Jewish cousins, three policemen, murdered in Tunisian synagogue attack

A security guard from a nearby base attacked the ancient Djerba synagogue during Lag B’omer festivities, also killing two police guards and injuring nine.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Two Jewish men and three Tunisian police officers were murdered Tuesday night in a synagogue shooting in Djerba, Tunisia.

The ancient El Ghriba synagogue was packed with hundreds of Jews, both locals from the tiny extant community on the island and overseas visitors, including from Israel, who were celebrating Lag B’omer, a minor Jewish holiday that has become a local five-day festival.

According to the Tunisian Interior Ministry, a guard at a nearby naval base fatally shot his colleague before heading towards El Ghriba. He opened fire “indiscriminately” at the personnel securing the site, the ministry said, killing two guards and two worshipers. Nine more people sustained bullet wounds, five guards and four worshipers. The ministry did not give the medical status of those injured.

The assailant was then killed by the police in an exchange of fire. According to one report, this occurred when he was already fleeing the scene.

Social media was full of threads describing the scene,  with people commenting on the “great hysteria” and saying they were “besieged” within the walls of the synagogue.

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In one video uploaded to social media, people appeared to be panicking inside the synagogue while the man holding the camera says “Everyone is closed in,” “everyone is scared,” and repeating the words, “there’s some kind of terror attack going on here.”

The two Jewish victims were cousins, Israel’s Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday, and one of them held Israeli citizenship. Tunisian authorities identified them as a 30-year-old Tunisian and a 42-year-old French national. They were later identified as Aviel and Ben Hadad, who were in the parking lot of the synagogue when they were shot and killed.

The foreign ministry said it was “in contact with the family members of the deceased and is prepared to assist additional Israelis as needed.”

Tunisian authorities, who said the synagogue had been secured, have not yet determined officially that this was a terror attack.

“Investigations are continuing in order to shed light on the motives for this cowardly aggression,” they said in a statement.

Both the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency have been working towards encouraging members of the the local Jewish community to immigrate to Israel, amid growing threats against them in Djerba.

Al Jazeera reported that the attacker was a member of the country’s security forces who had been removed from his position.

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Tunisian security forces allowed the crowds to leave the site a few hours after the incident was over.

El Ghriba is a popular year-round Jewish tourist destination due to its status as Africa’s oldest synagogue. According to legend, the first Jewish settlers came to the island after the destruction of the First Temple. A stone, supposedly from the Temple, lies in a cave in the synagogue complex, and it is believed that eggs placed near it during the Lag B’Omer pilgrimage will help infertile women to conceive.

The site is heavily guarded since Al-Qaeda terrorists blew up a truck bomb at the synagogue in 2002, killing 21 tourists, mostly from Western Europe.

Senior Tunisian officials had attended the synagogue for the opening ceremony Monday night, along with American ambassador Joey Hood and visiting US Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt, in what the ambassador tweeted was an “example of coexistence in Tunisia” that “reinforces our shared commitment to multiculturalism and the protection of religious freedom.”