An Israeli woman is taken out of a bank in the town of Beersheba, Monday, May 20, 2013. A gunman stormed into a bank in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba Monday, killing four people in a gunfight and taking a hostage before killing himself, police said. (AP Photo/Dudu Greenspan)
Customers and employees at a Bank Hapoalim branch in Beer Sheba, Israel were sure a terrorist attack was underway when they heard shots ring out Monday afternoon.
Instead, they were witness to what appears to have been a premeditated shooting carried out by an angry customer.
According to Israeli media, Itamar Alon, a 40-year-old unemployed customer of the branch, furious that he couldn't get his credit line extended, shot bank employees and customers, killing four and then taking another employee hostage before he killed himself.
Shortly after the branch opened Monday morning, Alon unsuccessfully tried to withdraw money from the ATM machine. He entered the bank to ask for a further line of credit in the amount of $1,640, but due to his large overdraft he was denied the request.
Israeli television and newspapers reported that Alon then went home where he grabbed his gun along with three magazines of ammunition. Police sources told Israeli media that the trip home along with the large amount of bullets demonstrated his premeditated intentions to carry out a lethal attack.
Upon returning to the bank, he shot dead the bank manager Avner Cohen, 44, who had just recently begun working in that position, his loan officer Meir Zeitoun, 40, and two customers Anat Even Haim, 34, and Idan Shnitzer Savri, 22.
An eyewitness told Israel Channel 2 that he saw Alon shoot some of his victims twice, making sure that they were dead.
After his shooting spree, Alon took bank employee Miri Cohen hostage. Cohen told Channel 2 that she had been hiding under the desk with two customers when Alon found her and pulled her to the bathroom into which he locked the two of them. From inside the bathroom, Cohen said she could hear police outside the window trying to negotiate with her captor.
Describing her ordeal, Cohen said the shooter warned her to stay silent else he will shoot her. "A second later the gun was drawn in my face," she recounted.
Locked in the bathroom with the shooter, Cohen was sure she would not escape with her life.
"Thank God, it was a miracle," she said. After an hour, Alon told her to turn around with her face to the wall. "I said 'that's it, this is the end of me,' and then I lowered my head and didn't look at him and he put the gun in his mouth, I couldn't see, but I heard a shot."
Following the hour-long standoff, Alon shot and killed himself after which Cohen ran outside to safety.
Israeli media quoted police sources who described Alon as a former captain in the border police and a former security coordinator for Beersheba schools.
He was once awarded a medal by the former mayor of Beersheba for showing bravery during a terrorist attack 11 years ago. The Times of Israel reports, "Two terrorists reached an army base in the south and opened fire on soldiers, killing several. Alon, then an officer in the army, rushed to the scene and returned fire on the terrorists, helping to kill one of them."
Because of his past work in the security field, Alon was eligible for a gun permit, though it had once been temporarily revoked. As in the aftermath of mass shootings that have occurred in the U.S., the issue of gun control is already being publicly debated. In Israel, there are tight limits on those who are licensed to own a gun. Only 2.5 percent of the population can legally carry a firearm, according to the Times of Israel, which describes the emerging debate:
In the wake of Monday's killings at a Beersheba bank [...] Israeli authorities intend to further tighten regulations to reduce the number of civilians eligible to keep guns, media reports said Monday night.
The killer, Itamar Alon, had a permit for the gun he used in the rampage, but had done no work that required such a permit for the past decade, Channel 2 news reported.
Alon had served in the IDF, receiving a citation for his role in preventing a terrorist attack in the city during the Second Intifada, then in the Border Police, and subsequently as a security officer for Beersheba educational institutions. But he had not worked in security for years, and was unemployed. "There was no reason for him to have been allowed to retain his gun permit," Channel 2 reported, quoting police sources.
Former police commissioner Moshe Karadi said Monday night that the bank killings marked one of the worst incidents of its kind in decades, but that the police are encountering a relentless rise in violent crime, and have been working for years to reduce the number of gun permits. Police sources quoted by Channel 2 said this effort would now intensify under the supervision of the Ministry of Public Security, which is in charge of both the police force and the licensing of civilian firearms, with Monday's killings serving to underline the imperative.
Extensive screening is required of those applying for gun permits, including a police background check and a medical form to be signed by a physician.
The Times of Israel reports, "The form consists of 24 questions, ranging from a patient's physical health to his or her history of substance abuse and psychiatric care. Some 170,000 Israeli citizens are licensed to carry a weapon; of these, 40,000 are security guards who work in supermarkets, malls and schools."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the shooting was a "tragedy." Though Israel has extensive experience with Palestinian terrorist attacks, the kind of mass shooting that occurred in the bank is rare. According to Israel Radio, Netanyahu said he "doesn't remember an incident like this, certainly not in the last few years."