For the Palestinians, the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre is the foundational ethos of Israel today

For the Palestinians, the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre is the foundational ethos of Israel today
7 min read
26 Feb, 2022
28 years on since the Hebron massacre, Palestinians see its legacy lives on, taken up not only by a marginal, isolated group of Israeli extremists but as the driving ethos underpinning most of Israel's political parties, writes Emad Moussa.
Mohammed Abu al-Halawa, who was left a paraplegic after surviving the Cave of Patriarchs massacre in which 29 Palestinians were killed and 150 wounded. [Getty]

A physician and religious fanatic from Brooklyn, New York who immigrated to Israel in 1982, Baruch Goldstein would go down in history as one of the world's worst mass murderers.

On the eve of the Jewish holiday of Purim 28 years ago today, Goldstein sat with his children and other settler families in Hebron’s illegal Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba reading the Megillah - the Book of Esther. It is believed to be a firsthand account commemorating Persian king Ahasuerus's wife, Esther, who saved the Jews from her husband's viceroy Haman.

For most Jews, the Purim story is celebratory and the holiday is that of fun. But Goldstein was seemingly more gravitated toward a scriptural command from across the millennia: "... the Jews struck all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them." (Esther 9:5)

"Rabin hoped that by condemning Goldstein, he would frame what happened as an act or belief carried out by a minority and isolated community that does not represent the Israeli society as a whole"

Within the larger cultural and ideological context of Israeli-Jewish fundamentalism, Goldstein may have experienced what is known as "time collapse," whereas the memories, feelings, and experiences of the past are projected onto the present. He, as such, saw the Palestinians as a reincarnation of Haman, the Jews' arch-enemy in ancient Persia. He needed to act. 

At dawn the next day, wearing his Israeli military fatigues and armed with a Galil rifle, Goldstein went to the Ibrahimi Mosque as it was filled with Palestinian worshippers, at the Height of the holy month of Ramadan, and "honoured" that ancient command.

Shooting at men and boys kneeling in mid-payer incessantly for ten minutes, Goldstein killed 29 people and wounded tens of others. As he was loading the fifth magazine into his rifle, the survivors hit him with a fire extinguisher before beating him to death.

The rage that swept through the Palestinian territories in response to the massacre added 25 more Palestinian fatalities to the list, this time killed by the Israeli army. Within Israeli society, it was perhaps the first time since Lebanon’s 1982 massacre of Sabra and Shatila that the Israeli government explicitly condemned an act of violence against Palestinians, going as far as promising to compensate the families.

The general consensus was that by killing the worshippers at the Ibrahimi Mosque, Goldstein aimed to kill the peace process with the PLO, which will then be at its height.

Above all else, Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin understood that most Israelis - whether justifiably or not - did not view kindly to the notion that Goldstein’s worldview was akin to theirs. Rabin hoped that by condemning Goldstein, he would frame what happened as an act or belief carried out by a minority and isolated community that does not represent the Israeli society as a whole. "Not part of the Zionist deeds, and foreign body, pernicious weeds," Rabin described Goldstein.  

Perspectives

"Pernicious weeds" or someone who "besmirched the Jewish nation and the Torah"  as some Israeli rabbis called him, Goldstein did not function in a vacuum, and certainly was not acting in contrast to "the Zionist deeds." To most Palestinians, the massacre was simply "Zionism fully unleashed," and Israel - all of it - was responsible or complicit. This belief was (and continues to be) based not only on the fact that the Israeli state committed multiple massacres against the Palestinians, but also because the settler movement was evidently a religious spin-off of Zionism, or in other words, Zionism on "scriptural steroids."

From the 1970s onwards, Israeli settlers have grown in strength by allying with the Likud governments. They slowly entrenched themselves so deep into the Palestinian geography, threatening a civil war should the Israeli government try to remove or relocate them.

The 1992 Rabin government (a coalition of three parties: Labour, Meretz, and Shas) was the only government since 1977 that did not have representatives of the settler movement’s ideology and interests. But, even then, the movement's influence in Israel's political sphere was already visible. Rabin was fearful - or incapable of - facing the settlers. His actions against them in the wake of the massacre were unremarkable and limited to removing some of their hardcore members from Hebron and arresting others, only to have them all released shortly after. The anti-settler procedures were merely to absorb International criticism and salvage the peace process - never intended as a long-term state policy.

Albeit a political realist, Rabin was above all a Zionist idealist. He seemingly had very little desire to paint the settlers’ actions in terms - in Israeli eyes - only applicable to Palestinians: terrorism.

He followed his predecessors' footsteps in framing Jewish terrorists as mostly "mentally or psychologically challenged." Goldstein was simply "deranged", much like Israeli army personnel Ami Popper, who four years prior had murdered seven Palestinian labourers in Rishon Lezion - a crime known to Palestinians as the Oyoun Qara massacre. The same label was applied to Yigal Amir, the settler extremist who assassinated Rabin a year after the Hebron massacre.

Indeed, soon after the Hebron massacre, the Israeli authorities put in place a series of "safeguards" to avoid further violence. The victims' families were paid compensation, limitations on the settlers’ weapons possession were allegedly imposed, and the extremist organisations Kach and Kahane Chai were outlawed. Israel also agreed to allow the deployment of temporary UN international observers in Hebron to monitor the Jewish settlers' activities.

But none of that translated to tangible change for the Palestinians. The common belief now is that Goldstein's legacy has emboldened the perpetrators, while ultimately punishing the victims. The compensations were minimal and degrading, as the settlers continue - and increasingly so - to carry weapons without reprisals. Moreover, the Israeli government did not conduct any investigation into the deaths of 25 Palestinians killed by the IDF during the post-massacre unrest. A promised cap on the West Bank's settlement expansion never happened.

"Presently, the common consensus is that Goldstein's legacy lives on, and his ideology is no longer held by a marginal, isolated group of extremists, but underpins the driving ethos of most in Israel's political coalitions"

One after another, the promised safeguards by Israel were removed. Hebron gradually transformed into a microcosm of Israel's occupation. "Securing" the Israeli settler minority population in the city squeezed the Palestinian majority into small enclaves and stripped them of any means to defend themselves against the settlers’ daily harassments. From a bustling commercial centre, the heart of Hebron’s old city is now closed off to accommodate the "security needs" of merely 600-800 Jewish settlers, protected by a force of nearly 2,000 Israeli soldiers.

To make matters worse,  in 2019, former PM Netanyahu ended the UN Hebron mission, effectively making Palestinians more vulnerable to settler violations.

Presently, the common consensus is that Goldstein's legacy lives on, and his ideology is no longer held by a marginal, isolated group of extremists, but underpins the driving ethos of most in Israel's political coalitions in the Knesset -- and this encompasses the current Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett, and was minister for settlement affairs, to Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who brought fundamentalist settlers into Israel’s judicial system, as well as MK Itamar Ben-Gvir, who currently is spearheading the settler attacks on Palestinians in Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah. 

To Palestinians, while Goldstein targeted them dressed in army fatigues and used an automatic rifle, Bennett, Shaked, and Ben-Gvir are effectively doing the same, only dressed in suits and wielding legislation and policies.

Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.