Divided Hebron suffers the legacy of settler's massacre

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The Independent Online
Only 20 Muslims were praying or sitting cross legged reading the Koran in the Tomb of the Patriarchs yesterday, a year after the Israeli settler, Baruch Goldstein, killed 29 worshippers with repeated bursts of automatic fire. Outside Israeli soldiers were checking the identity of a trickle of visitors who pass through two metal detecting gates before they enter the 700-year-old Mamluk al-Ibrahimi mosque.

Goldstein, a Brooklyn-born army reserve captain, was killed by survivors of the massacre but, had he survived, he would probably have been pleased by the results of his attack. The mass killing - and the failure of the government to act against the settlers in Hebron - punctured the optimism which followed the Oslo agreement of 1993. It was the first of a series of spectacularly violent events, the latest of which was the Beit Lid bombing on 22 January, as a result of which relations between Palestinians and Israelis have reached a new low.

In theory the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lie buried with their wives, is open again, but anybody wanting to get there has to negotiate seven Israeli checkpoints. Uninviting at the best of times, Hebron was yesterday shut tight as shopkeepers closed their steel shutters in response to a general strike called to mark the anniversary of the massacre.

The Israeli army fears the strike may not be the only event planned to mark the slaughter which, by the Muslim calendar took place on 15 Ramadan (25 February by western dating). For weeks the Israeli press has speculated that the Islamic militants of Hamas, who say their suicide bombing campaign is a response to the Hebron massacre, will make another spectacular attack to mark the anniversary.

Israeli troops are on alert throughout the country but nowhere more than in Hebron itself. Overnight two Palestinians were wounded by soldiers at al-Fawar refugee camp to the south. Yesterday morning,on the main road from Jerusalem, just 15 miles north, long lines of trucks and cars were waiting to be checked at a guard post, close to a large sign which read: "Welcome to Hebron."

As the line failed to move, drivers became impatient and tried to bypass the checkpoint by using a track which wandered up and down the steep hills overlooking the city. The Israelis had anticipated this and blocked the back road with rubble and concrete, but it was just possible to squeeze between the end of the barricade and the last corner house.

We gave a lift to a Palestinian named Fayad, who said was unemployed but had worked on a building site in Israel until the border was closed after Beit Lid. He said that because of the checks "only 1 per cent of the people in Hebron can get to the mosque". He warned us to be careful, saying: "My uncle, Tallal al-Bakri, was shot dead when he drove through a checkpoint manned by settlers last year."

On a hill on the eastern side of Hebron are the tall white apartment blocks of the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, where Baruch Goldstein lived for 10 years before he walked down the hill with his automatic rifle a year ago. after the massacre, the celebrations of the 7,000 settlers - famed for their chauvinism - further poisoned relations, if that were possible, with the 150,000 Palestinians who live in the rest of the city. A memorial service for Goldstein planned for this week will not improve matters. An organiser said yesterday Kiryat Arba would remember "a man murdered by an Arab mob". T-shirts printed with his face are for sale.

Inside the al-Ibrahimi mosque Yusuf Sharif, who has guided visitors around the building since the British Mandate, nervously points to the green doors, now firmly shut, through which Goldstein stepped to make his attack. He is happier showing the supposed entrance to the Cave of Machpelah, long sealed off, which Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite as a burial place for 400 silver shekels.

The custodians of the mosque have painted over the bullet marks. Israeli soldiers have installed metal detector gates. But it is too late. The patrols and checkpoints, fitted to stop another suicide bomber, show that the cycle of violence which started when Baruch Goldstein fired into the backs of worshippers in Hebron has not yet ended.