JERUSALEM (Reuters) - An Arab Israeli citizen wanted for a Jan. 1 gun rampage in Tel Aviv was killed in a shootout with police on Friday, ending a week-long manhunt.
Local media showed pictures of Nashat Melhem’s body, with a submachine gun next to it, outside what they said was an abandoned building that had served as his hideout in his northern hometown, Arara.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated the security forces, which he said in a statement had “worked tirelessly, methodically and professionally to locate and eliminate the terrorist”.
Reflecting official uncertainty about the motive for the rare attack by an Arab Israeli, Netanyahu had in earlier public statements referred to the fugitive as a “murderer” rather than “terrorist”. His shift in terminology on Friday suggested authorities had evidence of an ideological motive.
Police said a special forces team closed in on Melhem’s hideout and killed him as he stormed out, shooting at them. There were no police casualties from 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. Another three people were seriously hurt.
Melhem had previously spent four years in prison for assaulting an Israeli soldier, said his former lawyer, who also described Melhem as mentally unstable.
Commentators were divided on whether Melhem struck in Tel Aviv, Israel’s commercial capital, out of pro-Palestinian sympathy or in loyalty to Islamic State, which in recent weeks has circulated messages threatening to attack Israel. Police said all angles were being checked.
Arabs, most of them Muslim, make up 20 percent of Israel’s population. They seldom take up arms against the Jewish majority, 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.
Melhem’s father and brother, who condemned the Tel Aviv attack and called on the fugitive to turn himself in, had been arrested and interrogated on suspicion of abetting him.
But their lawyer, Nahmi Feinblatt, said it was the family that tipped off police about the Arara hideout.
“They spotted him (Melhem), wearing a hoodie and carrying a jerrycan of water, breaking into a building,” Feinblatt told Israel’s Channel 10 TV, adding that he relayed the location to the security services as instructed by Melhem’s father.
Israeli media said police also had intelligence from five people arrested on suspicion of being Melhem’s accomplices and having Islamic State links, and from DNA testing done on samples taken from a site the fugitive used as a toilet. 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 police operation”.
Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Catherine Evans