Soldiers dispute account of massacre in Hebron

March 18, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- Two Israeli soldiers acknowledged yesterday that they fired toward Arabs fleeing the mosque massacre Feb. 25 in Hebron, and they raised the possibility that gunman Dr. Baruch Goldstein had an accomplice.

Their testimony before the Israeli inquiry commission into the shooting contradicts the official army version and lends weight to accounts by some Palestinian survivors.

The soldiers, guards at the Tomb of the Patriarchs on the day of the shooting, said they saw Goldstein enter the mosque with an M-16 rifle, not an Israeli-made Galil rifle that the army said was used in the shooting. Minutes later, they said, another settler came in with a Galil.

Palestinian survivors offered a variety of impressions of the shooting. Numerous witnesses swore that Goldstein was assisted by another man; several said the other man wore a white shirt and blue jeans.

Witnesses also contended that Israeli soldiers fired at fleeing Arabs, killing one or more, and impeded the exit of hundreds of worshipers trying to escape Goldstein.

Army commanders have said that Goldstein acted alone, that all the shell casings recovered inside the mosque came from a Galil and that Israeli soldiers had fired only into the air.

Sgt. Kobi Ben-Yosef and Pvt. Nir Drori said that they personally had fired at least four bullets at the door the Palestinians were fleeing through. They insisted that they hit no one. They also said that they tried to close the door in the face of those trying to get out.

"We wanted to create a jam at the door," said Sergeant Ben-Yosef. "We thought it was an Arab who fired. We were afraid he would come out."

The sergeant denied that his shots hit anyone: "If anyone was there, he could have been hit. But no one was there at that moment."

A top Army officer, Maj. Gen. Danny Yatom, had insisted previously that soldiers had fired into the air and ceiling, not at fleeing Muslims. General Yatom and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin have insisted that Goldstein acted alone.

Four guards testified yesterday that they saw Goldstein enter the mosque in the early morning with an M-16. Two of them said that another settler entered with a Galil about five minutes later.

Sergeant Ben-Yosef said that he was certain of the weapon Goldstein was carrying.

"About five minutes after him, another man with a Galil held close to his body went in," the sergeant testified. "It was a settler I didn't know."

He said that he had been posted at the tomb for four months. "I know all the Jews there. This is the first time I came across him."

Both Jews and Arabs pray at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, and Jewish settlers carried their weapons unchallenged into the hall.

The soldiers' testimony suggests that Goldstein had assistance from another person or that he switched weapons with someone else.

The Israeli commander on duty, the soldier closest to the firing, testified yesterday that he saw Goldstein enter with a Galil rifle, wearing a uniform and carrying a walkie-talkie provided to settlers by the army.

That soldier, Lt. Rotem Ravivi, said that he had asked Goldstein as he entered if he were on army reserve duty that day, and that Goldstein replied that he was.

He did not stop Goldstein, he said, because "his profession was known. . . . He was a doctor, a doctor in the [army reserve] brigade. . . . [This] built a picture that did not arise any suspicion about Dr. Goldstein."

The lieutenant said that he did not see another settler enter the tomb with a gun.

The Israeli army has said that 29 Palestinians were killed by Goldstein and five were killed elsewhere in Hebron in clashes with soldiers that followed the massacre.

Two separate inquiries by Palestinian groups now agree that 34 Palestinians were killed in Hebron that day. Initial claims were that 50 had died.

But the Palestinian groups -- one composed of members of the Palestine Liberation Organization and another of Islamic party members -- contend that soldiers firing at fleeing Muslims at the mosque killed at least one person.

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