World

Israel bus station attack: Eritrean mistaken for assailant dies after being shot, mobbed

An Eritrean refugee shot by an Israeli security guard and then attacked by bystanders who mistook him for an assailant in a deadly bus station attack has died of his wounds, hospital officials said Monday.

Security guard mistook man for second assailant

Israeli border police check Palestinians' ID at a checkpoint as they exit the Arab neighbourhood of Issawiyeh in Jerusalem, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2015. New security measures in Israel have placed troops and checkpoints around Palestinian neighbourhoods in east Jerusalem. (Oded Balilty/Associated Press)

An Eritrean refugee shot by an Israeli security guard and then attacked by bystanders who mistook him for an assailant in a deadly bus station attack has died of his wounds, hospital officials said Monday.

The mistaken shooting of the man seemed to capture the current climate of ratcheted up tensions among Israelis after weeks of seemingly random lone-wolf attacks by Palestinians.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the beating, telling members of his Likud Party that Israel is a "law abiding country."

"No one should take the law into their own hands," he said.

Police say that during Sunday night's attack, carried out by an Arab citizen of Israel, a security guard mistakenly identified the Eritrean man as a second attacker. He shot the man, and as he lay on the ground a mob of people cursed him, kicked him and hit him with objects.

Netanyahu offered condolences to the man's family, and police say they are reviewing security camera footage to identify and catch the people who beat the man.

"It's terrible," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon. "It shows you what a terrible situation we are in."

The daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot left no ambiguity as to why it thought the man was shot. An article in Monday's paper was headlined: "Just because of his skin colour."

Discrimination a common complaint

African refugees frequently complain of racial discrimination in Israel.

Israel's Interior Ministry identified the man as Haptom Zerhom, an Eritrean in his late 20s.

Dr. Nitza Neuman-Heiman, deputy general director of Soroka Medical Center, told Army Radio that Zerhom arrived at the hospital in "very serious condition" and died late Sunday from both gunshot wounds to the abdomen and the injuries sustained during attacks by bystanders.

The attack, at the central bus station in the southern city of Beersheba, was among the bloodiest in a month-long wave of violence. A 19-year-old Israeli soldier was killed and nine people were wounded when an Arab assailant armed with a gun and knife opened fire. The attacker was shot dead by police. 

Israeli news websites posted security camera footage that shows Zerhom crawling on the floor and a security guard shooting him. Footage also showed a mob of shouting Israelis crowded around the man as he lay in a pool of blood. A bench was rammed at him and he was kicked in the back of the head, as an Israeli officer and a few bystanders tried to protect him.

An Israeli identified only by the first name Dudu told Israeli Army Radio that he regretted participating in the attack on the Eritrean man.

"I understood from people he was a terrorist. If I would have known he wasn't a terrorist, believe me, I would have protected him like I protect myself," he said. "I didn't sleep well at night. I feel disgusted."

Police are seeking to arrest those Israeli civilians who "aggressively beat" and kicked the Eritrean man "while he lay on the floor and posed no threat," police spokeswoman Luba Samri said.

A wounded Israeli policeman is evacuated from the scene of a bus station that was attacked in Beersheba on Sunday. Israeli police said one Israeli was killed and 11 others were wounded in the attack. (Dudu Grunshpan/Associated Press)

Month of violence

During a month of violence, nine Israelis and the Eritrean have been killed. Forty-one Arabs — including 20 identified by Israel as attackers — have been killed, with the rest dying in clashes with Israeli troops.

The attacks, carried out seemingly at random by attackers with no known membership to organized militant groups, have unnerved Israel.

Zerhom was in Beersheba to renew his Israeli visa, said his employer at a plant nursery, Sagi Malachi.

"He was a modest man, quiet, and he tried to do his job as best as he could," Malachi told The Associated Press. "I can say that he was a dedicated and pleasant employee ... It is heart-breaking, all in all I think that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

About 34,000 Eritrean refugees are in Israel. They say they are fleeing persecution and conflict and seek refugee status. Israel does not grant them refugee status, but does not deport them to Eritrea in line with international law so as not to endanger their lives. Refugees must renew Israeli visas every month or two, according to activists.

Attacker identified

Israeli police identified the assailant as 21 year-old Mohannad al-Okbi, an Arab citizen of Israel, from the Bedouin town of Hura in southern Israel. Security officers arrested one of al-Okbi's relatives on suspicion that he assisted the attacker, Samri said.

The Israeli security agency Shin Bet said the attacker had no past record of involvement in militant activity.

The violence began last month with clashes between young Palestinian men and Israeli forces at the most sensitive holy site in Jerusalem — a hilltop compound revered by both Jews and Muslims. The violence quickly spread to the rest of Jerusalem, across Israel and into the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The clashes were fueled by Palestinian allegations that Israel seeks to change the status quo banning Jewish prayer at the site, allegations Israel denies.

Israel has accused Palestinian and Muslim leaders of inciting violence against Israel. Palestinians say the violence is in response to anger over the Jerusalem holy site and also nearly 50 years of occupation and lack of hope for the future.

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