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(photo credit: David Wilder, the Jewish Community of Hebron)
On February 25, 1994, Baruch Goldstein walked into the Ibrahim Mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in his IDF reserve uniform with his army-issued Galil assault rifle slung over his shoulder, carrying at least three full magazines of ammunition. The mosque was packed for early-morning Ramadan prayers. As he entered, Goldstein opened fire at the kneeling worshipers, killing 29 and wounding at least 125 unarmed Palestinians. After finally running out of ammunition, he was hit over the head with a fire extinguisher and beaten to death by survivors of the massacre.
Riots broke out across the West Bank after the massacre and continue for two days. More than 20 more Palestinians and nearly 10 Jews were killed in the unrest following the initial murders. In the months after, Hamas carried out two terror attacks, which it said were a response to the massacre in Hebron.
The American immigrant to Israel had been a member of the Jewish Defense League, a group designated a terror organization by the United States. In Israel, he was a politician in the Kach Party, which was banned from the Knesset for inciting racism and later designated as a terrorist organization in Israel. Years before, Goldstein reportedly foretold the massacre he would later carry out to a Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) agent who was monitoring his outlawed group, according to a report in Yedioth Aharonot
at the time, saying, “there will be a day when one Jew will take revenge on the Arabs.”
Israeli authorities, however, maintained that there had been no warning of the massacre, describing Goldstein as a lone madman. A subsequent commission of inquiry confirmed that narrative.
Following the events of that day, Israel was forced into reflection. While a large majority of Israelis condemned the killings, hundreds arrived at Goldstein’s grave in the adjoining settlement of Kiryat Arba to celebrate him and his final deed, a terrorist act. The grave has become the destination of a small pilgrimage since, although police subsequently limited access to the site. The Knesset even passed a law prohibiting memorials to terrorists in response to a shrine erected for Goldstein.
Taking place in the middle of the peace process of the Rabin years, the massacre had a long-lasting effect on the city of Hebron. Following the killings and subsequent rioting, the IDF placed heavy restrictions on Palestinian movement in the immediately surrounding area.
In order to prevent further clashes between settlers and Palestinian residents, the IDF later closed Shuhada Street to Palestinian automobile traffic and years later, completely sealed it to foot traffic as well. As a result, Palestinian homes and shops in the area have been completely shuttered, something that human rights groups describe as a disproportionate and misdirected response. The site has since seen yearly protests on the anniversary of the massacre, demanding that Shuhada Street be reopened to Palestinians.
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The massacre also had an effect on the peace process, which was in its most intense days in 1994 during the Yitzhak Rabin premiership. It quickly became the topic of international condemnation, including a United Nations Security Council resolution passed some weeks later, condemning the killings and calling on Israel to guarantee the safety of Palestinians in the territories.
Israel’s government and leaders took great efforts to mitigate the emotional and physical scars created by the massacre. Then-president Ezer Weizman called the killings "the worst thing that has happened to us in the history of Zionism." Israel, he added, will "have to toil hard in order to repair the terrible damage and heal the deep rifts caused between ourselves and the Arabs, and among our own people."
But the effects of the massacre are still felt on the ground by residents of Hebron, and support is still expressed for Goldstein and his final act among extremist Jewish elements. The massacre at the Tomb of the Patriarchs continues to play a role in the narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and leads to occasional clashes on the ground 18 years later.
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