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Remembering Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque massacre

Believed to be the burial place of the prophets Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque is revered within Islam and Judaism.

February 25, 2019 at 8:30 am

What: Extremist Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein attacked Palestinian worshippers at Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque, killing 29 people and injuring 150 others

Where: Hebron, the occupied West Bank

When: 25 February 1994

What happened?

Believed to be the burial place of the prophets Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque is revered within Islam and Judaism. In 1994, the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish Purim holiday coincided, causing illegal Jewish settlers and Palestinian Muslims to seek access to the religious site at the same time. On the evening of 24 February, eye witnesses described a disagreement between Jewish settlers and Palestinians, as both groups of worshippers tried to enter the mosque. Although there was no violence, the situation was described as “tense”.

The next day — at around 04:30 — Muslim worshippers went to the mosque for the daily Fajr (dawn) prayers. One Palestinian who attended the mosque that morning, Hosni Issa Al-Rajabeh, recalled the events of the day in an interview with Al Jazeera. Al-Rajabeh described going to the Ibrahimi Mosque with his wife and children: “When we arrived, a settler greeted us and welcomed us into the mosque, which was very strange.” Then, as Al-Rajabeh remembered: “The imam began to read the Sajdah verse [of the Qur’an]. He read for four minutes, and when the first people knelt down, I heard shooting and the power cut out.”

It is now known that the shooting which killed 29 people and injured a further 150 was carried out by extremist Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein. Goldstein was born in Brooklyn, New York, and migrated to Israel in 1983. He lived in the illegal Kiryat Arba settlement, just outside Hebron in the occupied West Bank.

READ: Fatah: Israel planning for a second massacre in Hebron

Goldstein was a supporter of the extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, an Orthodox Jewish American known for his ultra-nationalist ideology and for founding the Kach party in 1971. Kach advocated the forcible removal of Palestinians from Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt). It also vehemently opposed any territorial concessions by Israel under international peace agreements, staging a sit-in at the Yamit settlement in the Israeli-occupied Sinai Peninsula to prevent the region being handed back to Egypt under the Camp David Accords of 1979. After being elected to the Knesset in 1984, Kahane and his Kach party were declared racist by the Israeli government and banned from future political participation on the grounds of incitement.

Drawing inspiration from Kahane’s ideology, Goldstein had spawned his own history of extremist activity. In 1981, he wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times, in which he stated: “The harsh reality is if Israel is to avert the kinds of problems found in Northern Ireland today, it must act decisively to remove the Arab minority from its borders.”

Relatives of Palestinians killed by an extremist Jew at Hebron's Ibrahimi Mosque in 1994 hold a candle light vigil in the southern West Bank town of Hebron on February 25, 2009 to mark the 15th anniversary since Jewish fanatic Baruch Goldstein opened fire on worshippers, killing 29 people and wounding another 125 before being killed himself [Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images]

Relatives of Palestinians killed by an extremist Jew at Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque in 1994 hold a candle light vigil in the southern West Bank town of Hebron on February 25, 2009 to mark the 15th anniversary since Jewish fanatic Baruch Goldstein opened fire on worshippers, killing 29 people and wounding another 150 before being killed himself [Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images]

In October 1993 — after a series of disruptions for which he was already known to the Israeli authorities — Goldstein poured acid on prayer rugs at the Ibrahimi Mosque, burning large holes in them. He also assaulted six Palestinian worshippers, according to the Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU). Later that month, IMEU adds, the Muslim authorities wrote to then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, warning of the “dangers” posed by Goldstein. Rabin’s office reportedly didn’t respond and the Israeli authorities took no action.

It is not known what provoked Goldstein to carry out his massacre of Palestinian worshippers on that day, at that time. It is possible that he was at the Ibrahimi Mosque the evening before the attack, when tensions between Israeli settlers and the Palestinian community were high. He nonetheless entered the mosque with a Galil rifle – an assault weapon similar to the AK-47 – while wearing an Israeli army uniform. After having carried out the massacre, Goldstein tried to flee but was caught and beaten to death by the crowds. As a result, the case never went to trial. His grave in Kiryat Arba has become a shrine for extremists settlers.

READ: Israel settlers attack Palestinian farmers in southern Hebron

What happened next?

Israeli politicians were quick to condemn the attack, with Prime Minister Rabin saying: “You [illegal settlers] are not part of the community of Israel […] We say to this horrible man [Goldstein] and those like him: you are a shame on Zionism and an embarrassment to Judaism.” Benjamin Netanyahu – who was at that time head of the Likud party serving as the country’s opposition – slammed Goldstein’s actions as “a despicable crime” and expressed his “unequivocal condemnation.”

In June 1994, Israel opened a commission of inquiry which became known as the “Shamgar Commission” after then president of the Supreme Court, Meir Shamgar. The commission concluded that the evidence against Goldstein was absolute and that his actions were premeditated, labelling them “a base and murderous act in which innocent people bending in prayer to their maker were killed.” Goldstein “took full advantage” of the “prestige and trust” he had built while serving as an Israeli army reserve officer, the commission claimed, adding that, “His appearance at the [Ibrahimi Mosque], in uniform, bearing the insignia of his rank, created an impression designed to remove all obstacles from his path.”

The commission also noted that Goldstein acted alone, contrary to the accounts of multiple eyewitnesses. Al-Rajabeh, for example, told Al Jazeera that he “saw two more men at the back of the mosque. One was moving in between the two, who were shooting.” The commission, however, concluded that it was “not presented with credible proof that [Goldstein] was helped, while carrying out the killing or prior to that time, by another individual acting as an accomplice.”

Shamgar recommended that, in order to prevent another attack of this kind in the future, “arrangements intended to create complete separation between the Moslem [sic] and Jewish worshippers be adopted”. This is indeed what happened; the Ibrahimi Mosque has been divided into two sections — one for Jews and one for Muslims – ever since.

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Other measures were also put in place across Hebron to ensure the complete separation of the two communities. Al-Shuhada Street, which was once the city’s commercial hub, was closed to Palestinians. Palestinian vendors were forced to close their shops, with many now likening the once-thriving street to a ghost town.

In 1997, the “Protocol on Redeployment in Hebron” – which formed part of the Interim Agreement signed under the Oslo Accords – saw the city divided into two zones called H1 and H2. H1 was handed to the Palestinian Authority (PA), while H2 came under Israeli control. The Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH) was also founded to monitor the situation in Hebron and would continue to operate under the auspices of the United Nations, renewing its mandate every six months.

Twenty-five years later, Goldstein’s massacre is still seen as the spark for the situation in Hebron, which continues to deteriorate year on year. The brutal nature of his attack shocked the Israeli public and international community and, combined with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995 by another extreme right-wing settler, helped to sow disillusionment with the Oslo peace process.

For Palestinians, the massacre was indicative of the danger posed by Israel’s illegal settlement project. Daily life for Palestinians in Hebron, particularly in the Old City, has since become unbearable, with Al-Shuhada street remaining closed and settler violence against Palestinians a regular occurrence. In October, Israel announced that it would invest $6 million to expand an illegal settlement near Al-Shuhada Street, which was said to include 31 settlement units, a kindergarten and other public facilities for use only by Jewish people.

The Kahane movement which inspired Goldstein’s rampage still inspires settler violence against Palestinians today. In December, posters depicting PA President Mahmoud Abbas as an assassination target appeared across the occupied West Bank. The campaign was believed to have been carried out by Derech Chaim, a group of extremist Israeli settlers with a history of incitement. The organisation is headed by right-wing rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, who is known to have justified Goldstein’s actions at the Ibrahimi Mosque 25 years ago today.

READ: Palestinian rejects $100m Israel offer to buy his Hebron home