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IDF Fired on from Syrian Golan for Third Day Straight

By Israel Hayom & Reuters

Israeli troops shot at a target across the Syrian border early Tuesday in response to gunfire that struck an Israel Defense Forces jeep in the central Golan Heights, the IDF said in a statement. The statement said an Israeli military vehicle was damaged by shots fired from Syria, but there were no injuries. It said that soldiers "returned precise fire," confirming that the source of the fire was hit. The IDF patrol was hit with small-arms fire near the Hizka outpost along the border fence in the central Golan Heights.

A statement from the Syrian army, published on the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), said that the Syrian army had "destroyed an Israeli vehicle with everyone in it" which entered Syria through the Golan Heights border. The IDF denied the Syrian report, which came about six hours after the cross-border exchange of fire early on Tuesday morning.

Gunfire incidents across the frontier from Syria have recurred in past months during the escalating civil war there in which rebels have sought to topple President Bashar al-Assad. However, Tuesday's incident was the third consecutive cross-border shooting this week and points to an escalation of events. IDF artillery units returned fire shortly after the latest incident with a Tammuz guided missile, destroying the source of the fire.

Army Radio reported that the assessment in the IDF is that the fire coming over the Syrian border over the last three nights is not spillover from intra-Syrian fighting but is fire directed at the IDF forces in the area. The IDF statement said Israel viewed these incidents "with concern."

On Tuesday, IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz warned that Israel was constantly at risk of being sucked into a "security deterioration in our region at any moment, a deterioration which could rapidly spin out of control. Not a day goes by when we are not faced with decisions which could lead us to a sudden and out of control deterioration. This is the situation that will accompany us in the near term and we need to be more alert because of it," Gantz said, touring the Golan Heights to inspect forces there.

Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said: "Our policy is clear – we don't interfere in Syria's civil war, but neither will we let the fire spill over onto our territory. Last night," he added, "we destroyed a Syrian army position on the Golan which fired at an IDF patrol." He spoke during a tour of naval facilities in Atlit and Haifa.

Bank Shooter Flew into Fit of Rage After Being Denied Loan

By Israel Hayom

It took just one man's fit of madness to turn the small Bank Hapoalim branch on Johanna Jabotinsky Street in the Neve Zeev neighborhood of Be'er Sheva into the site of a bloodbath on Monday.

Bloodstains on the floor and walls, dozens of bullet casings and overturned chairs all bore silent, devastating witness to the cruelty that had transpired in the bank. Itamar Alon, a Be'er Sheva resident in his 40s, had been refused a loan he needed to cover a debt, and subsequently opened fire indiscriminately at bank employees and patrons. He murdered four people, grabbed a woman as hostage and barricaded himself inside the bank before turning the gun on himself.

"I entered the bank at around 12:30 p.m. to take out some cash," said Remo Vaaknin, 21, one of the survivors. "I walked up to the teller and suddenly I heard someone yell 'robbery' and then I heard gunshots. I lay down under the counter, turned off my mobile phone so it wouldn't draw attention to me, and stayed motionless. I saw a man with a gun and two magazines shoot two bullets at a woman next to me. No one tried to resist, everyone was lying down. He was shooting in every direction, and never demanded anything. Someone lay on top of me and saved my life. I recited the 'Shemah Israel' prayer and God heard me."

Vaaknin was hit by police, who mistook him for the shooter. "When everything was all over, the police jumped me and started beating me," he said. "They put handcuffs on me and only after my employer told a high-ranking police officer that I was his worker did they realize their mistake and let me go. I feel that I was victimized twice."

Michal Ben-Sheetrit, a bank employee, said that during the shooting she silenced her mobile phone and sent messages to her family about the shooting. "My office is surrounded by windows, and when I heard the shots I crouched under my desk so I wouldn't be seen," she said. "I opened all the desk drawers so that no one would see that I was there. I hid in silence. I didn't breathe."

In a text message she sent to her husband, and then to her daughter, she wrote, "I am hiding. Help me." Ben-Sheetrit's daughter wrote back: "I love you," to which Ben-Sheetrit replied: "Me too. I'm not moving."

The police believe that Alon, who did not have a criminal record, went on a premeditated revenge spree. The initial investigation revealed that Alon, who lived close to the bank, went to the bank twice on Monday: the first time at 9 a.m. and then again at 11:30 a.m. Since the branch is relatively small, with only five employees, it is not required to have a security guard. But the network of security cameras documented the entire chilling event.

During his first visit to the bank, Alon asked for a 6,000 shekel ($1,600) loan to cover a debt, but the bank turned him down. Witnesses later said an argument erupted and they saw Alon leave the bank in a rage. The investigation revealed that Alon returned to the bank at 11:30 a.m., carrying a 45 mm Glock pistol, which he was licensed to carry. He also brought two ammunition magazines. "This was a professional marksman, who, according to police records, was a law-abiding citizen who also held a license to open a shooting range," a senior police officer said.

During his second visit, Alon and the bank employees continued to argue, and the bank continued to refuse his loan. No one imagined that the refusal would spark an unbridled killing spree.

At 12:59 p.m., passersby heard gunshots and immediately reported them to police. At 1:03 p.m., four police detectives arrived and tried to enter the bank, but Alon opened fire on them and continued firing shots inside. Several minutes later, the Be'er Sheva police commander arrived with several additional officers and together they stormed the bank and began combing the building.

"The scene was terrible. At first it was unclear whether it was a terror attack or a robbery. We saw a body and another body and another body, and terrified people in between," one policeman said.

Kobi Azoulay, the owner of a nearby kiosk, described what he had seen: "I heard gunfire, so I moved closer, about 50 meters from the bank. I saw a tall guy. He looked at me. I saw a body at the entrance. The guy approached the body and shot several more rounds at it. I yelled out to him, 'What are you doing?' but he didn't answer me, and hid behind a wall."

Large police forces and emergency medical services rushed to the scene, and the gunfire continued for several minutes. At one point, police saw that Alon had pulled Miri Cohen, a bank employee, into the bathroom, where he locked the door and held her hostage.

Cohen later described the harrowing ordeal: "They called to him, 'Come out or we'll shoot,' and he said, 'I have a hostage.' They said, 'Come out, we won't hurt you.'" Alon refused to emerge and barricaded himself with Cohen for about an hour. The police summoned negotiations teams and a SWAT team. But Alon told Cohen to turn toward the wall and then shot himself in the mouth.

A short distance, only 200 meters (650 feet), separates Alon's house from the Bank Hapoalim branch. But Alon's path into loss of reason was much longer. His neighbors described him as a strange man. "I have lived here for five years. My window overlooks his window," said Yael Azoulay. "I saw him walking around anxiously a lot at night, pacing around the balcony and singing songs. He seemed a little strange." Another neighbor, Galit, described him as unkempt, with a beard and a hat. Others said his brothers feared him because he was violent.

Two years ago, Alon's strange behavior turned dangerous when he lost his temper and began pulling apart his neighbors' air conditioners. The neighbors summoned the police and Alon, formerly a Border Police officer, was arrested and his gun confiscated. Alon demanded that his gun, for which he had a license, be returned to him. He even appealed to the courts, arguing that if the families of the terrorists that he had apprehended during his time in the Border Police were to learn that he was unarmed, his death would be a "near certainty." Following an additional evaluation, the court recommended that his weapon be restored to him.

Alon served in the combat engineering corps in the Israel Defense Forces, and was then transferred to a Border Police unit in Tulkarem, where he took part in joint patrols with the Palestinian Authority police. After completing his service, Alon worked as a security officer at the Be'er Sheva municipality, and, until 2002, was considered an outstanding employee.

One of Alon's friends, who asked to remain anonymous, said, "This was a man who helped people during his army service and saved lives during a terror attack. I can't comprehend how a person like that could decide to do something like this. He must have been really desperate." If indeed he was desperate, the source of his desperation may be something that happened after his display of heroism during a 2002 terror attack in which he allegedly helped to kill two terrorists. After the terror attack, Alon's behavior began to deteriorate and his performance at work began to suffer. From a lawsuit he himself filed after being fired from his security position, it emerged that his employers were initially very pleased with his performance, but after 2002 his behavior took a turn for the worse and more and more people began filing complaints against him for poor human relations and failure to perform his job.

One of the workers at a school where Alon worked as a security officer told the court that Alon "wasn't available. His responses were very explicit. He wasn't attentive to people around him, he had very fixed ideas and he made our jobs more difficult. I thought his job was to provide us with a service, but we learned that we had to accept his views without argument while he was unwilling to hear ours."

One of the attorneys who worked on the case said that Alon was "a little strange, and had trouble accepting authority." In Purim 2003, before the end of the Second Intifada, Alon arrived at the school where he worked dressed up as a terrorist, wearing a fake explosive belt. The school principal was not amused, and she summoned him for a meeting. During their talk, Alon reportedly threatened her.

In the lawsuit, Alon claimed that he had been fired from his job because he had uncovered corruption and filed complaints against his superiors. The judge presiding over the case rejected Alon's claims and penalized him. "The plaintiff's poor human relations with the people around him are plausible justification for his dismissal," the judge wrote in his ruling.

Alon eventually encountered financial trouble. On the day of the shooting, Alon apparently tried to take money out of an ATM, but his card was confiscated by the machine. He entered the bank to sort out his debt, but was turned away. Two hours later, his parents heard gunshots. They didn't know it was their son who was doing the shooting.

Bodies of Two Young Girls Found Near Arad

By Ha'aretz

The bodies of two young girls were found Tuesday night in a Bedouin village near the southern city of Arad. The girls, from a nearby Bedouin tribe, were found in a home in al-Pora'a, near the Ran Grove along Route 31 leading to Arad. They were aged 3 and 5. Authorities believe the girls were strangled.

Israel Police said there were signs of violence on the bodies, and that they are investigating whether the girls were murdered by a family member. A large police force headed Tuesday night to the area where the bodies were found.

A medical crew was rushed to the scene following a report on two unconscious girls. Once the team arrived a paramedic determined that they were dead, probably strangled to death. The bodies had markings indicating the girls were violently attacked. "The scene was shocking and horrifying," a member of the medical team said. The police rushed a mobile crime lab to investigate the crime.

Residents of Al-Fura – an unrecognized Bedouin village located near the town of Kseifa, west of Arad, that is home to some 28 extended families from several different Bedouin tribes – said the children were found by another girl who lives in the village. Their father is living someplace in the center of the country, the residents said, and their mother wasn't in the village at the time. "We don't know exactly what happened," said one. "We hope the police will uncover the truth as quickly as possible."

Arab Cult Leader Beat Children, Women, Stole Money


A Nazareth court on Tuesday extended the remand of the Arab leader of a cult in northern Israel. Munir Farhat, the 56 year old leader of what police said was a destructive cult, allegedly led a group of six families in teaching parents that the only way to discipline children was by abusing them, to imprison them in closets for long hours, and even to paint their faces with excrement.

Farhat and the families are residents of Majd al-Krum, a Muslim town in the Galilee. The cult's activities extended for more than a decade, police said. Police arrested Farhat several weeks ago, but news of the arrest was released only on Tuesday.

Besides abusing children, Farhat instructed husbands to beat their wives. Women in the cult were forced to donate their time to Farhat, including cleaning his house – and if he was dissatisfied, he would beat the victims and lock them up in a closet for days.

Police said Farhat was also very involved in cult members' personal lives, and he required them to reveal intimate details of their relationships, and of their finances. He also demanded that members turn over their salaries to him, and he distributed allowances to members. Cult members questioned by police said that Farhat tried to foster total dependence on him, and demanded that they loyally follow his every instruction.

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