The Goldstein massacre and the danger of escalation

On the 20th anniversary of Hebron slaughter, the situation could again spin out of control

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Israeli soldiers stand next to blood stains on the floor of Yitzhak Hall in the Tomb of the Patriarchs following the Goldstein massacre, February 25, 1994. (photo credit: Flash90)
Israeli soldiers stand next to blood stains on the floor of Yitzhak Hall in the Tomb of the Patriarchs following the Goldstein massacre, February 25, 1994. (photo credit: Flash90)

The slaughter carried out by Baruch Goldstein at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron was the worst act of Jewish terrorism in Israel’s history. Twenty-nine Palestinians were murdered and more than 100 injured during morning prayers on the 15th day of Ramadan, 20 years ago this week.

In the riots that broke out in the West Bank in the aftermath, another nine Palestinians were killed. The incident brought about a wave of suicide attacks from Hamas and the “Engineer” Yahya Ayyash, complete with car bombs, and explosions on public buses.

Though there were attacks before the Goldstein carnage, they intensified significantly after.

Hamis al-Jamal was 10 years old then. He woke up at 3:30 in the morning to go with his brothers and neighbors to prayers in “al-Haram al-Ibrahimi,” the Sanctuary of Abraham mosque at the Tomb of the Patriarchs. His family lived in the Abu Sninah neighborhood, about a 10-minute walk from the tomb.

“We were among the last to show up at the mosque,” he told The Times of Israel this week. “We left a bit late and we were held up at the checkpoints. There were a lot of people. Hundreds. The prayer began. The imam read aloud a verse from the Koran. We finished the first Rak’ah [the prayer is made of up two Rak’ahs], and then we began the second one. I pressed my forehead to the ground, and then I heard two blasts. I didn’t know where they came from. Suddenly, intense gunfire started from behind me. The worshippers yelled, ‘Lie down, lie down.’ At first, I wasn’t hit. I was in-between two adults who were bigger than me, who were hit by the bullets and killed.”

“After about three minutes, some people tried to run for the nearest door. And then I received a blow to the head and felt blood flowing. A bullet had hit me and grazed my skull. Luckily, I was barefoot; had I been wearing shoes, I would have died. I managed to see Goldstein. He was in uniform. The worshippers jumped on him and killed him. We tried to get out, but gunfire began from the army, who seemingly thought that it was an attack against Jews. When I finally got outside, I saw my brother. He picked me up, put me in a car, and we drove to the hospital. Only afterward, on the news, did we understand what had happened there.

“This was not easy for me as a 10-year-old. Many people from our neighborhood were killed that day. I was in the hospital for 12 days, and to this day I have headaches. I remember the incident every day, and it won’t leave me.”

Another act of Jewish terror does not sound implausible these days. The Israeli security establishment fears that such an attack could set off another intifada. The massacre in the Tomb of the Patriarchs did not cause a relentless wave of mass protests, but it did lead to an incomprehensible wave of suicide attacks.

But one need not go all the way to an attack or slaughter. An incident connected to the Temple Mount or the al-Aqsa mosque could easily lead to escalation and violence. And it seems that recently some well-known provocateurs have been trying to cause incitement around the holy compound. Knesset debates over Israeli sovereignty on the Temple Mount, a visit by a minister to the al-Aqsa complex… all ostensibly in the name of freedom of worship for Jews. But, in fact, much of this stems from internal politics in the Likud and Jewish Home parties. And what will happen if, God forbid, the tinderbox that is the Temple Mount catches fire? That doesn’t seem to concern them much.

Those pyromaniacs will simply tell us, “We told you that the Arabs don’t want peace.”

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