(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Israel Police were hit with another possible scandal on Wednesday when it emerged they mishandled a call placed by two women who saw fugitive Nashat Milhem on a northbound bus just after he carried out a terrorist attack in Tel Aviv on New Year’s Day.
According to the report by Israel Radio, two women said they boarded a bus at the Arlozorov Bus Station heading north out of the city and that two or three stops later, a very suspicious man got on and sat next to them. The women decided to get off at the next stop.
Hours later, when Milhem’s picture and the surveillance footage of him just before the attack was broadcast, they realized the man they saw was wanted for the attack.
The women told Israel Radio that one of them told her boss about the man, and he called the 100 emergency dispatch line around 8 p.m. and was told by the operator that police would call him back. Hours later he hadn’t been contacted, and decided to call again, only to be put on hold for a half hour, before finally giving up.
The women told Israel Radio that they called the next day and were told that if police hadn’t called them back by then it was because the information was no longer relevant.
Though police said on Wednesday the women’s call was unclear, in an interview with Israel Radio one of them, Noa, was able to describe the clothes and sunglasses Milhem was wearing, as well as drops of blood on the white stripes of his tracksuit. And on Channel 2, one of the women said she told the dispatcher that they heard the driver tell Milhem: “This bus will take you to Wadi Ara.”
Police said on Wednesday the call was received at 7:51 p.m., hours after the women got off the bus, and that it was one of thousands of calls the police dealt with in the hours following the attack. They said it was checked by police who decided they would take steps to find the bus driver and interview witnesses.
A reporter for Israel Radio said on Wednesday the information was checked and the two women contacted by police only after Milhem was killed in a raid a week later.
Asst.-Ch. Aharon Aksel, the head of the Police Operations Branch, told reporters at the 100 dispatch-center offices in Tel Aviv reports of a new scandal “are a storm in a teacup.”
“Without doubt, I can say that even if we had questioned those same girls that same night [of the attack] it wouldn’t have changed intelligence and operational assessments,” he said, indicating that police were already on the night of the attack examining the possibility that Milhem was in Wadi Ara, and that on the same night, Counterterrorism Unit officers raided a number of houses in his home village.
Contrary to reports, Aksel said that after the call was received, details were handed over to the relevant police intelligence officers, but it was received together with thousands of calls of people reporting seeing Milhem in various places.
The police added that Insp.-Gen. Roni Alsheich has already set up an internal probe to examine the handling of the manhunt for Milhem, including how emergency dispatchers operated.
For the first few days of the manhunt, police and other security services focused on the Dan region, in particular Ramat Aviv in north Tel Aviv, where Milhem’s cellphone had been found on the morning of the attack. The whole time, however, he was in his village of Arara in Wadi Ara, and the information received by the two women could have helped them refocus the search northward much earlier.
Also on Wednesday, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Service) released the details of the investigation into Milhem’s attack and the hunt for him, revealing that while he was hiding out in Arara, he was planning a second attack.”
In the attack on Dizengoff Street in central Tel Aviv, Milhem shot dead Alon Bakal and Shimon Ruimi, and then flagged down a taxi and murdered the driver, Amin Sha’aban, after he was driven to north Tel Aviv.
The police’s handling of an emergency call also caused a major scandal in June 2014 when it emerged that on the night three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered near Hebron, one of them had called the 100 hotline and whispered twice to an operator: “I’ve been kidnapped,” while later in the call a series of gunshots could be heard in the background, as well as the sound of people talking in Arabic.