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Israelis rally after 2 murdered at gay center

Reeling from the worst attack ever aimed at homosexuals in Israel, members of the country's gay community and their supporters rallied Sunday in the heart of Tel Aviv a day after a masked gunman killed two people.
Image: Solidarity gay demonstration in Tel Aviv
Members of the gay community gather for a demonstration in Tel Aviv on Sunday to mourn the two gay youths who were killed in a Tel Aviv club. Pavel Wolberg / EPA
/ Source: The Associated Press

Reeling from the worst attack ever aimed at homosexuals in Israel, members of the country's gay community and their supporters rallied Sunday in the heart of Tel Aviv a day after a masked gunman killed two people at a center for gay youth and escaped.

As protesters with rainbow flags mourned the victims and condemned the homophobic sentiment assumed to be behind the attack, police hunted for the assailant throughout a city that has long prided itself on a live-and-let-live attitude and a thriving gay community.

"I fear that if the man who did this is not found, the consequences to the gay community might be far-reaching — they might live in fear," said Arnon Hirsch, a 47-year-old lawyer who was one of several hundred people who took part in the protest near the center attacked Saturday night.

Hirsch said he is openly gay and does not intend to act differently now. "I have no intention of giving in to terror," he said. "I'm not going to hide anywhere."

'Stop Homophobia'
Outside the center, a bouquet of flowers rested on the curb near barricades erected by police and a sign reading, "Stop Homophobia."

A masked man entered the center for gay teens in downtown Tel Aviv late Saturday night, pulled out a pistol and opened fire, according to Micky Rosenfeld, a police spokesman. The shooter then fled the scene on foot, Rosenfeld said.

Photographs taken inside after the shooting showed bodies lying near a billiard table and a smear of blood on the white-tile floor.

The dead were identified as a 26-year-old man who was a counselor at the center and a 17-year-old girl. Eleven people were wounded, four of them critically.

"I took cover with someone under a table, and he kept firing," 16-year-old Or Gil, who was shot twice in the legs, recounted in news footage aired on the YNet news Web site. "When I got up it was horrifying, I just saw blood."

Jonathan Bower, 23, said he had been in the club before the attack and was outside when the shots began.

"One of my friends came out shouting and screaming, 'He has a gun, he has a gun,'" Bower said.

'Now we are afraid'
Bower said the city's usually uninhibited gay population would have to be more careful now.

"This is a moment when I have to keep a low profile, I have to tone it down, because now we are afraid," he said.

Police slapped a gag order on the case, saying publication of details could compromise their investigation.

Mike Hamel, a gay rights activist whose organization runs the youth club, said the center was meant to be a safe place where gay teens — many of them still concealing their sexual identity from their families and friends — could meet with counselors and other teenagers. He blamed religious incitement against homosexuals for the attack.

"Beyond the pain, the frustration and the anger, we are facing a situation in which the incitement to hate creates an environment that allows this to happen," Hamel said.

The attack drew condemnations from Tel Aviv's mayor, Cabinet ministers, the country's chief rabbis and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"We'll bring him to justice and exercise the full extent of the law against him," Netanyahu said of the killer, speaking at the Israeli Cabinet's weekly meeting.

Nitzan Horowitz, Israel's only openly gay lawmaker, called the attack a "hate crime."

"This is the worst attack ever against the gay community in Israel," he said. "This act was a blind attack against innocent youths, and I expect the authorities to exercise all means in apprehending the shooter."

Gay soldiers serve openly
Israel's gays and lesbians typically enjoy freedoms similar to their counterparts in European countries. Gay soldiers serve openly in the military, and gay musicians and actors are among the country's most popular. Tel Aviv holds a festive annual gay parade, rainbow flags are often seen flying from apartment windows and there is a city-funded community center for gays.

Things are different in conservative Jerusalem, however, where there have been clashes between religious and gay activists. In 2005, an ultra-Orthodox protester stabbed three marchers at a Jerusalem gay parade. Last year, a lawmaker from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party suggested in Parliament that earthquakes were divine punishment for homosexual activity.

The party, whose members have been among the most frequent critics of gays, also issued a statement condemning Saturday's attack.

The youth at the club "go there because it is a refuge of sorts for them," songwriter and gay activist Rona Keinan wrote in the daily Yediot Ahronot. "The very thought that a person might enter that protected space and simply open fire at them is shocking. I just want to cry."

Some of the parents of the wounded teenagers were not aware their children were gay until they were summoned to the hospital Saturday night, said Avi Soffer, 60, a volunteer at the center.

"They didn't even know the kids were coming," Soffer said.