Observations and insights in chilling documentary about 2016 terrorist attack in the heart of Tel Aviv
By David E. Kaplan
It was 6 o’clock on Day 3 of the 21st World Summit of Counter-Terrorism at Reichman University in Herzliya, Israel. The morning session had been intense – a comparative panel discussion on the subject of ‘Terrorism Negotiations’ comparing Israeli and American modalities. Both countries have long histories of tough dealing with hostage-taking. The price one pays can lead to painful consequences. Israel knows this only too well.
The afternoon session hardly lightened up with ‘Perspectives from the United States” on how they are countering domestic terrorism.
With potential mass killers motivated by ideology, religion or frustration coupled with easy access to firearms, ordinary US citizens pose targets in schools, workplaces and places of worship. Once thought hallowed and safe – synagogues today remain only hallowed. They are no longer safe!
So, while Israel and the USA may share common values; its people also share something else in common today – FEAR!
So leaving these existential issues behind as I stepped out from the auditorium – cerebrally drained – I was already fantasizing about throwing back at home a well-earned soothing scotch when my eye suddenly caught on the information board something for the die-hards – pun intended! It was an invitation for a viewing of a new documentary on a deadly terrorist attack called “Closed Circuit” to be followed by a panel discussion moderated by the Founder and Executive Director of the Institute of Counter-Terrorism at Reichman University Prof. Boaz Ganor. The panelists included Tal Inbar, the director of the film, Shalom Ben Hanan, a former senior official from the #Shabak, and Hagi Klein, a survivor and hero who attempted to stop the attackers and was injured in the process.
The scotch would have to wait….
If the conference until then had been theoretical, what followed next, felt like the student in Counter-Terrorism’s “practical” as one transited from the “Ivory Tower” of academia to a real tower – the ground floor of a high-rise in Tel Aviv. This was the 2016 setting of terrorist attack in the city’s upscale Sarona Market and the locale of the documentary that I was about to experience as much as view
In introducing “Closed Circuit”, Prof. Ganor began with the analogy of how people of a certain age would know where they were, “when they first heard the news of the assignation of President John Kenney” or earlier “the Japanese attack on People Habour” or more recently “the attacks on 9/11,” so too Israelis, particularly residents of Tel Aviv when the news broke of this attack. I recalled when Breaking News came onto all the Israeli TV channels that evening of the 8 June 2016, it was believed that some terrorists were still at large. It was uncertain how many terrorists were involved. The appeal from law enforcement to stay indoors to allow the police to search the city and to not open front doors until you were certain who was there, only contributed to the panic.
“The city that never sleeps” was living up to its reputation but for different reasons.
All these recollections came back to me as the movie rolled.
Directed by Tel Aviv-based award-winning independent filmmaker Tal Inbar, the documentary uses security camera footage – much of it taken on the night of the 2016 terror attack. It captures the two Palestinian gunmen dressed in suits and ties, who soon after they sat down at a table at the chocolate restaurant ‘Max Brenner’ in the Sarona Market, got up and opened fire on the patrons, killing four and injuring over twenty. I felt I was not only watching this movie but was in the movie – being part of the terrorist attack. The viewer is constantly confronted with how he or she would have reacted when the first shots were fired. There was one crazy scene when someone ran out still carrying his uneaten chocolate pancake, and when he met up with his friend, believing they were safe, asked:
“What shall we do?,
The friend incongruously replied, “Let’s eat the pancake!”
The comment in the audience behind me was, “Israelis!”
People laughed; they could just as easily have cried.
We know of the pancake response, because interspersed with the chilling security camera (CT) footage, survivors of the attack are interviewed at the very scene of the attack. They take you back six years earlier revealing why they were at Max Brenner that night; what followed, their thoughts during the attack and how all these years later, how their lives were affected. No on in the attack from patrons to waiters were unscathed.
There is 22-year-old Lihi Ben Ari, who was fourteen at the time of the attack who went with her father to Max Brenner that evening. Her parents were divorced and while her mother had argued “with my dad to postpone our outing, he was persistent in taking me out.” When the shooting started, he pushed me to a safer place but it cost him his life. He took a bullet in the back. As the events of that evening came back so rolled the tears. She no longer had a father!
Then there was the hero, Hagi Klein, who fought back instinctively by grabbing a chair and smashing it over one of the terrorist. In this way, he slowed the attack and saved many lives. Klein makes an interesting observation to a question from Prof. Ganor in the panel discussion that, “often in such terror attacks in Israel, the terrorist shouts Allah Akbar (God is great) to explain and justify their action. Here, they just started shooting. There was no warning.”
There is a message here – while there are profiles and patterns, every terrorist attack is different with its own characteristics.
Then there is the cop who unknowingly saves one of the terrorists who being dressed in a suit, thought him to be a patron. Restaurant workers – who are both Arab and Jewish – are interviewed and reveal how their lives were changed forever by their sudden encounter with death.
Breaking the Ramadan fast that fateful evening was an Arab family.
The father sadly recounts the events and the “complicated” feeling of being Arab caught up in a terrorist attack perpetrated by Arabs. No members of his family were lost that evening but he did lose his marriage. “My wife said I changed; I was never the same.”
What this documentary exposes is the complex anatomy of a terror attack. For one thing, don’t characterize a terror attack only by the number of fatalities – in this case four. The ‘survivors’ remain forever haunted. Some survive with scarred bodies, others with scarred souls.
I did have my scotch later that evening. It was hardly soothing. I reflected on the discussions at the Conference up to that day, on how effectively countering terrorism required countries around the world to come together and agree on what constituted terrorism. After all, how does one devise counter terrorism strategies if you have ambiguity on what terrorism is and who the terrorists are. There has to be a consensus definition.
The perpetrators in the 2016 attack at Max Brenner were Khalid al-Muhamra and Muhammad Ahmad Moussa Mahmara, 21-year-old cousins from the West Bank who by their own admissions, had been inspired by Islamic State propaganda videos. Their attack actually began in Beersheba where they intended to catch a train to Tel Aviv and start shooting passengers. Their admitted reasoning was that there would be no escape on a train thus maximizing the carnage. Deterred by the visibly strict security at the Beersheba railway station, they switched plans and took a cab arriving at HaShalom Railway Station in Tel Aviv where they asked locals:
“Where are there good places to eat where there are lots of people?”
They were directed to Sarona. On arrival, they gravitated to the popular and crowded Max Brenner.
Shortly thereafter, the area was chaos with four people dead and many wounded.
Yes, this was obviously a terrorist attack but not so obvious to the world media if one goes by their initial headline reportage.
CNN on its Facebook page had in its its headline the word “terrorists” in quotations, as if the explanation for the carnage was up for academic speculation. Adding insult to injury, CNN failed to mention terrorism even once in the article reporting the ordeal.
Similarly, the British news network SKY also neglected to use the word “terror” or “terrorism” in their report of the attack at Sarona.
In keeping with not offending Arabs at the expense of Israeli sensitivities, the BBC‘s headline read:
“Tel Aviv shooting: Three killed in attack in shopping centre attack”.
Could the perpetrators be disgruntled shoppers unhappy with the customer service?
The BBC report markedly avoided the keywords that would have factually characterised what had horribly happened in the heart of Tel Aviv.
Clearly a pattern was all too evident.
Not to be outdone, The Telegraph as well as The Guardian also labeled the terror attack as “shooting” incidences in their headlines.
While CNN later – following a public outcry – issued an apology via Twitter calling their use of quotation marks around the word terrorist in their news headline “a mistake” and admitted in a subsequent press release that “The attacks were, without question, terrorist attacks,” the damage had been done.
I look forward to future World Summits on Counter-Terrorism that see media personalities from top TV news network and senior correspondents from influential papers not merely covering the Conference but participating in the discussions. They need to be part of the conversation.
Afterall, the “mistakes” admitted to in 2016 still happen too frequently to be “mistakes”.
While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves. LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).