Questions linger over police handling of manhunt for Tel Aviv gunman

Over the weekend of the attack the manhunt had led to great tension in North Tel Aviv, with many parents keeping their children home from school.

Tel Aviv shooter Nashat Milhem killed in gun battle with security forces in Wadi Ara (photo credit: Courtesy)
Tel Aviv shooter Nashat Milhem killed in gun battle with security forces in Wadi Ara
(photo credit: Courtesy)
With fugitive terrorist Nashat Milhem dead with a gunshot wound to the head in his home village of Arara on Friday, the time had come for police to breathe a sigh of relief. There would be no second attack by Milhem, no months-long search and no police or security officers injured taking him into custody.
However, the relief felt by law enforcement – and civilians who had been living on edge during the week-long manhunt – should be offset somewhat by a number of uncomfortable questions about how things were handled by police, both before and after Milhem killed three people on New Year’s Day in Tel Aviv and vanished.
If, indeed, investigators are able to determine – as per media reports – that Milhem left Tel Aviv just after the attack and was already in the Wadi Ara region hours later, it becomes unclear why the searches focused on Tel Aviv in the initial days following, particularly in the Ramat Aviv area.
Police and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) only attained clues linking him to the region in which he was found days later, but in hindsight, considering that he was eventually found in his home village in a building that had previously been used by his family, why did security forces only arrive at the address a week after the attack? On Tuesday, four days after the manhunt began, National Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich gave his first public comments on the search, saying it was possible “to ease the tension somewhat on Gush Dan.”
His comments, though veiled, were an indication that law enforcement had begun to shift their focus elsewhere.
Over the weekend of the attack and at the beginning of the following work week, the manhunt had led to great tension in North Tel Aviv, with many parents keeping their children home from school.
Could this tension have been avoided? On the one hand, there would be a certain level of tension in the city regardless with a gunman on the loose after killing three people, especially with round-the-clock media coverage and Israelis bombarding each other with rumors on social media.
Still, there is a feeling that Alsheich, dealing with his first major media event as commissioner, may have a lot to learn about how the police are different than the Shin Bet.
In his three decades in the security agency during which he eventually became its head, Alsheich worked in the shadows.
He was a commander in a clandestine security agency steeped in prestige and public admiration, and cloaked in secrecy. The agency must answer few questions from the public or the press, and is typically allowed to work at its own pace, far from the spotlight.
This is no longer the case for Alsheich, and that should be apparent by now. In a major event like this with a fugitive, armed terrorist on the loose without a trace, the public will be desperate for information and the commissioner, or at the very least a district commander, needs to be the central, calming voice to keep things in perspective.
Alsheich can’t change the fact that Israeli reporters – especially crime reporters – can play loose with facts and are desperate for scoops, pushing for every little detail they can get, gag orders be damned.
Still, during the manhunt he should have been front and center for the public from the beginning, or at least by Saturday night.
How this bodes for how the police will handle the media and major breaking news events during Alsheich’s term remains to be seen.
Long before he went on his shooting rampage, Milhem had a security crimes record for attacking a soldier in 2007 and trying to snatch his service rifle. He served four years in prison and was released to the family home in Arara, where his father, a former police volunteer and security guard, kept the Spectre M4 Falcon submachine gun used in the terror attack.
In 2015, the gun was confiscated by police following a complaint that a member of the Milhem family had threatened to use the weapon.
Following a court appeal, the weapon was returned to the father in October, even though police knew that Milhem lived in the family home.
The fact that the shooting was carried out with a licensed firearm should raise some questions, especially since Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan has pushed for lifting a ban on security guards taking their weapons home at the end of their shifts so they can be force-multipliers for police.
Although it’s an extreme example, the case of Milhem shows the danger inherent in having guns in the household, and also raises questions about the decision to allow the gun to be returned, and whether the system can be trusted to keep licensed firearms out of the hands of dangerous people who may have access to them.
Early last week, as the manhunt was still focused on Tel Aviv, young Arab- Israeli students took to Facebook to write posts about police raids of their apartments near Tel Aviv University in Ramat Aviv.
The students described police and Shin Bet officers entering their apartments without warrants, searching for Milhem and asking questions – some nice and courteous, others less so.
They said officers ransacked their apartments and treated them as suspects in searches that seemed, by no means, random. They described the feeling at length as one of being targeted because of their race, and considered as possible suspects simply for being Arabs.
Ever since the attack on New Year’s Day, the issue of crime in the Arab sector has become a national talking point, after having been largely ignored by the wider Israeli public for years.
Politicians and law enforcement have stressed the need for major steps to be taken to rid the scourge of illegal firearms from Arab communities, and to return a feeling of security to Arab citizens of Israel.
This is a long-time coming, and it will be an effort that will require extensive cooperation from the Arab community with law enforcement.
It will also require that police avoid the sort of treatment of Arab Israelis that was on display in Ramat Aviv early in the manhunt and to treat them as partners in this campaign.