Cloud of Hebron darkens over the Israeli military

March 22, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- The cloud over Israel's security apparatus darkened yesterday as the Israeli military governor of the West Bank testified that even Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's warnings about the potential for disaster in Hebron appeared to have been unheeded.

Brig. Gen. Gadi Zohar, the West Bank governor, told the committee investigating the Feb. 25 massacre of Arab worshipers by a Jewish settler that Mr. Rabin had warned security officials as far back as last fall to be on the alert for violence in Hebron's Tomb of the Patriarchs, where both Jews and Muslims were constantly fighting over prayer rights.

General Zohar said that he had personally warned military authorities about the potential for disaster in February, when the Jewish holy day of Purim would coincide with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Later, he said there weren't enough police to prevent conflict between Muslims and Jews at the holy site. Palestinians "definitely had the feeling as though the Jewish side, the settlers, were immune to the law," General Zohar added.

But in a theme that's developing during the hearings into the massacre, the West Bank administrator insisted that army field commanders and police -- not his department -- were responsible for law enforcement among Jewish settlers.

Indeed, the Israeli inquiry into the Hebron mosque massacre has revealed more about shortcomings in security than about the events of the mass murder.

The Israeli commission has been hampered by contradictory accounts and by the refusal of Palestinian eyewitnesses to testify before the Israeli board.

But the board is slowly piecing together an account of what contributed to the massacre. Parts of that account have been embarrassing to the military and eye-opening to the Israeli public.

Yesterday, present and former Army commanders defended security arrangements at Hebron's Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, where Jewish settlers and Arab Muslims pray separated by soldiers and police.

"I did not imagine even for a minute that a Jew could do such a thing," said Brig. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, former commander in the West Bank, explaining why Jews were allowed to carry weapons into the tomb.

The commission has heard testimony that:

* Army officials never considered the prospect of violence by Jews despite a long history of provocations by right-wing settlers.

* Soldiers believed that they had orders never to shoot at a Jewish civilian, even if he were attacking Arabs or soldiers.

* Soldiers never bothered to question why a Jewish settler known for his animosity to Arabs would enter the tomb wearing shooter's ear protectors, an army uniform and carrying an automatic rifle.

* Half the 10-man contingent of guards was absent at the 5:30 a.m. prayers when the settler, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, opened fire.

* Efforts to get the guards to duty were desultory. Some were sleeping; one refused to get up; the roster was confused and had not been posted; some guards were not even on base.

"The military does not look very good right now," mused the Hebrew daily Maariv last week. The daily Hatzofeh added that testimony points to "an absence of basic discipline in the Army . . . and negligence on the part of all ranks."

The inquiry commission has called the chief of staff of the army to testify tomorrow, clearly contemplating findings that go far beyond the immediate actions of Goldstein. Reports from within the Israeli military suggest that top officials are worried about who will be pinned with responsibility.

Even Mr. Rabin, who also serves as defense minister, has complained recently about damage caused by the testimony.

Inquiry commissions such as this one sometimes have had a great impact in Israel. Such a commission investigating a massacre at a Beirut refugee camp under Israeli control in 1982 prompted the resignation of the then-defense minister, Ariel Sharon.

This inquiry may not be able to resolve with precision the events of the massacre, in which at least 29 Muslim worshipers were killed. The board members have heard witnesses give sharply differing accounts, just as Palestinian eyewitnesses described to reporters drastically varying versions of the shooting.

The board has heard different recollections of what rifle Goldstein carried, whether he was followed in by another settler, what time he arrived and how he entered the Muslim prayer room. Although most of the accounts point to him shooting alone, the board must deal with testimony that suggests an accomplice gave him the murder weapon.

Details aside, the inquiry has confronted the Israeli public with questions about its army's 26-year occupation of the Arab territories. There was widespread surprise at revelations that Jewish settlers are largely immune from control by the military and that soldiers believed they had orders never to shoot a Jew.

The Hebrew newspapers have often raised questions about the army's actions in the territories, but Israelis have tended to consider these matters as the unfortunate consequences of dealing with hostile Arabs.

"Of course there is discrimination," said General Yaalon yesterday, addressing the question head-on. "Because even in the worst conflicts that were between soldiers and settlers . . . it did not occur to anyone that any Jew will cause injury to a soldier."

Palestinians have said that Israeli soldiers were concerned only with protecting settlers or themselves and gave little thought to protecting the civilian Arab population. In tacit agreement, the United Nations Security Council resolution passed Friday calls for an international force to oversee protection of Palestinians.

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