Hebron Arabs, housebound under curfew, are skeptical of Israeli probe

March 10, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

HEBRON, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- Arafat Mohammed listened to the army jeeps whizzing by on the street, delivering tear gas and rubber bullets in booms and sharp cracks.

He laughed when asked if he expected justice from the Israeli inquiry commission that yesterday retraced the steps of mass killer Dr. Baruch Goldstein in the Tomb of the Patriarchs a half-mile away.

Mr. Mohammed has been unable to open his plumbing supply store for 12 days. He cannot buy milk for his two children. He cannot walk on the street without fear of being arrested or shot. He, and 100,000 of his Arab neighbors, are under indefinite curfew because Goldstein, a Jewish settler, killed 30 Muslims in the mosque.

"If an Arab man harms a Jewish settler, they seal his house, destroy it, and give him life in prison. When it comes to Jews, nothing happens," he said. "I expect no justice, even if the commission would say the responsibility for the massacre is [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin's."

Most Israelis view the commission with much higher expectations. They see a respected, independent group, and wonder just how far up the chain of command they will place responsibility for the Feb. 25 tragedy.

The five members of the commission headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Meir Shamgar spent four hours in the closed tomb yesterday, talking to soldiers and Muslim officials.

According to Uri Dromi, the government's chief spokesman, they learned these new details about the massacre:

* Goldstein, the gunman, walked in with a satchel that was later found to contain "a letter of confession."

* He was dropped off at the tomb by someone driving a white car, the commission members were told.

* Two of the soldiers who saw him enter the Tomb of the Patriarchs said they noticed he was wearing ear protectors, such as those worn at a shooting range. Neither apparently challenged him.

The commission members were driven to Hebron under tight security. At the tomb, a bulky, towering stone building containing the crypts of Abraham, Isaac and their wives, they were shown the probable route the gunman took before squeezing the trigger of his automatic rifle on bowing Muslims.

Goldstein arrived at the site about 5:20 a.m., and climbed the 31 steps to the main entrance of the tomb. Carrying his weapon and dressed in an army uniform, he passed two Israeli guards there and walked down a broad hallway next to the open area where Muslim women were praying.

He turned right and entered through a steel green door, telling the Israeli officer there that he was on army reserve duty, the commission members were told.

This is the location where four soldiers and a policemen would have been stationed if had they not arrived late, according to Maj. Gen. Danny Yatom, the top commander on the West Bank.

Once inside that doorway, one turns right to areas used by Jews for prayer. Goldstein apparently turned left, entering through one of three portals to the cavernous area used as a mosque.

Reporters were not allowed to follow the commission members into the mosque area where the shooting occurred.

Mr. Dromi, the government's spokesman, said commission members were told the security cameras that pan the prayer room are not very effective.

"It didn't pick up Goldstein," he said. And there was no recording of what they did show. "There was no tape. They just don't tape," he said.

Officials of the Islamic Waqf, the overseers of the mosque within the shared Tomb of the Patriarchs, agreed to testify before the Israeli commission, said Mr. Dromi, who accompanied the commission.

They are expected to tell the commission about formal complaints they made in October that Goldstein had struck several Muslim custodians, disrupted a call to prayer, and poured flammable liquid on carpets in the mosque.

Other Palestinians may not testify. Witnesses were warned by Hamas, a radical Muslim group, not to cooperate with the Israelis. But few Palestinians feel much inclination to be witnesses at the public commission hearings in Jerusalem, said Akram Hussein, 28, an unemployed teacher in Hebron.

"They won't believe what the Arabs would say anyhow," he shrugged. "We have a proverb in Arabic: If your enemy is your judge, where will you take your case?"

Hebron was placed under a tight curfew after the massacre, a measure that Israel said was imposed to thwart Arab retaliation against Jews. The Arab residents are not allowed to work, schools are closed and people are chased off the streets.

Despite this, children dart in and out of the alleyways, pelting the army patrols with rocks, and scampering when the soldiers give chase. Throughout yesterday morning, one could hear shots and tear gas bombs in Hebron as the army tried to disperse the Palestinians.

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