by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Staff Writer
In what activists are calling 'Israel's deadliest crime again homosexuals,' a masked gunman slipped into a community center for Gay teenagers in Tel Aviv on August 1 and sprayed the room with automatic M16 rifle fire, killing three people and wounding at least 10 others.
The gunman, dressed in all black, appeared quietly in the small basement room about 10:40 p.m. during a weekly gathering of LGBT teens. According to a witness, the teens were listening to music and sharing their experiences with discrimination when the gunman opened fire.
'I thought it was a joke at first, but he immediately opened fire," said Or Gil, a 16-year-old wounded in the attack. "People took cover under the bed and tables, but there were no screams.'
'It's a small place,' Gil said from his hospital bed August 2. 'Once you're inside, there's nowhere to run.'
Witnesses say the wounded were carried up a staircase to the street.
'We saw a woman running toward us covered in blood,' said Adi Shimoni, a patron at a café located across the street from the teen center. "We saw the gunman flee. He was wearing what looked like a ski mask."
He said when he rushed into the center he saw "many wounded and a lot of blood."
The shooting spree in central Tel Aviv set off a citywide security crackdown; police set up roadblocks and launched a massive search for the killer. Witnesses said the gunman, who fled on foot, acted alone.
Tel Aviv Police Chief Shahar Ayalon said there had been no recent threat against the center, which has been operating for 15 years, or its patrons, the Tel Aviv Gay and Lesbian Association. He said it is unclear whether the shooting was a hate crime.
"All avenues of investigation are open," Ayalon said.
Yitzhak Aharonovitch, Israel's Internal Security Minister, said he believed the attack might have had a "homophobic" motive and said police stepped up security around "other potential targets associated with the Gay community."
Although city officials spoke with uncertainty about the motive, Israeli Gay activists said they had no doubt their community was the target of a hate crime.
"It is not surprising that such a crime can be committed given the incitement of hatred against the homosexual community," said Mai Pelem, president of Tel Aviv's Gay and Lesbian community.
In fact, the August 1 shooting was not the first time the center was targeted. In the past, swastikas had been painted at the entrance to the center.
"This is undoubtedly the worst incident aimed at the Gay community in Israel," said Nitzan Horowitz, the only openly Gay member of Israel's 120-member parliament. "It has the characteristics of a hate crime."
"In our worst nightmares we could not have imagined that the hatred against our community, which is hurting nobody, could go this far," said Mike Hamel, the head of Israel's Gay and Lesbian National Association.
Members of the Tel Aviv Gay community converged on the site of the shooting with signs and candles for an August 2 rally.
Many demonstrators accused Shas, the ultra-Orthodox religious party, for inciting the killings. The religious community openly calls homosexuality an "abomination." Shas has worked in parliament to limit LGBT legal rights.
During the rally, one sign read, "Their blood is on your hands."
"Murder is, of course, against the Torah's path, and every attack is a contravention of the religion of Israel," said the Shas parliamentary delegation in a statement issued August 2.
The statement also called for the attacker to be found and put on trial.
Although coastal, cosmopolitan Tel Aviv has a Gay scene, in most other areas of the Jewish State open homosexuality is unwelcome. Gay life in Israel has become more prominent over the past two decades, as Gay groups have fought to gain acceptance.
Same-sex marriage is illegal in Israel, however, the courts have ordered the government to recognize same-sex unions performed abroad.
Openly Gay men and women are drafted into the Army because of the country's draft program. According to reports, Gay and Lesbian servicemembers experience little or no discrimination while in uniform, and they are given the opportunity to advance up the ranks.
Violent attacks on the LGBT community in Israel are rare. The last major attack was in 2005 when an ultra-Orthodox Jew was convicted of stabbing three marchers during Jerusalem's Gay Pride Parade. The attacker was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Because Gays have found Tel Aviv more tolerant than Jerusalem and other Israeli cities, the August 1 shooting was all the more upsetting.
"These teenagers came to this center to talk to one another and receive help," said Chairman of the Israeli Gay Youth Organization Yaniv Weisman. "This was supposed to be a safe place for them."
Authorities said a 24-year-old male counselor and a 17-year-old girl died at the scene. The third victim died in the hospital August 2.
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