Unprecedented open Hebron hearings rivet Israelis

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

JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin slipped in through a side door of the Supreme Court building last Wednesday, eluding reporters and photographers waiting in front.

He spent 4 1/2 hours testifying in secret session before the inquiry commission into the Hebron massacre. He then left the same way.

It was an incongruous end to the first phase of the commission's work, which has been both educational and alarming to Israelis for its open, televised proceedings.

Israelis are accustomed to having military embarrassments hidden under a cloak of secrecy for "security reasons."

But the commission appointed to investigate the mass murder of Muslim worshipers at the Hebron mosque has been a riveting change.

"This commission is putting a mirror in the face of the Israeli public and forcing people to look at things they didn't want to see," said one high government official.

Mr. Rabin was the 99th witness to testify before the commission about the massacre Feb. 25, and the last to do so voluntarily. Three Muslim guards who boycotted the commission were arrested Thursday and will be required to testify under subpoena today.

On Friday, officials released the testimony of the wife of Baruch Goldstein, the man who opened fire in the Cave of the Patriarchs. Mrs. Goldstein, who was permitted to testify in private, said of her husband's actions, "I still don't understand." She also asked the commission to reopen the question of whether other settlers helped him, a suspicion raised but still unsettled by public testimony.

The five commission members now will mull over the evidence before issuing their findings, probably in about a month. The commission's only power is to make recommendations to the prime minister. But perhaps the biggest result of its work already has been felt in its public revelations.

The hearings laid out some harsh realities of the army's military occupation: the double standards applied to Jews and Arabs, the close cooperation between soldiers and right-wing settlers, the mind-set -- reinforced by orders -- that only Palestinians are dangerous.

Israelis were startled to hear a succession of soldiers say they had clear orders never to shoot a Jewish settler, even to protect the lives of Arab civilians or themselves.

"I think even I was shocked that there was actually an order," said Galia Golan, whose leftist organization Peace Now has long argued that Israeli rule of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is unjust.

"People are now hearing things they didn't know, or didn't want to know," she said.

"We have tried all kinds of ways to get this information to the public, and it just didn't get there. It's getting there now."

The public also is seeing its military squirm in an unflattering light. The haphazard discipline of the guards of the mosque -- only half the 10-man roster showed up for duty the morning of the massacre -- and the ease with which the gunman strolled past them into the mosque with a rifle and ear protectors caused many Israelis to wince.

"It certainly has tainted the good image of the army," said

Emanuel Gutmann, an Israeli political analyst.

Open government

But apart from the warts it has uncovered, the public nature of the inquiry has been an extraordinary demonstration of open government.

"There's no cover-up. No attempt to sweep errors or mismanagement or bad judgment or 'balagan' -- disorder -- under the carpet," said Peter Medding, a professor of political science at Hebrew University. "On the contrary, it's all out there . . . for everyone to see."

The hearings have gone on for 4 1/2 weeks, and virtually all of the sessions have been broadcast live on television and radio. On the day the army chief of staff, Gen. Ehud Barak, appeared, Israel's cable channel claimed that 900,000 people watched -- in a country of only 5 million.

"There's an enormous level of interest," said pollster Hanoch Smith.

"The commission has made a precedent," said the respected Hebrew daily Ha'aretz. "The public has realized its rights to get its information first-hand, as expected in a real democracy."

Previous official commissions did most of their work in secret; none was televised. Only seven witnesses were permitted by this commission to appear behind closed doors. Day after day, Israelis watched the commission members -- headed by Chief Supreme Court Justice Meir Shamgar -- aggressively question top state officials.

Mr. Rabin was an exception. He had not been in favor of the hearings from the start, and the commission bowed to his choice to testify in private.

That decision "defeats the purpose of the whole exercise," complained opposition Parliament member Michael Eitan. Agreed Ha'aretz: "The prime minister is liable to be perceived as someone hiding from the public."

Gad Ben-Ari, the prime minister's spokesman, said that because Mr. Rabin also serves as defense minister, privy to matters about undercover intelligence and the secret police, he wanted to discuss them in closed session.

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