Hebron: a parable of mistrust SPECIAL REPORT

March 03, 1994|By Dan Fesperman and Doug Struck | Dan Fesperman and Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

HEBRON, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- With his young son in his lap and his neighbors around him, Dr. Baruch Goldstein sat in his community synagogue last Thursday night to hear the traditional reading of the Book of Esther. It is a tale of wily plots and Old Testament triumph, in which the beleaguered Jews of Babylon turn the tables on a scheming foe.

At its climax, the story turns bloody: "So the Jews smote all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them."

Ten hours after hearing those ancient words Goldstein brought them to life, striding into a mosque just before dawn in this town whose history is steeped in religious hatred. He opened fire with an assault rifle on hundreds of Arabs as they knelt in prayer. Within three minutes he slaughtered dozens.

Six days later, with the region's hopes for peace momentarily overcome by Arab anger and grief, the details of the massacre are emerging as a parable of miscalculation and mistrust.

The ease with which Goldstein carried out the killing has prompted questions about government policy in the occupied territories, where the official mind-set regards Arabs as potential terrorists and is reluctant to confront danger from well-armed Jews.

Key questions about the case remain unanswered:

* How could one man firing 111 bullets kill or wound more than 170 persons?

* Why did Israeli soldiers outside the mosque not stop Goldstein once the shooting began?

* Why did the Israeli government ignore earlier warnings of Goldstein's potential for violence?

* Why was this Jewish settler, well known for his anti-Arab provocations, allowed to walk unchallenged into an Arab mosque with a loaded automatic weapon?

* Did he have help from others?

These questions were explored over the last week with Goldstein's fellow settlers, witnesses to the massacre, hospital personnel who treated the estimated 120 wounded, and the Israeli military.

Set against the backdrop of Israeli policy, many Arabs now see the case in the dark tones of a conspiracy.

Their mistrust has only been heightened by the reactions of some settlers, who have quickly built a heroic legacy for Goldstein, a New York-born zealot who immigrated to Israel a dozen years ago.

In his home settlement of Kiryat Arba, neighbors speak of how he was "brutally murdered" by the worshipers in the mosque, and he has already been likened to Mordechai, the avenging hero of the Book of Esther.

As Goldstein listened to the words of the Old Testament last Thursday night, his friends detected nothing in his behavior to suggest the plot in the physician's mind.

It was the eve of Purim, a festive Jewish holiday when children dress in costumes. The reading of the Book of Esther ushers in the feasting and celebration of the next day.

"We've gone to the reading of the Scroll of Esther together for the past 12 years," said David Ramati, a friend and neighbor of Goldstein. "He seemed no different this time than any of the others. We watched the kids scramble for candy and treats."

By the time the long service ended it was about 8:45 p.m., Mr. Ramati said. Their wives then met for their own annual tradition of Purim, to hear a reading at a neighbor's house. Goldstein went home to watch over his four children.

"He was an early riser, 3:30 or 4 a.m.," Mr. Ramati said. "He would always go to the ritual baths, and then to pray. He would be saying Psalms as the dawn was rising."

But in the moments before dawn Friday, Goldstein was already on the streets of Hebron, walking toward the mosque inside the Tomb of the Patriarchs. He was dressed in his army reservist's uniform, wearing a pistol and carrying a Galil assault rifle.

The tomb is a large, imposing stone building, befitting its 2,000 years of history. Inside are the stone tombs of Abraham and Isaac and their wives.

On one side is a warren of rough and simple rooms used by the Jews. On the other is a cavernous space with arched ceilings and carpets on the floor, where the Muslims pray.

Jews and Arabs jostle for space inside the building. The conflicts seem petty, almost juvenile in their description. But in this land, steeped in the bitterness of past grievances and the passion of ** religious righteousness, small sparks become large fires.

When the Jews would pray, the Arabs would chant, "God is Great;" when the Arabs prayed, the Jews would blow their ram horns and use megaphones to recite Hebrew prayers.

Settlers would deliberately walk on the Muslim prayer carpets in their shoes; Arabs would blow out the Sabbath candles the Jews placed around the cave.

The soldiers rarely interfered, reluctant to be drawn into the endless accusations. Unarmed Muslim guards tried to keep the two sides apart. But when tensions grew, it was clear who had the firepower.

"One day I saw a settler walking on the prayer rugs. The [Muslim] guard objected, and the settlers came and put their guns to his head," said Mohammed Abdul Rahman Abu-Taha, who prayed there daily.

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