Massacre is called preventable

March 09, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- The massacre at Hebron could have been prevented if all the Israeli guards had been at their posts, a top military officer conceded at the opening of Israel's official inquiry into the shooting.

If four soldiers and a policeman had not been late arriving on duty Feb. 25, they might have prevented Dr. Baruch Goldstein from walking into the mosque where he opened fire and killed more than two dozen Arabs, said Maj. Gen. Danny Yatom, army commander for the West Bank.

"The [security arrangement] could have prevented . . . the manner in which Goldstein operated, that is to say, the massacre," said General Yatom. "He . . . would not have been able to enter [the prayer hall]."

The testimony came in the first day of hearings of a commission set up to delve into the mass murder by Goldstein, an extremist Jewish settler. General Yatom said yesterday that 29 praying Muslims were killed in the attack; Palestinians say more.

The commission, which includes two Supreme Court judges, a college president, an Arab judge and a former military chief, are charged with making an independent study of the massacre. Similar commissions after past traumas in Israel's history have had considerable impact on the government.

The commission began an extraordinary public airing of the events amid recriminations that government policy encouraged Goldstein's extremism and army laxity failed to prevent his actions.

It is unclear whether Palestinian witnesses will cooperate. None has come forward in response to the government's appeal for testimony. The radical Muslim group Hamas has warned Palestinians not to cooperate with the Israeli probe.

In reconstructing the crime at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, General Yatom said yesterday that about half the guards were missing because of "local mishaps." Soldiers, border patrol guards and a policeman are stationed at the shrine because it is used by both Jews and Arabs and has long been a source of tension.

The general said a platoon commander failed to wake several of the guards, another soldier had been sent on an errand, and the policeman is often absent from the site.

General Yatom's conclusion yesterday contradicted statements he made to reporters soon after the incident, in which he asserted that the shooting could not have been prevented even if all the guards had been on duty.

In seeming to place blame on the absent guards, the general sought to shift focus from broader questions about whether the government created the climate for the massacre by arming extremist settlers and allowing them virtual free rein in Arab areas.

General Yatom said Goldstein was allowed into the tomb -- although it is still uncertain through what door he entered -- because settlers are allowed to carry their weapons into the place. Goldstein, an Israeli army reservist, was armed with a Galil automatic weapon and dressed in an army uniform.

But once inside, he might have been stopped from entering the large, cavernous hall that is used as a Muslim mosque had the guards been on duty, General Yatom said.

"There should have been a soldier next to the officer, and together they should have patrolled and moved through the halls. The soldier was missing. Next to the door there should have been two border guards. They came late," the general said. "This means that in the hall near the scene of the event there was only an officer instead of an officer plus five [other guards]."

General Yatom faced persistent questioning from Judge Abd el-Rahman Zuabi, the only Arab member of the commission, about why Jewish settlers were allowed to carry automatic weapons into the tomb. General Yatom cited previous Arab attacks on Jews in the occupied territories.

"If you take the weapon from the Jew, you expose him to dangers," he said. "The weapon is needed for self-defense. The main record is one of Arabs killing Jews."

General Yatom again insisted that no soldiers shot Palestinians as the crowd of 500 to 600 fled from the mosque after Goldstein began firing at the 5:30 a.m. prayers. He said soldiers fired warning shots into the air.

The army shot dead five Palestinians in confrontations around Hebron later that day, he said. The general said their latest count is that 29 Palestinians were killed by Goldstein and 90 wounded.

He offered no explanation of how this was accomplished with the 111 bullets the army said he fired.

General Yatom also said there were "no warnings to the best of my knowledge" about impending violence by Jewish groups before the massacre.

Israeli police and army troops apprehended two more "wanted" Jewish extremists, bringing to four the number arrested since the government announced new restrictions on settlers. They will serve three-month terms of "administrative detention" without trial.

Baruch Marzel, head of the extremist Kach Party to which Goldstein belonged, remained at large.

Hamas issued a warning Monday to Jewish residents of five settlements to evacuate their homes by March 15. The settlements included the Kiryat Arba to which Goldstein belonged.

Skirmishes between Palestinians and the army continued in the occupied territories yesterday, including Arab East Jerusalem.

The army said that two Palestinians were killed at a checkpoint in the Gaza Strip.

The army said that one of the men stopped in a car at the checkpoint aimed a gun at a soldier, prompting soldiers to fire into the car.

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