JERUSALEM (Jun. 26)
The Rabin government and the Israel Defense Force greeted with a sigh of relief the findings of the official commission of inquiry investigating the circumstances surrounding the Feb. 25 Hebron massacre.
Following six weeks of closely watched hearings, the panel, headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Meir Shamgar, issued a 350-page report Sunday indicating that Kiryat Arba settler Dr. Baruch Goldstein had been solely responsible for the slayings of at least 29 Palestinians at a Hebron mosque.
Though it found that security had been lax at the Tomb of the Patriarchs on the day of the killings, the five-member panel, which included an Israeli Arab judge, ascribed no negligence to government officials or senior army officers.
The panel did, however, note that several border guards were not at their posts at the time of the incident. But it did not recommend that proceedings be initiated against the guards on charges of negligence.
Terming the Feb. 25 killings “one of the harshest expressions of the Jewish-Arab conflict,” the Shamgar Commission found that Goldstein had planned the massacre alone, concealing his plans even from his wife, Miriam.
The panel rejected testimony that a secret accomplice had helped Goldstein carry out the killings.
BREAKDOWN OF LAW AND ORDER
But if the commission was reluctant to attach blame to any one person or authority beyond Goldstein, it was quite adamant that there had been a breakdown of law and order in the territories.
The situation was compounded by a lack of clarity in IDF orders regarding how to react to a situation in which settlers were found firing on Palestinians, according to the report.
Israeli soldiers testifying before the commission had stated that according to their so-called open-fire orders, they were not to shoot at settlers, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the situation.
The commission recommended that the police force in the territories be substantially increased and that the police officers, rather than the IDF, be responsible for maintaining law and order.
The commission also recommended that neither off-duty soldiers nor settlers be allowed to carry arms into Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs.
The only people allowed to do so will be members of the permanent guard stationed at the site, which is sacred to both Jews and Muslims, according to the recommendations, which the government adopted on Sunday.
While no restrictions will be placed on Jews and Muslims using the same central prayer hall, arrangements will be made to ensure there will be no contact between the two groups.
The commission also urged that security devices such as those used in airports be installed at the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
Until these measures are taken, the panel determined, the site will remain closed, as it has been since the day of the massacre.
The panel further recommended that Israeli settlers who use their weapons for any reason be required to report immediately to the police regarding the circumstances under which they were used.
As a result of the panel’s findings, permits allowing settlers to own and carry arms will now be reviewed annually.
The panel also determined that the IDF’s open-fire orders should be reviewed and reworded in the clearest possible language so that there can be no misunderstandings in the future.
In an effort to aid the police in maintaining order, the Shamgar Commission further recommended that firm action be taken against so-called “extreme elements” in the territories, including members of the banned Kach and Kahane Chai movements.
‘ALL MUST BE EQUAL’ BEFORE THE LAW
The panel approved the government’s decision to ban the extremist groups, which it did within weeks of the massacre.
As for the IDF’s open-fire orders, the panel said, the policy must be reviewed and disseminated in the clearest possible language to avoid any misinterpretation.
The law, the panel determined, must be “enforced energetically and all must be equal before it.”
Within days of the Hebron massacre, the Cabinet called for the formation of a commission to investigate the slayings.
In the ensuing six weeks of hearings, most of which were held in open session, the panel heard 106 witnesses, including Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, during 31 sessions.
Some witnesses said that ongoing tensions in Hebron prior to the killings made the incident entirely predictable.
But the Shamgar Commission in effect endorsed the opinion of the IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, who testified that the massacre had come like “a bolt from the blue” and that the act of one gunman was not something that could have been either foreseen or entirely prevented.
Members of both ends of the Israeli political spectrum expressed disappointment with the panel’s findings.
Critics on the left noted that the Shin Bet General Security Services had warned more than once against the danger posed by extremist settlers.
Members of the political left were also critical that the panel did not recommend that the 400 settlers living among the some 70,000 Palestinians in Hebron be ordered to leave the West Bank town.
And on the right, settlers groups complained that the panel had not addressed the issue of what they see as repeated Palestinian provocations of settlers.
Reaction among Palestinian leaders was also critical of the commission’s findings.
Hebron Mayor Mustafa Natshe, expressing his disappointment with the report, said, “The army did nothing. The settlers are still there.”
His words were echoed by Saeb Erekat, a leading Palestine Liberation Organization official from the West Bank town of Jericho who was recently named minister of local government in the newly formed Palestinian governing authority.
“The report did not address the root of the problem — the settlers,” said Erekat.
Nabil Sha’ath, minister of planning and international cooperation in the Palestinian authority, said a copy of the report had been sent to PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat in Tunis.
Sha’ath said the PLO leadership — which broke off its negotiations with Israel in the weeks following the Hebron massacre — would react to the commission’s findings after it has had a chance to study it.