Monday, 14 July 2008

Four interviews and a massacre

Ten years ago, on Purim day, Dr. Baruch Goldstein donned military reserves uniform and headed for the cave of Patriarchs in Hebron. Ori Golan returns to the site of the massacre in Hebron.
Ten years ago, on Purim day, shortly before 5:30 in the morning, Baruch Goldstein, 37, donned military reserves uniform and headed for the cave of Patriarchs in Hebron – a sacred place to both Jews and Muslims. A resident of Kiryat Arba, and a doctor by profession, Goldstein was a familiar face among the Jewish community of Hebron. With his assault rifle, he brushed passed the guards and entered the Ibrahimi mosque inside the cave. Despite the early hour, some 500 men were prostrating in prayer, marking the 15th day of Ramadan. Calmly, without warning, Goldstein opened fire into the back of the worshippers, raining 108 bullets in a matter of seconds. He killed 29 men and wounded 125 before being overpowered by the crowd, and crushed to death.

Kamal Abdeen was at the mosque that morning. "I heard a loud noise", he recalls, "and looked up to see where it was coming from, and that’s the last thing I remember." Abdeen sustained gunshots to his chest and a ruptured trachea and remained unconscious for two weeks. His injuries have left him permanently paralysed in both legs.

Since the massacre, Abdeen has channelled his energies to empowering Palestinians with disabilities. He established the Palestinian Association for the Physically Disabled and is the Palestinian Authority’s national champion in table tennis, twice heading the Palestinian table tennis team in the Special Olympics in Europe.

"The Israelis were responsible for the massacre, but we were punished; Shuahda street [a main street in Hebron] was closed off, the market was closed down, and we were put under curfew. People hear that 29 people were killed and think little of it. Palestinians are getting killed all the time. In Hebron, the frustration is enormous, roadblocks, closures, checkpoints…I need to get hospital for medical treatment, with official letters of appointment, the soldiers prevent me from getting there. I would never consider committing a terrorist act, but I can understand why other people do it. Even if Goldstein’s widow came here I would have nothing against her. I don’t hate her – I don’t hate anyone." Indeed, in over an hour of conversation, not once does he express any anger toward anyone.

Hebron is a place seething with tension. With 40 Jewish families living among 120,000 Palestinians, it is a flash point for bitter clashes. Crossing over to the Jewish side of Hebron, is crossing over to ‘the other side’.

Noam Arnon has been living in Hebron for 31 years and is the spokesman for the city’s Jewish community. Arnon is a friendly and articulate man. Like most of the settlers in Hebron, his worldview is steeped in history, religion and a deep sense of mission.

"After the Arabs murdered, raped, and pillaged the Jews of Hebron [in 1929], the British kicked the remaining Jews out. And today they have the nerve to say that we have no right to return here." As we walk around, Arnon points to bullet riddled houses, the result of Palestinian shooting from a nearby village.

"The architects of the Oslo Accords have created an unbearable reality here, both for Jews and for Palestinians. It is not logical that the solution to the terror is to drive out the Jews; terror should be rooted out." How do you root out terror, I ask. "Like we know." How? "Like the Americans do in Iraq; chase them and their leaders to the bitter end. Instead, we’re being thrown like sheep to be devoured by the wolf. But you know, in the end, the wolf will also devour the shepherd."

As we walk around Beit Haddassah, originally a free medical clinic for Jews and Arabs, and now home to 25 families, I point to a wire net spread above the market place below, once Hebron’s thriving commercial centre and now lifeless. The Palestinians claim the net is to keep out bricks and other projectiles hurled by the settlers; according to Arnon, it is to prevent the Palestinians from throwing hand-grenades from down there. There are bricks lying on the net. I ask how they got there, but he ignores my question. I point to graffiti on some of walls which read ‘Kahana was right’. "It’s kids’ stuff", says Arnon dismissively. Suggestions that some of the Hebron settlers are violent or cause provocation; are rejected out of hand as antisemitic propaganda.

When I mention Goldstein and ask to visit his grave, Arnon gets irate. It is the first time that I sense hostility in his otherwise friendly manner. "There is something totally unfair" he explains "why is the media focusing on this incident, when there have been hundreds of Palestinian murderers?" He never mentions Goldstein by name and refers to the massacre as ‘the incident’. "It was a terrible shock. He was a wonderful soul, a wonderful doctor. Of course I don’t support it."

Michael Ben-Horin was a good friend of Goldstein’s and is one of the most radical rightwing ideologues in Israel today. He is in a buoyant mood when we talk, having just returned from a family simcha: the birth of twin grandchildren, a boy and a girl. The girl is called Talia, named after Talia Kahana (daughter-in-law of Meir Kahana) who was murdered three years ago by Palestinian terrorists. Ben-Horin is the editor of Baruch Hagever and author of Baruch, the Redeemer and Saviour – both publications eulogising Goldstein.

"When I heard about the event, I was overjoyed: finally a Jew kills an Arab and not vice versa. The night before, Palestinians were chanting ‘itbah el yahud’ (slaughter the Jews) for 3 hours. There was going to be a massacre in Hebron. This is an established fact. Baruch saved us from a big calamity."

Were all his victims terrorists?

"You know, not all the Germans who were bombed in Dresden by the British were supporters of Hitler. There are always going to be innocent victims. This is war and we are in war".
"Baruch knew about the planned attack and thank God he acted according to the adage: ‘if someone intends to kill you, rise and kill him first’. He was a proud Jew who would not go like sheep to the slaughter; he did not possess a galut mentality like [MK] Ran Cohen and Rabin. Today we are used to Jewish blood being spilt."

So, could he do such a thing himself? "I don’t know", Ben Horin hesitates, "I am not sure I would have the courage that someone as pious as Goldstein had. But I admire him for it, and support what he did, as do people all over the country: In Hebron, they all condone what he did."
I point out that Noam Arnon says the opposite. "They are scared to admit it," he responds. "This is the effect of the Bolshevik regime under which we live, a regime which intimidates anyone who doesn’t agree with it. I can categorically tell you that what they think and what they say are not one and the same.

"Ben Horin’s book is a loathsome book" says MK Ran Cohen of the leftwing Meretz party in his Tel Aviv office. Cohen pressed for Ben Horin’s book to be banned and the author to be prosecuted for incitement. At the end of 1997 Ben-Horin was sentenced to eight months' imprisonment for incitement to racism.

Cohen locked horns with Ben-Horin over another matter. Soon after Goldstein’s funeral in Kiryat Arba, a shrine consisting of bookcases, lamps, and a sink, was built around his grave, which became a place of pilgrimage. "It was the focus of adulation for the terrorist Goldstein and a place where they recruited young adherents to his murderous ideology," says Cohen "I fought for its destruction as well as changing the controversial inscription on his tombstone [which describe him as a martyr]. I did not want it to serve as the infrastructure for more terrorism. After protracted legal wrangling, more than five years later, Cohen managed to pass a law prohibiting the construction of monuments for terrorists, and the shrine was dismantled. "I tell you honestly," he says, "until this shrine was demolished, I did not sleep well at night".

"The massacre was a real shock, but in retrospect perhaps we could have predicted it. To my dismay, even today there is a very real danger [of Jewish terrorism]. "Like Hizbollah and Al Quaeda, their whole world view is one of deep religious conviction which leads to fanatical violence. They are now more and more fanatical and more scheming against the authorities."
"Unfortunately the state continues to help these crazed people, which strengthens them. The fact that all illegal settlements and outposts remain in their place, the fact that almost no one has been convicted of violence against Palestinians and the fact that that the government helps them financially, all foster an environment where these errant weeds can grow. You would never expect to see a Palestinian attacking a soldier or a policeman without going to prison – but there is not one single settler who has received a prison sentence for hitting a soldier or a policeman."

The Hebron massacre was a defining moment in Israel. It caused deep embarrassment to the government which was castigated by the press for allowing it happen. For the first time since the capture of the territories, an international observer force was allowed into Hebron. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was deeply shocked. In an impassioned address to the Knesset, he said of Goldstein: "Sensible Judaism spits you out. You are not part of the community of Israel. You are a shame on Zionism and an embarrassment to Judaism."

The massacre had a profound effect on another person, a young student at Bar-Ilan university. By his own admission, from that moment he concentrated his efforts to achieving ‘the spirit of sacrifice’ which Goldstein had displayed. "It began after Goldstein. That’s when I had the idea that it’s necessary to take down Rabin" he told investigators later. The young student was Yigal Amir. Less than two years later, he murdered Rabin.

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