Palestinians Shot in Hebron, 1994

Why did an Israeli kill 29 Palestinian worshipers in Hebron in 1994?

Kiryat Arba suburb of Hebron

Hebron has a long and rich Jewish history. It was one of the first places where the Patriarch Abraham resided after his arrival in Canaan. King David was anointed in Hebron, where he reigned for seven years. One thousand years later, during the first Jewish revolt against the Romans, the city was the scene of extensive fighting. Jews lived in Hebron almost continuously throughout the Byzantine, Arab, Mameluke, and Ottoman periods. It was only in 1929 — as a result of a murderous Arab pogrom in which 67 Jews were murdered and the remainder were forced to flee — that the city became temporarily an Arab-only city.
During the Jordanian occupation from 1948 to 1967, Jews were not permitted to live in the city, nor -- despite the terms of the 1948 Armistice Agreement -- to visit or pray at the Jewish holy sites in the city. Additionally, the Jordanian authorities and local residents undertook a systematic campaign to eliminate any evidence of the Jewish presence in the city. They razed the Jewish Quarter, desecrated the Jewish cemetery and built an animal pen on the ruins of the Avraham Avinu synagogue After Judea and Samaria were recaptured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, Rabbi Moshe Levinger led a group of ten Jewish families to settle in Hebron and eventually develop Kiryat Arba. The Jews living in Hebron today have deep ideological convictions regarding maintaining the city's Jewish presence. The Book of Genesis relates that Abraham purchased the field where the Ma'arat Hamachpelah, Tomb of the Patriarchs (aka The Cave of Machpelah), is located as a burial place for his wife Sarah. According to Jewish tradition, the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the Matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah are buried in the Tomb. The Tomb, sacred to both Jews and Muslims, is known to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque, and is used for daily prayer services by both religions. Hebron contains many sites of Jewish religious and historical significance, in addition to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. These include the Tombs of Othniel Ben Kenaz (the first Judge of Israel) and Avner Ben Ner (general and confidante to Kings Saul and David), and Ruth and Jesse (great- grandmother and father, respectively, of King David). Victims of the 1929 pogrom, as well as prominent rabbinical sages and community figures, are buried in Hebron's ancient Jewish cemetery. Hebron, with a small number of Jews living in the midst of the now-Arab city, has been the site of many violent incidents. Since 1968 over 24 Jews have been killed by Palestinian Hebronites, including six Jewish yeshiva students who were shot on their way from Sabbath prayers in 1980. Jewish settlers in the area have also been responsible for anti-Palestinian attacks, including the 1983 killing of three Palestinians at the Muslim College of Hebron and the January 1997 shooting of 7 Palestinians by Israeli soldier. But the best known, and most serious incident of Israeli violence against Arabs was in February 1994, when Dr. Baruch Goldstein, a resident of Kiryat Arba, opened fire with a Galil assaultrifle on Muslim worshippers at the Machpelah Cave, murdering 29 and wounding 125. [Some Arab accounts claim many more deaths, but most reports agree on the number 29.] Even though this terrorist act was no larger than attacks carried out against Israeli Jews, and was not in any way supported by the Israeli government or the Jewish people, it seriously impacted the peace process and led to the installation of an international observer force in Hebron, arrangements solidified by the Hebron Agreement between Israel and the Palestinians signed in 1997. All over the Middle East, Arabs rioted, attacked Jewish communities, and staged protests. The massacre remains a flash point of debate today, frequently cited to justify Arab terrorist attacks against Jews. Baruch Goldstein's slaughter cannot be excused or explained away. In order to try to fathom what led to his act, these contributing factors are available:

  • The long history of Arab persecution of Jews in Hebron
  • Hebron Muslims were aggressive in threatening Jewish residents, nearby settlers, and worshipers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs. At Purim services the evening before the massacre, as Jewish worshippers, including Goldstein, were reading the Scroll of Esther, local Muslims loudly disrupted the ceremony with chants of "It-bakh al Yahud" (slaughter the Jews), a cry frequently heard in Hebron.
  • Goldstein, an IDF medical officer, may have received reports circulating at that time of an impeding pogrom on the scale of 1929 that was to occur within days against the Jews of Hebron.
  • Goldstein lost friends to terrorist attacks and treated victims as their doctor. He may have been motivated by revenge.
None of these factors excuse Goldstein's murderous rampage, but they do establish a context of Arab provocations. The truth died with Goldstein at the hands of the mob of survivors who killed him to end the attack. On June 26, 1994, the Israeli Cabinet adopted the findings and recommendations of the Shamgar Commission's report on the Hebron massacre, which found that Baruch Goldstein alone was responsible for the murders at the Machpelah Cave. According to the 338-page report, despite the numerous operational deficiencies the Commission uncovered and even if the operations had worked according to plan, the massacre could not have been prevented. Both the military and political echelons were exonerated. The principal findings were the following:
  • Baruch Goldstein acted alone in planning the massacre in advance and told no one of his plan beforehand
  • Palestinian testimony of army and Jewish help in the massacre was discounted as contradictory and inconsistent
  • No fragments were found that would support the testimony of survivors concerning a grenade explosion
  • The political leadership and security forces could not have been expected to predict such an attack
The principal recommendations were to ban Jewish settlers and off-duty soldiers from entering the Cave with weapons, to separate Jewish and Arab worshippers with barriers, separate entrances and different schedules; to create a special guard unit for the Cave, to modify open-fire orders to include Jewish settlers in extreme circumstances and to enforce the law equally for both Arabs and Jews. Baruch Goldstein was affiliated with the Israeli organization Kach (Hebrew for "Only Thus"), founded by radical Israeli-American rabbi Meir Kahane. The stated goal of Kach and its offshoot Kahane Chai, which means "Kahane Lives," (founded by Meir Kahane's son Binyamin following his father's assassination in the United States), is to restore the biblical state of Israel. Both organizations were declared terrorist organizations by the Israeli Cabinet in March 1994 following the groups' statements in support of Dr. Baruch Goldstein's attack on the al-Ibrahimi Mosque and their verbal attacks on the Israeli Government. The Shamgar Commission found that Kach was not involved in Goldstein's rampage and did not know of his plan. In the eyes of the Israeli security establishment -- not to mention almost all sectors of the public -- Goldstein came to symbolize the worst-case scenario in Israe li-Palestinian relations. In the eyes of some fellow settlers, however, he was a hero who may have forestalled a coming Arab attack. Goldstein was buried on a bluff in the Judean hills, on the outskirts of Kiryat Arba, the settlement adjacent to Hebron, in a marble tomb rising from a landscaped plaza. His grave has become a shrine for Israelis who agree with the Hebrew inscription:
  • Here is buried the martyr, the doctor. May the Lord avenge his blood.
The grave prompted a stormy debate in the Knesset Interior Committee and the Israeli government declared the shrine illegal in 1998, but it still stands. Scores come there in pilgrimage every week, each leaving a pebble on the grave to mark the visit.

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