Two worshipers were killed when a Tunisian naval officer opened fire at a synagogue on the island of Djerba Tuesday night, as hundreds of Jews held an annual pilgrimage there, Tunisian authorities said.
The victims from among the worshipers were identified as Aviel Hadad, a 30-year-old dual citizen of Tunisia and Israel living in Netivot, Israel, and his 42-year-old cousin, Benjamin Haddad, a French-Jewish businessman living in France, the chairwoman of the World Federation of Tunisian Jewry in Israel, Dr. Miryam Gez-Avigal, told The Times of Israel.
A guard was also killed in the brazen attack on the heavily secured El Ghriba synagogue, and nine others, including four civilians, were injured, the Tunisian Interior Ministry said early Wednesday.
Some news reports said four were killed in the attack, including a second guard, though it was unclear if that was the shooter or a victim.
According to the ministry, the officer, affiliated with the National Guard naval center in the town of Aghir on Djerba, first turned his service weapon on a colleague, then grabbed more ammunition and made his way to the synagogue.
When he reached the area, he began shooting wildly at security units stationed at the synagogue, who responded with gunfire, killing him. The synagogue was locked down and those inside were kept secure, the ministry said.
Authorities are probing what led to the attack.
“Investigations are continuing in order to shed light on the motives for this cowardly aggression,” the ministry said, refraining from referring to the shooting as a terrorist attack.
Videos surfaced online shortly after the attack showing alarmed worshipers inside the synagogue, where hundreds of Jews from France, Israel and beyond were celebrating the Lag B’Omer holiday along with the tiny local Jewish community.
Ghayda Thabet, a member of the Tunisian Association for the Support of Minorities, was at the El Ghriba synagogue and appealed for help on Facebook. “They are shooting with live ammunition. Help us,” she pleaded in a post.
Tunisian authorities maintain a permanent presence around the synagogue, situated near a part of the island where hundreds of Jews live. Security is beefed up during Jewish holidays and especially on Lag B’Omer.
Every year, Jews from around the world convene on Djerba for the Hilula of Ghriba – a feast that features a festive procession on or near Lag B’Omer. The procession traditionally ends at the El Ghriba synagogue, thought to have been established by Jews fleeing persecution some 2,500 years ago.
The current building was constructed in the 19th century and is sometimes referred to as the oldest existing synagogue in Africa, according to Georgetown University’s Berkley Center.
Some 5,000 people were taking part in this year’s pilgrimage, French outlet BMFTV reported, citing organizers.
Many of those visiting were from France, which has a large community of Tunisian Jews. The French embassy in Tunisia said it opened an emergency hotline for pilgrims following the shooting.
US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller condemned the incident early Wednesday, tweeting: “The United States deplores the attack in Tunisia coinciding with the annual Jewish pilgrimage that draws faithful to the El Ghriba Synagogue from around the world.”
“We express condolences to the Tunisian people and commend the rapid action of Tunisian security forces,” he added.
On Saturday, Tunisia’s Interior Ministry posted a video showing Minister Kamel Feki reviewing security arrangements on Djerba ahead of the pilgrimage.
Al-Qaeda terrorists set off an explosion outside the El Ghriba Synagogue in 2002, killing 20 people, including 14 German tourists.