"Everything was quiet until it was all disrupted in the afternoon," said Yariv Kedar, who was inside Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall when the terrorist attack began on Saturday. "All of a sudden I heard the sounds of large explosions and shooting from every direction. A group of motorcyclists were at the entrance to the mall and started shooting wildly toward the entrance," said Kedar, who was holding a business meeting with a Kenyan local at one of the mall's cafes. Westgate mall has four Israeli-owned restaurants, each employing Israelis.
Kedar, 53, originally from the Sde Hemed community in the Sharon region, has been living in the Kenyan capital for the past seven years and is the vice chairman of Amiran Kenya Ltd., an Israeli agriculture company.
Speaking to Israel Hayom from Nairobi, Kedar said that "as they breached the entrance the attackers shouted in Arabic. I didn't understand what they were saying. It was later explained to me that they were telling all of the Muslims to leave the mall. My immediate reaction was to lie on the floor to protect myself, and that's what I did. The local woman who was with me did the same, too, but a European man at the table next to us, who actually stood instead of staying low, was hit right away by a bullet and fell."
To Kedar's great luck, the balcony where he was sitting was adjacent to the outer wall of the mall. "I lay on the floor for half an hour knowing that they could reach me at any moment. That whole time I heard explosions, apparently from grenades they were throwing inside the mall, crazy shooting with automatic weapons and the screams of the wounded.
"The entire time I was thinking of how to get myself out of that hell," Kedar recounted. "I understood it was a terrorist attack and not a robbery, and I decided to hide my Israeli identity -- documents, driver's license, passport, ID, etc. I managed to call several senior Israeli representatives with my cell phone and tell them what was happening."
According to Kedar, Kenyan security forces only arrived half an hour after the attack began and moved slowly. "Even before I got myself out I managed to contact another Israeli who was in the mall, a manger of five stores, and he told me he was okay. At this point I managed to quickly crawl with my phone and the woman who was with me from the cafe's balcony to a small gate leading to the street, and from there out of the danger area. It was then that I saw how many wounded there were in this horrible terrorist attack. There were mothers running out of the mall carrying their children and wounded people taken out in shopping carts."
In the meantime, a delegation from the Israeli embassy had arrived at the mall and joined the situation room set up by the Nairobi police. Israeli Ambassador to Kenya Gil Haskel was out of town, but his deputy, Yaki Lopez, and the embassy's security officer were in the situation room.
"There are always a large number of Israelis in the mall," Lopez told Israel Hayom. Of the Israelis inside the mall at the time of the attack, there was serious concern for the safety of four of them, until they were eventually found.
Lopez told the stories of an Israeli chef at one of the Israeli-owned restaurants, who heard the shooting and hid in the storage room until he found the right moment to escape; and another Israeli who suffered light shrapnel wounds in his lower limbs. He was taken to a local hospital, but the Israeli consul in Nairobi, Sima Amitai, decided to transfer him to her home for the reminder of his treatment. Deputy Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Ilana Stein said the incident was a domestic Kenyan matter, and that the attackers' objective was not to specifically target Israelis.
Another Israeli, working in agriculture for a European company and who preferred to remain anonymous, told Israel Hayom of his concern: "The 'Artcaffe' coffee shop located in Westgate Mall is always packed with Israelis. I know of several of them who were there when the attack began, but luckily they were able to get out of there in time."
Like Kedar, he said he was not surprised by the manner in which the local authorities handled the affair, describing it as "slow and inefficient."
"As a rule of thumb," he said, "I think that we, the Israelis, keep our fingers on the pulse more than others perhaps. This is what helped in this event."
Regarding the possibility that Israelis were targeted, the man said "there is lots of speculation about that. What is certain is that the attackers were aiming at Western targets. It is the most Westernized mall in Nairobi and it has the strongest connection to Israelis."
Regarding speculation that the mall itself is Israeli owned, he said, "I know with certainty that the mall is owned by an Israeli Jew, but I won't reveal his identity. He is an Israeli of South African descent, whose entire life and business enterprise is in Africa. The locals know he owns the mall."
Al-Shabab ("The Youth" or "The Boys" in Arabic), the organization that carried out the attack, is an al-Qaida affiliated Somali rebel group that controls wide stretches of territory in southern Somalia. The organization is believed to have some 14,500 fighters. After its defeat in 2006 by the Somali Transitional Federal Government, the group, an offshoot of the Islamic Courts Union, splintered into several smaller factions and declared a jihad against the enemies of Islam. Last year, al-Shabab declared its allegiance to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, effectively making the organization al-Qaida's Somali branch.