Tuesday, February 25, 2014

20 Years After Baruch Goldstein

Today is the 20th anniversary of what I regard as an under-appreciated turning point of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Baruch Goldstein's massacre of Muslims at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron.  Goldstein was a New York-born physician who lived in the Kiryat Arba Jewish settlement within the Palestinian city of Hebron. In the early morning hours of February 25, 1994, as several hundred Muslims gathered for morning prayer, he forced his way into the mosque and began a hail of machine gun fire that killed 29 and wounded over a hundred before he was knocked down by a thrown fire extinguisher and killed.

This was the early days of the Oslo Accords, and much of the violence that would ultimately undo them stems from this massacre.  Among ideologically radical Israeli settlers, Goldstein became a holy man, whose tomb, bearing an inscription that he was "murdered in the sanctification of the Holy Name," became a place of pilgrimage and supplication.  Among those he inspired was Yigal Amir, who the next year would assassinate Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, whose advocacy of the peace process would win him the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Many, both within Israel and certainly among the Palestinians, felt that the Kiryat Arba settlers should have been removed in the wake of the massacre.  Instead, the government moved to protect them.  Hebron's Palestinian inhabitants were placed under military curfew, the beginning of a security regime which continues to this day:
Palestinians are forbidden from driving cars in many of the city’s streets and are not allowed to open stores in the city center. Checkpoints bifurcate the main streets, and in times of closure, Palestinians are forbidden from even walking on them. Some 1,800 stores that made up the lively market are now closed, many of the doors welded shut. Many were welded while the residents were inside their homes, forcing them to find ways to leave from the back...
Further along the main road, every Palestinian home and balcony is covered by dense netting reminiscent of bird cages. Every window that is not protected by the net has been shattered. Even some of the protected ones are shattered. Work of the settlers, say the residents. The settlers have turned the empty streets into a memorial museum for terrorist attacks against Jews; giant signs proudly announcing the closure of the market and the Palestinians shops cover entire walls.
Goldstein's massacre also influenced Palestinian militants.  Before the massacre, Hamas had carried out terrorist attacks against Israeli military targets in the Occupied Territories.  There was internal division over whether attacking Israeli civilians inside Israel would be legitimate.  What happened in Hebron shifted that debate decisively in favor of those who said it would be.  The first Hamas suicide bombing inside Israel would take place a symbolic 40 days after Goldstein's massacre, and such terrorism would become a feature of the Oslo years, reaching a crescendo in an al-Aqsa Intifada that became as known for suicide bombings as the First Intifada of the late 1980's was for its general strikes and other forms of non-violent protest.

Among settlers, Goldstein's actions were linked to the 1929 massacre of Jews in Hebron by Palestinian nationalists, an event which is often seen as the point of no return in developing a violent conflict between the two nationalisms.  Of the victims of that earlier massacre, 29 were rabbis and yeshiva students, thus equalling in number Goldstein's victims.  One might suggest, however, that both massacres did much of their damage in historical memory.  The overwhelming majority of Hebron's Jews survived in 1929 because they were hidden and otherwise protected by Arab neighbors.  Although the Rabin government and security establishment definitely mishandled the aftermath of the 1994 killings, Israelis overwhelmingly were horrified and condemned it in the strongest terms.  And yet, most Israeli Jews who think about 1929 see only the murderous mobs, while Palestinian memories of 1994 see state-supported settlers still in their midst and believe in conspiracy theories which make Israel much more directly responsible.

Oh, and consider this.  According to Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar's Lords of the Land, Goldstein was friends with Moshe Feiglin, a far-right Israeli politician marginalized for most of his career.  Today, however, he has become deputy speaker of the Knesset as a member of the government-leading Likud Party.

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