JERUSALEM (AP) — An Arab gunman who killed three Israelis in Tel Aviv last week was slain Friday in a shootout with police special forces, authorities said, following a massive manhunt that put Israelis on edge amid months of near-daily Palestinian attacks on civilians and soldiers.
The gunman was hiding in a building in his hometown of Arara in northern Israel, said police spokeswoman Luba Samri. As the special forces closed in on him in the residential area, he came out shooting, she said.
Authorities had identified the gunman as Nashat Milhem who opened fire at a bar on a busy Tel Aviv street on Jan. 1, killing two people and wounding six others in chilling video that was caught on security cameras at a health food store next door. He later also shot and killed an Arab taxi driver.
Milhem fired at police Friday with the same gun he used in the Tel Aviv shooting, Samri said.
Witness Hakim Younis told Channel 10 TV that he saw some of the shootout from his home.
"I was sitting on my balcony with my cousin ... when suddenly shooting began — hundreds of bullets, like in a war," Younis said, adding that he then went inside. Large numbers of security forces had entered the town earlier and had told residents to stay in their homes, he added.
Alon Ben-David, the TV station's defense analyst, said special forces with dogs had searched the town. Milhem shot a police dog that had entered a building as part of the search, he added, and that exposed his location, prompting troops to close in.
Ben-David said it appears that several people had helped Milhem hide, assisting him with food and other essentials, following last week's attack. He said the gunman had been hiding there all week.
Israelis are used to resuming their daily routines quickly after an attack because assailants are usually swiftly captured or killed. But the Tel Aviv shootings left many people jittery because Milhem, who was considered armed and dangerous, was on the loose for a week.
In the security video, a man with short dark hair, glasses and a black bag over his shoulder was seen scooping up nuts from the health food store's bulk food section, putting them in a plastic bag, and then emptying them back. He then walked to the store's entrance, placed his backpack on a shopping cart, and removed a gun from it before stepping outside and opening fire into the bar. He then was seen running away along busy Dizengoff Street.
Police said that after tossing his cellphone, Milhem hailed a cab that took him to northern Tel Aviv, where he killed the driver, also a member of Israel's Arab minority, and escaped in the taxi before abandoning it.
Authorities got their first lead when Milhem's father, Mohammed, recognized his son from the security video that was broadcast on TV. Milhem apparently obtained the licensed semi-automatic weapon he used by stealing it from his father, a security guard. The father had condemned the killing and called on his son to turn himself in. Residents of Arara also quickly denounced the attack.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan called it a "complex operation" and congratulated those who took part.
"The forces practically turned over every stone, and worked day and night over the past week. All our enemies should know that we will hit whoever tries to harm us and we will continue to fight terrorism with full force," he said.
The Islamic militant group Hamas that rules Gaza along with another militant group there, Islamic Jihad, had praised the gunman.
Milhem's relatives had said he was "traumatized" after a cousin was shot and killed in a 2006 police arrest raid. At the time, police said they were searching for weapons and claimed the shooting was in self-defense.
Milhem spent time in an Israeli prison after being convicted of attacking a soldier and trying to steal his weapon. But he also was described by residents of the upscale Tel Aviv neighborhood where he worked as a grocery store delivery man as being well-liked and trusted.
Israeli Arabs, who make up a fifth of the country's 8.4 million people, enjoy full rights but often face unfair treatment in areas such as housing and employment opportunities. Many identify more with their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza and with Palestinian nationalism rather than with Israel.
The near-daily Palestinian attacks on civilians and soldiers have killed 21 Israelis, mostly in stabbings, shootings and car-ramming assaults. At least 134 Palestinians have died by Israeli fire, including 93 said by Israel to be attackers. The rest were killed in clashes with troops. The figures do not include Milhem's victims.
Israel says the bloodshed is fueled by a Palestinian campaign of lies and incitement. Palestinians say the attacks stem from despair at not achieving statehood.