

An empty No. 5 Dan bus that had been abandoned further down the street past the police tape, where its passengers got off and fled during the attack, began driving up the street. It opened its front door and three reporters and two detectives jumped in, their colleagues pulling them in as if they were hobos jumping on a freight train. The bus continued on the way to Nordau but stopped after a block and everyone got off, the detectives included.

The two officers – who said they are stationed in the West Bank district and just happened to be in Tel Aviv on Friday – didn’t actually know where Nordau is, or what report they were following. They asked this reporter what the story was and began running toward Nordau, only to double back.

They seemed confused, but they were trying.

Friday didn’t witness the greatest display in the history of the Tel Aviv district police spokesman’s branch either. Its first message about shots fired went out to crime reporters on WhatsApp at 2:53 p.m., and then the police went silent until 3:12 p.m., only to report that there were people shot outside a bar/restaurant/ café and some were hurt. They added that paramedics were working the scene, and that it was unclear if the incident was a terrorist attack or criminal.

The first comprehensive report went out finally at 5:52 p.m., almost three hours later. While it is important in such hectic stories to be careful and know what they are reporting, the police seemed lost, unable or unwilling to answer questions in real-time.

This is certainly not always the case, and in the last attack in Tel Aviv – the stabbing at the Panorama building that left two dead on November 19 – the spokesman’s branch did a great job and all but one reporter praised it in the WhatsApp group.

The lone reporter dissented and was roundly shut down by the rest of the reporters.

I don’t know whether to chalk up the police’s failure to the mass confusion and the fact that the attacker hasn’t been caught – unlike in the Panorama attack – but there was something disconcerting about the whole display.

The attacker isn’t the first one to get away in this current wave of terrorist attacks, but the fact that he hasn’t been caught 24 hours later bears mentioning. With all the talk about the increased police patrols and the spike in the number of civilians acquiring firearms permits, there was apparently no armed person on the street when the shooting started, or nearby either. The attack took place only a few blocks south of the police station on Dizengoff between Jabotinsky and Nordau streets, but still, the man was able to flee through the streets of the country’s busiest city on a Friday afternoon and vanish.

That said, the city’s pace was already a bit slower than usual for a Friday afternoon. It was the morning after New Year’s Eve and all day the weather had been cold and rainy; there was even a bit of hail earlier.

Still, in the minutes after the shooting, there were restaurants and bars further up Dizengoff that were pretty full of customers. Some may say this affirms a Tel Aviv cliché about how “life goes on” and people “won’t give in to terrorism,” and they’d probably be right. I figure, though, you can get a pass on that when the shooter is still at large, especially if you already got the check.

This is probably the point where a writer would mention how close he was to the attack in the minutes or days before it occurred. Well, it turns out I was right next door to the pub two days ago, joining a friend while he got his hair cut at a new barber shop. A few doors down from there is 148 Dizengoff, the building where my wife and I lived on the top floor, above the Ilka Bar, and where we had all those rooftop parties years before everybody started having kids.

Why does that matter? It doesn’t really, and truth be told, in a city as small and packed as Tel Aviv, it’s rare that an attack won’t be near some place that has some meaning to you if you lived here. It’s part of what’s normal here – seeing your surroundings touched by political violence in the not too distant past or in the near future.

The feeling of a Friday night in the city with an attacker on the loose and people saying they’ll stay at home also feels familiar from years earlier, but that will pass, too.

It always does.

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