HEBRON — A stone wall is being constructed these days to separate the Meir Kahane municipal park in Kiryat Arba from the gravesite of Baruch Goldstein, as though to blot out the haunting memory of the worst act of Jewish terrorism in Israeli history on its twentieth anniversary.
It was just past dawn on the festival day of Purim, February 25, 1994, when a bearded man wearing military uniform with the rank of captain walked into “Yitzhak Hall” in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. For Muslims, it was the holy month of Ramadan, and some 800 worshipers were in the midst of morning prayers when automatic gunfire burst out from the entrance behind them.
Baruch Goldstein, the local Brooklyn-born doctor, managed to empty four magazines before his Galil rifle jammed and Palestinian bystanders overcame him and bludgeoned him to death with a fire extinguisher. When the carnage ended, 29 Palestinians lay dead and 125 were injured.
Kamal Abdeen, 40, was praying in the hall that morning when he heard an explosion followed by gunfire.
“I turned my head to see where the shooting was coming from and a bullet entered here,” Abdeen told The Times of Israel, pointing to a deep scar in the center of his neck. “Everyone fell to the ground and began shouting ‘Allahu akbar,’ and ‘what’s going on?’ At first I thought something was happening outside; I couldn’t believe it was inside.”
Abdeen soon lost consciousness, coming to only months later in a hospital room in Amman, Jordan. Gradually, family members told him what had transpired and he learned from his doctor that he would never walk again.
“Everything is difficult at first with the wheelchair, but then you get used to it,” he said.
That morning, Aharon Granot, a journalist living in nearby Kiryat Arba, was still a yeshiva (religious academy) student. He was on his way back from a Purim party next to the Cave of the Patriarchs. Waiting with his friends for a ride home at the bus stop, Granot heard gunfire.
“Two minutes later dozens of terrified soldiers had circled us, saying ‘go up immediately to your yeshiva.’ They surrounded the yeshiva with a human ring. Within minutes Arabs started flooding the streets.”
Granot said he thought that one of the Purim celebrators got drunk and began firing his weapon. After morning prayers, which were unusually rushed, the cantor told him that “Doctor Goldstein was murdered last night at the Cave of the Patriarchs.”
“It came a total shock to us. We couldn’t imagine our settlement one day without Doctor Goldstein.”
The largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, Hebron is also the only city with an active Jewish community. Dating back millennia, the Jewish presence in Hebron ended in August 1929 when local Arab mobs massacred 133 Jews. Jews returned to the city following its capture by Israel in the Six Day War to celebrate Passover in 1968, but only began re-inhabiting its abandoned Jewish real estate in 1980. Today, an infantry battalion and three border police companies guard the community — numbering no more than 800 — and the scores of tourists that flock to the Cave of the Patriarchs.
Twenty years after the Goldstein massacre, Palestinians in Hebron still struggle to adapt to their altered reality. Immediately after the attack and the Palestinian riots that ensued (25 Palestinians and five Israelis were killed), the IDF imposed a two-month curfew on the city. Soon, new rules were introduced regulating the physical separation of the city’s 500 Jews from their Palestinian neighbors.
Shuhada Street, the main thoroughfare and commercial hub of Hebron (next to which three of the four Jewish neighborhoods are located), was closed to Palestinian traffic. Hundreds of Palestinian merchants were ordered to shutter their shops along the street. “Yitzhak Hall” in the Cave of the Patriarchs was permanently designated as a mosque where the entry of Jews is forbidden. A strict ban on religious objects and printed material remains in place in the Jewish part of the cave, where the biblical patriarchs are said to be buried, and which serves as a synagogue.
But besides the new military regulations enforced following the massacre, the Oslo Accords have also dramatically changed Hebron’s landscape.
The rationale of dividing the West Bank into three areas under varying Israeli and Palestinian levels of control was adapted to the city under the Hebron Protocol, signed by Benjamin Netanyahu in January 1997, during his first term in the Prime Minister’s Office. The protocol divided the city into two sections: H1, including 80% of the city, lies under full Palestinian control; H2, where four Jewish neighborhoods are located, lies under full Israeli control but incorporates 40,000 Palestinian residents.
The Palestinian violence of the Second Intifada, which began in September 2000, brought about new restrictions on the residents of Shuhada street. The ban on Palestinian traffic was expanded to include pedestrians as well; large swaths of downtown Hebron adjacent to the Cave of the Patriarchs and the Jewish neighborhoods were shut to Palestinian motorists.
Mufid Sharabati, 47, was forced to shutter his family’s tobacco shop on Shuhada street following the massacre. Today, a large iron bar welded diagonally to the shop’s metal doors guarantees the shop will not be opened in contravention of the rules. B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights NGO, claims that 1,829 Palestinian shops in downtown Hebron, 77 percent of the total number, remain shut.
“We were the ones killed and injured [in the massacre], yet we are being punished with our shops shut,” Sharabti told The Times of Israel at his home overlooking the street.
Over 1,000 apartments in the area have been abandoned by their Palestinian owners, B’Tselem claims, 42% of the total number of homes surveyed by the organization at the end of 2006. The windows of apartments that remain inhabited are fixed with metal caging to protect them from stones thrown occasionally by settlers.
These days Shuhada street — like much of H2 — is eerily empty. Black graffiti depicting Stars of David and racist slogans cover many of the storefronts. Twisted metal awnings rust in the sun under broken windows of desolate homes. The Palestinian Authority pays Palestinians to move into these homes lest they be taken over by settlers in the never-ending power struggle over spacial control, but no one seems to come. One of four holy cities in Jewish tradition, Hebron today could hardly be more miserable and profane.
Hundreds of Palestinians and activists demonstrated in Hebron on Friday, demanding the reopening of Shuhada Street to Palestinian traffic. The demonstrators, who clashed with the IDF and hurled stones, were dispersed with tear gas and sound grenades.
When he first heard of the massacre on that day in 1994, Sharabati rushed to ‘Aalia hospital, where he found many of his neighbors dead and injured.
“Whoever saw those sights will never forget them,” Sharabati said, his hands quivering. “How is a man meant to feel when he buries 14 people in one day? Three or four of them were my best friends.”
When Granot of Kiryat Arba remembers Goldstein, his next door neighbor in building 306 on Yehoshua Bin Nun Street, he makes a sharp distinction between the admired doctor and the mass killer.
“There is no disputing the fact that in his life Goldstein was an angel of a doctor. He was an unbelievable professional and a righteous man. There is almost no family in Kiryat Arba that doesn’t owe him its life. He saved the lives of my daughter and my in-law,” Granot said.
A medical doctor trained at New York’s Yeshiva University, Goldstein was the first responder to many of the Palestinian shooting attacks that began targeting Israeli vehicles around his settlement in the early 1990s. Those experiences, said Granot, changed the man, who was already an enthusiastic follower of ultra-nationalist Rabbi Meir Kahane. Goldstein would eventually don a yellow badge on his shirt with the word “Jude,” symbolizing the contemporary suffering of Jews.
“In the half-year preceding the massacre we saw he went crazy,” Granot recalled. “Do you know how many deaths he had to declare that year? It’s simply unbelievable. The worst was when his friend Mordechai Lapid [was killed in a terrorist attack on December 6, 1993, along with his son Shalom]. We told him, ‘Take a vacation,’ but he wouldn’t listen.”
Granot still regrets not having forced Goldstein to take a break. Had he done so, he is convinced the massacre could have been averted. The attack severely harmed both the image and the morale of the settlement, Granot added, with residents divided between a minority of supporters and a majority of people who prefer to remain silent, because “there’s really nothing to say.”
“There are people within the Kahane movement who still bury their heads in the sand and say that the people in the mosque were stashing weapons to prepare an attack and that Goldstein saved many lives. They should face the truth and say, ‘Guys, something immoral happened here. People came to pray at the tomb of Abraham our father, regardless of their faith, and he shot them in the back.’
“Listen, the only thing I can say in his defense is that he lost his mind,” Granot said.
Following years of court proceedings, Abdeen received compensation of NIS 100,000 ($28,400) from the Israeli government in 2001 for his injury. When he returned home to Hebron on a wheelchair after a year of rehabilitation in Jordan and Ramallah, his six-year-old brother was still unaware of the exact circumstances of his injury.
“I didn’t want to tell him it was from Baruch [Goldstein], so I said it was a car accident. I didn’t want him to hate Jews from a young age. But he found out later, on his own.”