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Arab Destruction of Religious Articles, Including Sifrei Torahs, at Machpela Cave in Hebron Leads to

October 6, 1976
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The government was trying desperately today to cool inflamed passions that erupted over the Yom Kippur weekend in a bitter clash between religious Jews and Arabs in this West Bank town, site of shrines sacred to both the Jewish and Moslem faiths. The events touched off rioting in other West Bank towns and villages yesterday and today during which numerous Arabs were arrested and several wounded in skirmishes with Israeli troops and border police. (See separate story.)

They also resulted in a sharp polarization of opinion among Israeli Jews with potentially farreaching political repercussions for the Rabin government. (See separate story.) The Cabinet is scheduled to meet in special session tomorrow to examine the situation. The Knesset will also convene.

The violence was precipitated by the destruction of Jewish religious artifacts in the Machpela Cave (Tomb of the Patriarchs) where Jews and Moslems are permitted to worship, but at separate times. According to eye-witnesses, the cave was entered Sunday morning by a “frenzied mob” of about 200 Arab youths who left the Jewish area in shambles, ripping Sifrei Torahs and prayerbooks and smashing and scattering the furnishings. Those acts followed what local Arabs charged was the deliberate desecration of the Koran, the Moslem holy scriptures, by Jews from the nearby Orthodox township of Kiryat Arba.

Jewish worshippers arriving at the cave later Sunday for prayers to usher in Yom, Kippur, were greeted by the scene of destruction. According to eye-witnesses, they were stunned and then infuriated. One eye-witness reported that a fistfight developed between two Jews and several Arabs inside the shrine when Jews discovered that an altar cloth had been torn.


Soldiers intervened to keep the clash from spreading. But tempers were already running high because of an incident the previous day when Israeli soldiers prevented Kiryat Arba Jews from conducting Sabbath services at the old Ohel Avraham synagogue a few yards from the Machpela Cave.

Their purpose was to avoid a Jewish-Arab confrontation such as have occurred frequently in recent weeks. Jewish worshippers were removed bodily from the site in the presence of Arab onlookers. Israeli troops feared the Arabs might be tempted to join in hustling Jews away and the Military Governor thereupon declared the entire market area adjoining the shrines closed to all.

At about the same time, rumors spread like wildfire among Hebron Arabs that Jews had torn and trampled the Koran in the Machpela Cave. The Military Governor, Gen. David Hagoel, visited the scene. According to Military Government sources, a Koran was found on the floor though not damaged. Nevertheless, “the sight was definitely provocative,” a military source said. It was viewed by Mayor Fahed Kawassme of Hebron, Sheikh Hilmi Al Muhatassib, head of the Moslem Council in Jerusalem and Hassan Tahbub, director of the Waqf, the Moslem religious organization which is the legal owner of the cave.

The Jewish officers and Moslem dignitaries reportedly agreed on the need to calm tempers. The Moslem leaders, however, prepared a memo condemning the act which was broadcast by radio throughout the Arab world. Thus, according to Jewish sources, some sort of sanction was given the Arab youths who entered the cave the following morning to destroy Jewish religious artifacts.

The Moslem leadership published a condemnation of those acts yesterday. Muhatassib expressed painful regret over the desecration of Jewish articles as well as of the Koran. Kawassme urged all parties to act with restraint, an appeal echoed in the East Jerusalem Arab newspaper Al-Quds.


But the grief and anger of Orthodox Jews was boundless. Israeli military sources said the Arab invasion of the cave and desecration occurred too quickly to have been prevented. Police reinforcements forcibly broke up the mob. Sixty Arab youths were injured in the melee, four of them requiring hospitalization.

Security sources reported today that more than 50 Arabs are being held in custody on suspicion of having participated in the desecration. Many were said to have been apprehended inside the cave. A special police task force has been set up to investigate the incident with the aim of bringing to trial those Arabs found to have been directly involved.


A curfew has been clamped on Hebron which was still in effect today. The army replaced the desecrated articles and permitted Kiryat Arba Jews to conduct Yom Kippur services at the cave. Immediately following the holiday, plans were made for the ritual burial of the mutilated Sifrei Torah and prayer books which, according to Orthodox tradition must be mourned in the same manner as a deceased person. Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren visited the cave shortly after Yom Kippur to begin the delicate task of retrieving the remains. Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was also at the scene.

The army planned to conduct the burial at the Jewish cemetery here today but the services were postponed at the last minute until tomorrow when, it is hoped, tempers will be somewhat calmer. The Kiryat Arba Jews have protested the military’s involvement and demand that the ceremonies be a purely religious event. The army on its part, fears a new outbreak at the burial which is expected to be attended by Orthodox Jews from all parts of Israel.

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