By Dan Williams
ISRAELI police killed in a shootout on Friday an Arab citizen wanted for a January 1 gun rampage in Tel Aviv, the security services said, ending a week-long manhunt but not the public mystery over what motivated his attack.
Israeli media showed pictures of Nashat Melhem’s body, with a submachine gun next to it, outside what they said was a mosque in his northern hometown where he was hiding from authorities.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a statement congratulated the security forces, who he said had “worked tirelessly, methodically and professionally to locate and eliminate the terrorist”.
Police said in a statement that a special forces team closed in on a building in his hometown of Arara, in northern Israel, killing him when he stormed out, shooting at them. There were no police casualties in the incident.
Melhem, whose age police gave as 31, was identified by relatives from CCTV footage of the Tel Aviv attack, where he was accused of killing two people in a central restaurant and a taxi driver whose vehicle he used to escape.
He had previously spent four years in prison for assaulting an Israeli soldier, said his lawyer, who also described Melhem as mentally unstable.
Commentators were divided on whether Melhem struck in Tel Aviv out of pro-Palestinian sympathy or in loyalty to Islamic State, which in recent weeks has circulated messages threatening to attack Israel.
Reflecting the official uncertainty about the motive, Netanyahu had previously referred to the fugitive as a “murderer” rather than “terrorist” in public statements. His shift in terminology on Friday suggested Israel had evidence of an ideological motive.
Arabs, most of them Muslim, make up 20 percent of Israel’s population. They seldom take up arms against the majority Jews, though they often identify as Palestinian and an increasing though still small number of them have joined Islamic State abroad or tried to set up domestic cells for the group.
Israeli media said that Melhem had been located in part thanks to the interrogation of five people arrested on suspicion of being his accomplices and having Islamic State links. Israeli authorities did not immediately comment on those reports.
The manhunt was unusually protracted for security-savvy Israel, and prompted speculation that Melhem may have fled to the Palestinian territories. Many residents of Tel Aviv, the focus of the searches, had said they were staying indoors and refusing to send their children to school for fear Melhem would strike again in the city.
Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan thanked Israelis on Twitter for showing “vigilance, patience and understanding for the complexity” of the situation.