Israel’s political and security establishments were reeling from the shock of the murders of dozens of Arabs by a Jewish settler in a mosque at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.
Responding to violence triggered by last Friday’s attack, the government sealed off the territories and imposed curfews on Palestinian population centers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
A closure order on the neighboring Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba was also imposed.
Israeli leaders and politicians all across the political spectrum condemned the murders in the strongest terms. President Ezer Weizman called the attack the “Worst thing that happened in the history of Zionism.”
Police apparently were trying to arrest Jewish extremists from the Kach movement in Kiryat Arba, where the murderer, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, had lived.
Some Kach leaders were calling Goldstein, who was killed, a hero and a martyr.
The attack on the Muslim worshipers immediately ignited violent demonstrations and clashes inside the territories and in Arab centers throughout Israel, including Jaffa, Nazareth and eastern Jerusalem.
It sparked rioting on Jerusalem’s Temple mount by angry Muslim worshipers, who began throwing stones at the hundreds of Jews gathered for Purim prayer at the Western Wall below.
They also targeted police, who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, but did not attempt to enter the Mount complex, the site of bloody clashes three years ago.
Up to 20 Palestinians were reported killed in the angry aftermath and scores wounded, many apparently by Israeli army fire, while radical Palestinian groups vowed revenge for the killings.
A 79-year-old Israeli was axed to death in Kfar Saba of Friday following the massacre, while many Israelis, including a year-old baby, were injured by stones thrown at their vehicles in or near Arab towns. Dozens of firebombs were hurled at security forces.
Israelis on the political left said the murderous assault made it imperative that there be rapid progress in the peace process, while some called on the government to evacuate or disarm the settlers and ban Kach activities.
Some on the political for right said the incident proved that the two peoples cannot live side by side.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin condemned the killings as a “loathsome, criminal act of murder at a site holy to both Jews and Arabs” and called on Jews and Arabs to act with restraint.
The “crazed actions of disturbed individuals will not prevent the reconciliation between the citizens of the State of Israel and the Palestinian people,” he said.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres called the murders “a frightening expression of cruelty, devoid of human morality,” and a “horrifying act which stands out in shocking contrast to our basic Jewish values.”
Peres said the peace process would continue, undeterred.
“If anyone thinks that such criminal acts will slow the peace efforts, he is sorely mistaken,” Peres said. “Peace is the true answer to the hatemongers and the sowers of grief.”
Leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization warned that the peace process would be set back unless the question of the settlements were put at the top of the negotiating agenda. They also called for international protection for the Palestinians.
PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian leaders assigned responsibility for the attack to the Israel Defense Force, which they said failed to provide proper protection for the people at prayer.
“The IDF and the government of Israel (are) not doing enough to stop these vigilantes from continuing to kill Palestinian people,” said Dr. Ahmed Tibi, an Israeli Arab who is adviser to the Israel-Palestinian autonomy talks.
“The innocent Palestinian people should be defended, should be secure,” he said.
Some sources here said the Palestinians would attend the peace talks that President Clinton called to be moved to Washington, although the Palestinians might delay their arrival as a protest.
The fatal clash occurred at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, also known as the Cave of Machpelah, on a tense morning after a daylong shoot-out in Jerusalem between the Israeli military and members of the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement. A Hamas leaders was killed in that encounter.
Jews had been celebrating Purim, while Muslims were observing the holy month of Ramadan. Both religions consider the cave to be a holy site because it is said to be the tomb of Abraham, their common patriarch.
The cave is divided into halls designated for Jewish and Muslim prayers, which usually are scheduled at different times.
About 5:45 a.m. Friday, the mosque in the cave was filled with hundreds of Moslem worshipers, prostrate in prayer, when Goldstein entered the area, dressed in an army uniform, and began opening fire into the crowed with an automatic rifle.
An interim Israeli army report said Goldstein, who fired 118 bullets, acted alone. The army refused to say how many Palestinians were killed by Goldstein, though various accounts have put the death toll between 39 and 49.
Goldstein, born in Brooklyn, graduated from Yeshiva University and its Albert Einstein College of Medicine in 1981 and immigrated to Israel a decade ago.
He was an anti-Arab extremist and devoted adherent of the assassinated Kach leader, Rabbi Meir Kahane. Goldstein was a member of kahane’s Jewish Defense League before he made aliyah.
Friends and acquaintances of the attacker said Goldstein was a kind and gentle man who had snapped following the terrorist murders in December of settlers Mordechai and Shalom Lapid.
The Council of Jewish Settlements in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, condemned the attack and expressed sympathy for the families of the victims.
But a spokesman blamed the incident on “fears and anxiety” caused by the “deteriorating security situation” and warned that other individuals could be moved to “unfortunate, unnecessary, counterproductive” actions such as Goldstein’s.
Meanwhile, Education Minister Amnon Rubinstein, of the left-wing Meretz bloc, said the “Kahane-inspired organizations” should be declared illegal and their be taken from them.
Absorption Minister Yair Tsaban, also of Meretz, suggested the government consider the evacuation of settlers from Hebron.
“Maybe we must find better solutions,” he said, “than to continue with their resistance in the heart of the Islamic population.”
Zalman Shoval, head of the Likud Party’s foreign relations department and former ambassador to the United States, said his reaction was “one of abhorrence. No words can be too strong to condemn this terrible act.”
“What today’s action of one madman proves is how volatile the whole situation is,” he said.
President Weizman visited Hebron on Sunday to pay his condolences to the Palestinian community and called on Arabs and Jews to work together.
Afterward he said the incident had caused “terrible harm” to relations between Israelis and Arabs and Jews and Muslims.
In Jerusalem, the Likud opposition leader, Benjamin Netanyahu applauded the government’s decision on Sunday to appoint a formal commission of inquiry into the Hebron incident.
But he added, “It cannot be that we will only investigate the murder of Arabs by Jews.” An inquiry must also investigate the murder of Jews by Arabs and of Arabs by Arabs, he said at the Fifth International Conference on the Jewish Media, which is meeting here.
The authorities, he said, should crack down on radical settlers – “people like the Kach people” – who take the law into their hands. “They should be dealt with very, very harshly.”
However, Netanyahu emphasized that the “overwhelming majority” of the settlers have behaved responsibly.
At the media conference, Rabin, who also serves as defense minister, said that using a weapon that was issued for self-defense to attack people at prayer is “a new reality in the life of Israel, in the life of the Jewish people.”
“It will take time to mend the damage that one person inflicted on the Jewish people, on the State of Israel and the people of Israel,” he said.
“Being a Jew, a proud Jew and a proud Israeli, I believe in Jewish values,” Rabin said. “What has taken place in Hebron, in my humble opinion, was against everything Judaism stands for. Therefore I believe every Jew has to be ashamed of what happened in Hebron.”
The Hebron assault was an attempt to “Kill the possibility of a solution to the 100 years’ conflict” between Palestinians and Israelis, he said.
But he added, Israel will “not allow it to stop, to delay the need to find a solution.”