JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel’s gay community was rocked on Sunday by the killing of two people in a homosexual and lesbian youth center and the possibility they fell victim to a hate crime in the Jewish state’s most freewheeling city.
“The biggest shock is to think that it happened in Tel Aviv, which is the most tolerant city in the country,” said Avi Sofer, a gay rights activist.
Witnesses said a masked gunman clad in black opened fire on Saturday night in a basement club belonging to the Tel Aviv Gay and Lesbian Association, which was hosting a weekly event for teenage gays.
The attacker killed a 26-year-old man and a 16-year-old girl and wounded 13 people before fleeing, hospital officials said.
“He simply fired all over the place,” Or Gil, 16, told the YNet news website. “At first I thought it was prank, or a toy gun. After the killings, it was quiet, completely silent and then people came to help the wounded.”
Police said they were still searching for the attacker and that the shooting was not an anti-Israeli attack by a Palestinian but gave no other details, citing a court order banning publication of details of the investigation.
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said the motive for the shooting was still unclear.
If the incident proves to be a hate crime, it will mark the most serious attack against the gay community in Israel’s history.
Condemning what he called a “horrific killing,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet: “We are a tolerant, democratic country governed by the rule of law and we must respect each and every person.”
Although coastal, cosmopolitan Tel Aviv has a bustling gay scene, open homosexuality is less welcome in conservative areas.
Annual gay pride parades in Jerusalem meet with often violent protests from ultra-Orthodox Jews, who view homosexuality as an abomination against God.
Four years ago, an ultra-Orthodox Jew stabbed three parade participants in Jerusalem. They survived. The attacker is serving a 12-year prison term.
Nitzan Horowitz, an openly gay legislator, said he had no doubt there was a connection between the latest killings and what he termed incitement against the gay community in Israel.
“We demand that the government put an end to this hate campaign and that the Education Ministry institute proper information and education at schools in order to prevent the recurrence of such shameful events,” Horowitz said.
Despite anti-gay sentiments among some religious Jews in Israel, gays serve openly in the military. Israel accords same-sex couples a measure of legal recognition and cohabitation rights, though Orthodox religious authorities control formal nuptials in the country.
An 18-year-old woman, who gave her name only as Alona, said she ran outside at the sound of gunfire.
“Because this is a very open-minded city, there’s a place for us (to meet),” she said of the youth club.
“But there are also those who don’t like us.”
Additional reporting by Ori Lewis; editing by Andrew Roche