Police hunt Israel gay club shooter

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The Independent Online

Hundreds of police officers are scouring the streets of Tel Aviv today in a manhunt for a gunman who shot and killed two people at a youth club in the worst ever attack on homosexuals in Israel.

The Tel Aviv shooting shocked the Mediterranean city, which prides itself on its live-and-let-live attitude and boasts a thriving gay community. The brazen attack drew condemnations from the city's mayor, from Cabinet ministers, the country's chief rabbis and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"We'll bring him to justice and exercise the full extent of the law against him," Netanyahu said of the killer, speaking at the Israeli Cabinet's weekly meeting.

A masked man entered a center for gay teens in downtown Tel Aviv late Saturday, pulled out a pistol and shot in all directions, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. The shooter then holstered his pistol and fled the scene on foot into the busy streets of Tel Aviv, Rosenfeld said.

The dead were identified as a 26-year-old man who was a counselor at the youth center, and a 17-year-old girl. Eleven people were wounded, four in serious condition.

"I took cover with someone under a table, and he kept firing," 16-year-old Or Gil, who was shot twice in the legs, recounted in news footage aired on the YNet news Web site.

"When I got up it was horrifying, I just saw blood," he said. Photographs of the scene showed bodies lying near a billiard table and a smear of blood on the white-tile floor.

Nitzan Horowitz, Israel's only openly gay lawmaker, called the attack a "hate crime."

"This is the worst attack ever against the gay community in Israel," he said. "This act was a blind attack against innocent youths, and I expect the authorities to exercise all means in apprehending the shooter."

Police slapped a gag order on the case, saying publication of details could compromise the investigation.

Mike Hamel, a gay rights activist whose organization runs the youth club, said the center served as a safe place where gay teens — many of whom still conceal their sexual identity — could meet with counselors and other teenagers. He blamed religious incitement against homosexuals for the attack.

"Beyond the pain, the frustration and the anger, we are facing a situation in which the incitement to hate creates an environment that allows this to happen," Hamel said.

Israel's gays and lesbians typically enjoy freedoms similar to those of gays in European countries. Gay soldiers serve openly in the military, and openly gay musicians and actors are among the country's most popular. Tel Aviv holds a festive annual gay parade, rainbow flags are often seen flying from apartment windows and there is a city-funded open house for the community.

However, ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders often incite against gays, especially in conservative Jerusalem, where there have been clashes between religious and gay activists. In 2005, an ultra-Orthodox protester stabbed three marchers at a Jerusalem gay parade. Last year, a lawmaker from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party suggested in parliament that earthquakes were divine punishment for homosexual activity.

Shas, whose members have been among the most frequent critics of gays, issued a statement condemning Saturday's attack.

Tel Aviv's mayor, Ron Huldai, pledged that Tel Aviv would continue to maintain its pluralistic nature, and opposition leader Tzipi Livni expressed shock and sorrow, saying the shooting should "awaken society to rid itself of prejudice." President Shimon Peres also condemned what he called a "despicable murder" which "a cultured and enlightened people cannot accept."

Thousands took to the street in an impromptu march after Saturday night's attack to mourn for the victims and call for tolerance. Other demonstrations were planned Sunday in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and other Israeli cities.

The covers of Sunday's newspapers all featured photos of the bloodstained floors of the youth club and headlines such as "Massacre of the Proud Youth" and "Terror Against the Proud Community." Gay celebrities penned guest columns.

The youth at the club "go there because it is a refuge of sorts for them," songwriter and gay activist Rona Keinan wrote in the daily Yediot Ahronot. "The very thought that a person might enter that protected space and simply open fire at them is shocking. I just want to cry."