A city of devastation: Hebron 20 years after the massacre

Streets for Jews only, shuttered stores, spitting, throwing stones and daily harassment by soldiers and settlers alike. Since terrorist Baruch Goldstein committed a massacre at the Cave of the Patriarchs 20 years ago today, the situation of Palestinians in Hebron has only deteriorated.

By Einat Fishbain / ‘The Hottest Place in Hell’
Read this post in Hebrew here
+972-Hamakom Hebron special coverage

Nobody, not even Abraham himself could convince the Palestinians of Hebron that Baruch Goldstein — many of them insist on calling him “the doctor” and sometimes even “professor” — acted alone. Moaz Jaabari, who was an 11-year-old boy when his father was shot to death as he stood next to him in the Isaac Hall, describes how he saw “another Baruch Goldstein” bring the doctor another weapon as he shot in every which direction, and that two soldiers shot at the worshippers as they were fleeing the mosque.

“They took three bullets out of the sheikh’s stomach, each of a different type,” the tour guide swears, pointing at the sheikh who is climbing the stairs to the prayer space. Already in the first days after the shooting, the surviving worshipers testified about “another source of shooting.” “All of the Arabs know,” Abed el-Karim Jaabari, Moaz’s uncle. “He had another three people, two in uniform and one not. Three people walking around freely.”

Two soldiers who were guarding the eastern gate of the Cave of the Patriarchs testified about it to the Shamgar Commission that investigated the massacre: Goldstein entered the Cave carrying an M-16 in his hand, and another man arrived immediately afterward, carrying an IMI Galil assault rifle. All of the shooting in the Cave, according to the commission’s conclusions, came from Goldstein’s personal Galil rifle, which was taken from his hand after he was subdued and was found afterward covered in a blanket under a bookshelf holding Qurans. The soldiers must have been mistaken in their identification, the Shamgar Commission concluded, because “such an unknown gunman wasn’t discovered and wasn’t seen after the shooting.”

From the large number of casualties — 29 worshipers killed and another 125 wounded (500-600 if you ask the Palestinians), from the at least 108 shots that were fired in the Issac Hall — it is difficult to believe that this was the act of one man, and that, it seems is the main reason for the rampant rumors in Hebron to this day. “The shooting indicates an increased efficiency of firing capabilities,” the commission’s report states, an increased efficiency born of, among other things, the density of the crowd of worshippers, how fast the shots were fired, the short range of the shooting and the ricochet and continued impact of the bullets after they had already struck the worshippers.

The entrance to Isaac Hall, where the massacre took place 20 years ago. (Photo by Einat Fishbain)
The entrance to Isaac Hall, where the massacre took place 20 years ago. (Photo by Einat Fishbain)

Just under two pages of the report are dedicated to the question of “if Goldstein acted alone, or whether he was aided by other people?” The answer comes quickly: there is a theoretical possibility that in order to to gain entry to the Muslim side of the Cave, Goldstein exploited “the naivete, tacit consent or acquiescence of the soldiers or Jewish worshippers, who didn’t know what his true intentions were.” However, there is still no evidence, and the soldiers’ unresponsiveness and tacit consent remain in the theoretical realm. The report concludes: “It was, therefore, according to the evidence in our possession, the act of one man.”

This is not to imply that Baruch Goldstein had partners in committing the massacre. The Shamgar report is a serious document, which is actually impressive in the frugality of its words; its most serious conclusion was about the army’s standing order at the time “not to shoot at Jews”; well-known murders are a magnets for conspiracy theories and they are accompanied by distrust of the authorities (as always) and an inability to comprehend the magnitude of the tragedy — there is almost no logical step that can put the horses back in the stable.

It is not the mystery that sets apart the Cave of the Patriarchs Massacre. Rather, it is the fact that it is an event that hasn’t ended — it continues to exist, for 20 years, with or without those same three ghost accomplices. It continues in the mind of every person who passes through the area at any given moment — even for the children who were born years after the massacre. It exists between the shuttered shops on Shuhada Street, in the alleyways of the bleeding market, in the empty city square. The sound of the more than 100 bullets from Goldstein’s Galil continue to reverberate, because life never returned to the center of Hebron. Since Purim 1994, the city is a bleak monument to its own past.

Something else every day

Mufeed Sharhabati returned this week from Jordan, where he had surgery. He is lying on his orthopedic bed on the first floor of his childhood home, his wife and their five children live on the third floor but he is not able to go up to them. He holds fragments of his spine in a small cup — the X-rays from Al-Hayyat hospital in Amman show huge screws holding together his vertebrae.

The house is located on Shuhada Street, across from the Hadassah House – a blossoming settler area. The first floor used to be home to the family shop, which once sold clothing and then switched to nargila products. It barely supports Shaharbati and his brothers. They all had other jobs as well. Sharhabati, for instance, was a plumber who says he worked in Israel until 1998. After the massacre, the shop closed down, its door is still welded shut to this day.

“We can talk about what happened then but we want to talk about the 20 years that have passed since,” Sharhabati says when asked about the massacre. “Since then not a day goes by without disruptions, whether by soldiers or with settlers. If it doesn’t happen to us, it happens to our neighbors. Something happens every day: on the way to Shuhada, in Tel Rumeida, at the mosque. There is no one who still lives here who hasn’t been beaten up by settlers or soldiers. My brother, Zidan, lost his eye in 2006 after a settler threw a stone at him. My oldest daughter was 11 when she was beaten up by settlers on her way to throw out the garbage. But that was our mistake — we never allow our children to leave from the house’s [front] entrance.”

“The world didn’t take advantage of this opportunity to do something. At the time we thought that not a single settler would remain in Hebron, nor a single soldier. America and the Arab world were talking about peace. Nothing happened in Hebron. It is as if they removed [Hebron] from the rest of the territories and closed down the city. The heart of the city is closed.”

Mufeed Sharhabati. (Photo by Einat Fishbain)
Mufeed Sharhabati. (Photo by Einat Fishbain)

Goldstein committed the massacre at a critical point in time, and it was a single act of terror with an enormous impact — the intention of the operation was harrowingly realized. The Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, arousing opposition among Palestinians and the Israeli right. The signing was followed by a period of violent attacks against both soldiers and civilians, some in Hebron and in nearby Kiryat Arba, as well as attacks from the Jews of Hebron. More Palestinians were killed during the riots that broke out in the wake of the massacre. It was at that time that Prime Minister Rabin was advised to exploit the situation and evacuate the Jewish settlement of Hebron. Rabin refused. Instead, a two-month curfew was placed on the Palestinian population in order “to prevent revenge.” Forty days after the massacre a suicide bomber blew himself up in the northern city of Afula, murdering eight people. It was the first suicide attack inside Israel. In November 1995, Yitzhak Rabin was murdered in Tel Aviv’s Malkhei Israel Square, in a devastating act of resistance to the Oslo Accords.

The curfew was never actually lifted — it merely changed shape, deepened and destroyed daily life in Hebron as it existed until the mid-90s. In 1994, 322 shops were permanently closed on Shuhada. The Hebron Agreement was signed on January 15, 1997, dividing the city into two: the Palestinian Authority would be granted control of 18 square kilometers and a population of 120,000 Palestinians (H1), while Israel controlled the remaining part of the city, which includes the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Shuhada Street and the Casbah (H2). At the time of the signing, 35,000 Palestinians lived in H2. Today only 22,000 remain, living alongside 750 settlers (100 families and yeshiva students). MK Orit Struck, from the Jewish Home party, is one of those settlers. The Second Intifada broke out in September of 2000, and attempts to reopen the street ceased.

To this day, Palestinians are forbidden from driving cars in many of the city’s streets and are not allowed to open stores in the city center. Checkpoints bifurcate the main streets, and in times of closure, Palestinians are forbidden from even walking on them. Some 1,800 stores that made up the lively market are now closed, many of the doors welded shut. Many were welded while the residents were inside their homes, forcing them to find ways to leave from the back. Behind the walls and steel doors of the main street are mazes of broken walls, exposed staircases, wooden beams that connect floors and lead from place to place. Among the ruins are rows of shops that stand on the side of the road, once part of the “gold market.”

Further along the main road, every Palestinian home and balcony is covered by dense netting reminiscent of bird cages. Every window that is not protected by the net has been shattered. Even some of the protected ones are shattered. Work of the settlers, say the residents. The settlers have turned the empty streets into a memorial museum for terrorist attacks against Jews; giant signs proudly announcing the closure of the market and the Palestinians shops cover entire walls.

A Palestinian girl in Hebron. (Photo by Einat Fishbain)
A Palestinian girl in Hebron. (Photo by Einat Fishbain)

Sharhabati’s back was destroyed because, according to him, he wanted to finish a wall between the kitchen and bathroom. “I have a plan with government approval from 1972. I wanted to renovate by making the kitchen bigger and separating it from the bathroom,” he says. “The Civil Administration came and said it’s forbidden. Why? Because it’s a closed area. I went to the District Coordination and Liason office, which worked quite a lot with the Civil Administration, and they said that I can bring in things such as cement, sand and gravel, but only by foot, which is a haul of more than 700 meters. On the way, the settlers photographed us and brought the entire government of Israel – the Civil Administration, the police and the army.

Sharhabati’s story is difficult to digest. According to him, an officer arrived at his home and tried to stop him from bringing the bags into his home. They waited together until he grew tired and decided to lift the sandbags and continue, despite the officer’s threats that he would be arrested. He says that he cupped some sand in his hand to show the soldier “this is sand, not explosives.” He lifted the bag, heard the instructions to have him arrested, was taken to the nearest base and beaten up. The next thing he remembers is waking up in a hospital, his body recovering from the beatings. He still suffers from bleeding inside his head (doctors have advised him to undergo surgery), and his broken back is most likely due to blows from a rifle butt.

At first he was in a wheelchair and later moved to crutches. He did not receive approval to undergo surgery at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, and was therefore resigned to traveling to his sister’s home in Jordan for a month. Mufeed’s brother brought the bags of sand and gravel to the roof of the Sharhabati home, where they now sit idly.

One of the most difficult things things here is seeing two populations that hate each other so passionately living side by side, refusing to separate. Haven’t you thought about simply moving to H1?

Sharhabati: “This is my home. Where am I going to go? This is my family’s home. They are doing this so that we’ll leave. We won’t.”

In the entrance of his home, where the settlers park their cars, one can see flickering lights and the sound of welding. They are building in Beit Hadassah.

The IDF Spokesperson hadn’t respond to a request for comment at the time of this report.

Abed Al-Karim Jaabari. (Photo by Einat Fishbain)
Abed Al-Karim Jaabari. (Photo by Einat Fishbain)

At the end of a maze of broken stairs and beams there is a kindergarten that was built by the Sharhabati family.

‘Not even the police will help you’

“Blank check” is another common tale in Hebron, much more enjoyable than the three shooters in Isaac Hall. “Gutnik wanted to give me a blank check,” says the owner of the only store still open near the Tomb of the Patriarchs. “In exchange for me leaving and giving him ownership of the shop, he told me to write as many millions as I want, 10 million is also good. Just take it.” Another Jewish settler millionaire made a similar offer to Abed Al-Karim Jaabari, along with free plane tickets and a chance of a new life outside of the country. Jaabari refused and continued to try and work his family’s 35 dunam plot, located in a geographically and historically impossible spot.

Below him is the border between Hebron and Kiryat Arba, with a checkpoint manned by local settlers who double as security guards (it’s up to them who gets to pass through), a stone’s throw from Baruch Goldstein’s grave. Above is Givat Ha’Avot, a quiet neighborhood in Kiryat Arba, home to Kahanist activist Itamar Ben-Gvir, the Goldstein family (the widow and her children, although there are rumors that they have recently moved to a different neighborhood) and other extremist celebrities. An illegal outpost sits at the edge of the settlement where one can see a makeshift synagogue wrapped in green plastic. No matter how many times the army promises to remove it, it always returns. When Jaabari goes out to harvest olives on his land, the chances of being struck by rocks is greater than not. He asks guests to park in the yard of his house so the good neighbors won’t throw rocks at them. At the edge of the hill there is a police station, which Jaabari used to regularly visit in order to complain about attacks against him and his children. That is, until he understood that even that trip could end in violence.

The Isaac Hall in the Cave of the Patriarchs (Photo by Einat Fishbain)
The Isaac Hall in the Cave of the Patriarchs (Photo by Einat Fishbain)

For years Jaabari took care of his brother’s (Abed Al-Hak Jaabari) children, after he was killed in the massacre at age 56. He left behind four boys and nine girls. “I was like their father,” he says, “until they grew up and got married. Some of them left and some stayed to live here. We took care of Mo’az more than any of the other children. Today he is a teacher, but for years he was not in good shape. He would see his father every night, the way they shot him, how everyone was yelling inside the Cave. We took him to a special doctor. Mo’az lives nearby, he has stayed close.”

“I went into the Ibrahimi Mosque with my mother and father,” Mo’az Jaabari says. “My mom went to the women’s side and I went with my dad to the hall where the tomb is. We were in the middle of the first prayer when Baruch Goldstein came, hurled two explosives and started shooting. He shot at the worshippers. I was standing and someone told me ‘lie down, lie down,’ and I fell to the floor. My father said, ‘My son, my son, where is my son?’ and he was shot three times — in his stomach and in his heart. I saw it. I saw Baruch Goldstein dressed in a soldier’s uniform, a hat on his head. He put something in his ears so he wouldn’t hear all the noise. I saw everything. When I saw my father fall on the ground I screamed, I called for people to take him to the hospital and went home crying. My mother was with me, screaming, yelling. He died in the hospital.”

“After the massacre I would wake up screaming that they’re shooting at us, at my father. It’s not like that anymore. I always remember my father on Fridays, because on Fridays we would go to the Ibrahimi Mosque. Today I’m a teacher at at an elementary school; I teach English. Mostly grammar and tenses, not as much talking. I had a baby 10 months ago, named Amir. I want to tell Israelis to make peace with us. The settlers, too; some of them are good and some aren’t. I have a friend in Kiryat Arba, Abraham, whom I visit. Both of us are from this land. We need to make peace.”

Near the Cave of the Patriarchs, young Palestinian children beg for money, fighting each other over every shekel. When people start appearing on the streets they try to sell whatever they have at hand. A place with more than 70 percent unemployment, the poverty is unbearable. A moment of normalcy: a group of students in school uniforms return from school and all of a sudden things don’t seem as bad as they say, because look, children are walking and nothing is happening to them. After a second there is an explosion – a soldier throws a stun grenade between two groups of children – they remain unfazed and continue walking. The soldier’s voice rises from behind the smoke, yelling: “Go! Yalla! Drive!” Angry, perhaps giving a warning of some huge wave that may soon rise.

Inside the Cave, border policemen stand near two locked doors on the Jewish side, never going more than a few paces away. Female worshippers wrapped in prayer shawls peer through the door — the same one Goldstein walked through to get to the hall — trying to catch a glimpse of Isaac’s tomb. You can only see a piece of fabric through the crack, making it seem like the women are fervently praying to a metal door, the separation door. Embroidered blue drapes cover the other entrance, the one that Goldstein most likely planned to escape through, but which he found locked. Suddenly a soldier approaches, opening the door with a simple key in order to allow a religious-looking Palestinian man to pass.

Female worshippers press themselves against the metal door. This is what it looks like from the Jewish side. (Photo by Einat Fishbain)
Female worshippers press themselves against the metal door. This is what it looks like from the Jewish side. (Photo by Einat Fishbain)

The soldiers rarely enter the the Palestinian side. The Jews are forbidden from entering, though it is easy to pass the checkpoint?, go up the stairs and stand in the beautiful hall full of heavy rugs and beautiful lamps. A few bullet marks can still be seen on the walls, and the tour guide points them out. There are no other signs of what happened there, no commemorative plaques or signs. It’s here of all places, of all the places in the city, that one can’t feel death hanging in the air. I can’t seem to understand whether, for the worshippers, this will always be a places where the massacre took place, or if over the years it has gone back to being a holy place where yet another historical event took place, an especially evil one.

It doesn’t matter. The needs of a journalist, of a person who comes from a certain point of view, to understand their place, to state his/her presence, the change they go through, the moment, some kind of process, lacks all significance. The reality of Hebron does not care about people who are trying to understand their place. It is a reality that digests itself slowly, atrophying in a way that is hard to comprehend. It is impossible to get used to Hebron. The empty streets are full of residents and passersby who live on hate, and in constant fear, where big ideas lead them and their children to a dead end. Hebron is not a microcosm of the conflict, as it is often presented. It is not the conflict in a nutshell, as Americans love to say. Hebron is the end of the conflict, as it implodes into itself, taking with it everything that remains alive.

*In preparation for this article, I traveled to the H2 area of Hebron with ‘Breaking the Silence.’

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