- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 2, 2009

TEL AVIV — Hundreds of police officers scoured the streets of Tel Aviv on Sunday in a manhunt for a gunman who shot and killed two people at a youth club in the worst-ever attack on homosexuals in Israel.

The Tel Aviv shooting shocked the Mediterranean city, which prides itself on its live-and-let-live attitude and boasts a thriving gay community. The brazen attack drew condemnations from the city’s mayor, Cabinet ministers, the country’s chief rabbis and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“We’ll bring him to justice and exercise the full extent of the law against him,” MR. Netanyahu said of the killer, speaking at the Israeli Cabinet’s weekly meeting.

A masked man entered the center for gay teens in downtown Tel Aviv late Saturday night, pulled out a pistol and opened fire, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. The shooter then concealed his weapon and fled the scene on foot into the busy streets outside the center, Mr. Rosenfeld said.

The dead were identified as a 26-year-old man who was a counselor at the center and a 17-year-old girl. Eleven people were wounded, four of them seriously.

“I took cover with someone under a table, and he kept firing,” 16-year-old Or Gil, who was shot twice in the legs, recounted in news footage aired on the YNet news Web site.

“When I got up, it was horrifying. I just saw blood,” he said. Photographs of the scene showed bodies lying near a billiard table and a smear of blood on the white tile floor.

Jonathan Bower, 23, said he had been at the club before the attack and was outside when the shots began.

“One of my friends came out shouting and screaming, ‘He has a gun, he has a gun,’” followed by a group of girls who escaped the building and urged Mr. Bower to run away, he said. The girls told him the shooter was wearing a ski mask.

“This is a moment when I have to keep a low profile, I have to tone it down, because now we are afraid,” he said.

Mr. Bower was outside the club Sunday along with a crowd of supporters and onlookers. A bouquet of flowers rested on the curb near barricades erected by police and a sign reading “Stop Homophobia.”

Nitzan Horowitz, Israel’s only openly gay lawmaker, called the attack a “hate crime.”

“This is the worst attack ever against the gay community in Israel,” he said. “This act was a blind attack against innocent youths, and I expect the authorities to exercise all means in apprehending the shooter.”

Police slapped a gag order on the case, saying publication of details could compromise the investigation.

Mike Hamel, a gay rights activist whose organization runs the youth club, said the center served as a safe place where gay teens — many of them still concealing their sexual identity from their families and friends — could meet with counselors and other teenagers. He blamed religious incitement against homosexuals for the attack.

“Beyond the pain, the frustration and the anger, we are facing a situation in which the incitement to hate creates an environment that allows this to happen,” Mr. Hamel said.

Israel’s gays and lesbians typically enjoy freedoms similar to those of gays in European countries. Gay soldiers serve openly in the military, and openly gay musicians and actors are among the country’s most popular. Tel Aviv holds a festive annual gay parade, rainbow flags are often seen flying from apartment windows, and there is a city-funded open house for the community.

However, ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders often incite against gays, especially in conservative Jerusalem, where there have been clashes between religious and gay activists. In 2005, an ultra-Orthodox protester stabbed three marchers at a Jerusalem gay parade. Last year, a lawmaker from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party suggested in parliament that earthquakes were divine punishment for homosexual activity.

Shas, whose members have been among the most frequent critics of gays, issued a statement condemning Saturday’s attack.

Tel Aviv’s mayor, Ron Huldai, pledged that Tel Aviv would continue to maintain its pluralistic nature, and opposition leader Tzipi Livni expressed shock and sorrow, saying the shooting should “awaken society to rid itself of prejudice.” President Shimon Peres also condemned what he called a “despicable murder” that “a cultured and enlightened people cannot accept.”

Thousands took to the street in an impromptu march after Saturday night’s attack to mourn for the victims and call for tolerance. Other demonstrations were planned Sunday in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other Israeli cities.

The covers of Sunday’s newspapers all featured photos of the bloodstained floors of the youth club and headlines such as “Massacre of the Proud Youth” and “Terror Against the Proud Community.” Gay celebrities penned guest columns.

The youth at the club “go there because it is a refuge of sorts for them,” songwriter and gay activist Rona Keinan wrote in the daily Yediot Ahronot. “The very thought that a person might enter that protected space and simply open fire at them is shocking. I just want to cry.”

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