TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisian authorities opened an investigation Wednesday into a shooting attack at a synagogue that killed two Jewish pilgrims and three members of the country's security forces. The motive of the gunman, whom guards killed before he could enter the building on the island of Djerba, remained unclear.
The island's historic Ghriba synagogue, thought to be one of the world’s oldest Jewish temples, is a popular pilgrimage destination, but it was unknown if the assailant, a member of the Tunisian National Guard, specifically targeted Jews in Tuesday's attack.
The death toll from the attack rose to five Wednesday when a police guard who was hospitalized in the immediate aftermath died of his wounds, according to a medical official cited by Tunisia's TAP news agency. Four other members of Tunisia's security forces remain hospitalized in Djerba, including one in critical condition.
The chair of the synagogue's committee, Perez Trabelsi, was in the house of worship during the attack and told The Associated Press of his terror “when the sound of the cartridges broke out.”
“I was scared, as were most of the people gathered in the ‘oukala,’ a large space adjacent to the synagogue. Everyone was panicked. Many took refuge in the rooms for fear of being hit by the shots that came from outside,” he said.
The synagogue attracted more pilgrims this year — around 6,000 people from the United States, Canada, Australia, Europe and beyond — than it had for some time, Trabelsi said. He said he was saddened that the pilgrimage to the site that is revered in Judaism “was spoiled by those who wish Tunisia harm.”
Israeli and Tunisian authorities and family members identified the civilian victims as cousins: Aviel Haddad, 30, who held dual Tunisian and Israeli citizenship, and Benjamin Haddad, 42, who was French. Four civilians were also wounded, the Tunisian Interior Ministry said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was sorry to hear that two “members of our people” were killed in Djerba. “On behalf of myself and the government of Israel, I send condolences from the bottom of my heart to the families of the murdered,” he said in a statement.
The assailant, a guardsman affiliated with the naval center in the island's port town of Aghir, first killed a colleague with his service weapon before seizing ammunition and heading toward the Ghriba synagogue, the Tunisian Interior ministry said.
When he reached the site, he opened fire on security units stationed at the temple. The guards fired back, killing him before he reached the entrance, the ministry said.
Jews have lived on Djerba, a picturesque island off the southern coast of Tunisia, since 500 B.C. The first Jewish arrivals were said to have brought a stone from the ancient temple of Jerusalem that was destroyed by the Babylonians.
The stone is kept in a grotto at the synagogue. Women and children descend into the grotto to place eggs scrawled with wishful messages on them.
Djerba’s Jewish population is one of North Africa’s biggest, although in recent years it declined to 1,500, down from 100,000 in the 1960s.
Most left following the 1967 war between Israel and Arab countries, and the economic policies adopted by the government in the late 1960s also drove away many Jewish business owners.
Djerba, a dusty island of palm trees and olive groves, lures hundreds of thousands of tourists every year — mainly Germans and French — for its sandy beaches and rich history. The Ghriba synagogue itself, said to date to 586 B.C., once drew up to 2,000 visitors per day, Jewish leaders have said.
The French Foreign Ministry expressed its “deep sadness” at the attack. In a statement, the ministry paid tribute to the “rapid intervention of the Tunisian security forces and stands by Tunisia to continue the fight against antisemitism and all forms of fanaticism.”
Israeli Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli noted that “unfortunately, the incident was preceded by a tense period of shouts and harassment of the Jewish community at the site,” according to his office.
Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen spoke with Tunis Chief Rabbi Haim Bitan, and “told him that Israel stands alongside the community in this difficult hour.” He said he instructed ministry officials to provide all needed aid. Israel and Tunisia don’t have formal diplomatic relations.
The European Jewish Congress expressed its “shock and outrage”.
“Terror attacks continue to target Jews around the world even when they are gathered in prayer, as we know from countless experiences over the years including at this very synagogue,” Congress President Ariel Muzicant said in a statement.
Former Tourism Minister René Trabelsi told Tunisian radio station Mosaique FM that he was at the Ghriba synagogue with family members during the attack. He described the place as almost empty because most visitors had already left the site.
“The shooting was heavy and the attacker tried to enter the synagogue compound,” he said. “The counterterrorism officers, who were extremely professional, quickly blocked all exits. A carnage was thus avoided.”
Aviel Haddad’s sister, Rona, told Israel’s Kan public radio that the entire family had immigrated to Israel from Tunisia, and that her brother, a jeweler, traveled to Djerba frequently.
She said that she and her family tried unsuccessfully for hours after the attack to contact him and later learned the news through family friends. She said the family intended to bury her brother in Israel.
The president of the Israelite Consistory of the southern French city of Marseille, Michel Cohen-Tenoudji, said Benjamin Haddad, a father of four, was a well-known, very active member of the local Jewish community.
“He was running a kosher bakery in the city center and was known for offering Shabbat bread to people in need,” Cohen-Tenoudji told French media. “The family is devastated. On a personal level, I feel indignation, horror and sorrow.”
In 2002, a truck bombing killed about 20 people at the entrance to the same temple during the annual Jewish pilgrimage. Al-Qaida claimed that attack, whose victims included German and French tourists as well as Tunisians.
In 2015, an attack in Tunisia at the Mediterranean resort of Sousse killed 38 people, mostly British tourists. The Islamic State group claimed the attack, along with attacks that year on the famed Bardo Museum in the capital Tunis and on a bus carrying presidential guards.
___ Thomas Adamson reported from Paris. Sylvie Corbet in Paris, and Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem, contributed to this story.