Hard core Israelis remember man who killed 29 Palestinians kneeling in prayer

 

ON TUESDAY night, hundreds of happy revellers converged on Kiryat Arba, the hard core Jewish settlement adjacent to Hebron, to celebrate the 13th birthday - the bar mitzvah or coming of age - of Ya'acov Goldstein.

Ya'acov is the son of the late Baruch Goldstein, the American born doctor who, in February 1994, opened fire indiscriminately on rows of Palestinians kneeling in prayer at Hebron's Cave of the Patriarchs, killing 29 of them before being overpowered and killed.

Most Israelis, from the then prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, on down, condemned the Hebron massacre and its perpetrator. But in Kiryat Arba, Baruch Goldstein's grave has become an elaborate shrine, a marble monument set in a tranquil tree lined flower garden.

Said one middle aged woman on her way to the bar mitzvah: "If there was a murderer in this country, it was Yitzhak Rabin." And what of Baruch Goldstein, she was asked. "He saved Jews," she retorted.

When it was time for the speeches, according to the one Israeli reporter who managed to sneak into the bar mitzvah celebrations, one orator after another got up to praise Baruch Goldstein.

And Dr Dov Lior, the rabbi of Kiryat Arba warmly urged young Ya'acov to "follow in your father's footsteps. He was a righteous man, and a great hero".

Almost three years after Goldstein's Hebron massacre, and a year after Mr Rabin was assassinated by another right wing Jewish zealot, Mr Benjamin Netanyahu's Israeli government is on the brink of withdrawing most of its troops from Hebron, leaving just a small force to safeguard the 450 Jewish settlers in the town.

Virtually every Israeli security official, cornered privately, acknowledges that, when the army leaves, the city is "going to blow up".

It may be the Jewish radicals who fire the first shots - those keen to follow in the footsteps of Goldstein; it may be Hamas, the Islamic extremist movement that boasts considerable support in Hebron. But gunfire and bloodshed there will be. Both sides are promising it.

Understandably reluctant to march open eyed into certain disaster, the Israeli security forces have compiled a report on the likely consequences of the Hebron redeployment. The only way to ensure relative calm in the city, it concludes, is to remove the Jews.

Last night, the minister of internal security dismissed the report. Mr Netanyahu ridicules the notion of Jews ever leaving Hebron altogether.

Even talk of staging the military pullout on the Jewish sabbath, in the forlorn hope that the religious hardliners might not use their weapons on the day of rest, has apparently been scuppered by Orthodox politicians threatening a coalition crisis if the army is forced to desecrate the sabbath.

Not all of Israel's religious leaders and their followers regard Mr Netanyahu's reluctant readiness to redeploy in Hebron as an act of betrayal. But much of the religious mainstream does, and many dissenters are afraid to speak out.

One of the celebrants at the Kiryat Arba bar mitzvah was Mrs Miriam Lapid, whose husband and son were murdered by Palestinian gunmen three years ago. Baruch Goldstein was the doctor who tried in vain to save their lives, and carried out his massacre soon afterwards.

Yesterday, Mrs Lapid praised Goldstein's integrity, refused to define his actions as murder, and reserved her invective instead for Mr Netanyahu, whom she said was "abandoning the Jews of Hebron".

It was precisely that kind of language that was used among the Israeli right wing to delegitimise Mr Rabin's government. Then, the words were followed by violence. The fear is that they will be again.