Israelis admit security lapses: Commission of inquiry opens into Hebron massacre but Palestinians say they have no faith in the investigation

THE Israeli commission of inquiry into the Hebron massacre opened in Jerusalem yesterday, but nobody from Hebron was present. The government hopes the decision to set up a commission, chaired by Judge Meir Shamgar, president of the Supreme Court, will be taken by the world as a signal of serious intent to find out the truth about the massacre at the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

Yesterday, the evidence given by Major-General Danny Yatom, the army's West Bank commander, was broadcast live on all channels. He admitted that the massacre might have been prevented if security lapses had not occurred. Last week he admitted that four out of eight duty guards were missing from their posts when the massacre happened, and yesterday he said five were missing. He also conceded that the Israeli army had never seriously considered the likelihood of a Jewish attack on Arabs and had been taken by surprise.

In Hebron, under curfew since the massacre while Jewish settlers still roam the streets with guns, the Palestinians have no faith in the Israeli investigation. 'The massacre is still going on. Two more were massacred on Monday,' said Aziz Dweik, referring to the deaths of two Palestinians shot dead in Hebron at close range by Israeli soldiers. Yesterday two more Palestinians were shot dead by Israeli soldiers in Gaza, bringing to 30 the number of Palestinians killed since the massacre.

Palestinian leaders in Hebron have launched two inquiries of their own - one on the orders of Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and one under the auspices of the Islamic authorities. 'How can you be the enemy and the judge at the same time,' said Mr Dweik, a member of the Islamic investigation team. 'We have no interest in what the Israelis are saying.'

Several crucial questions remain unanswered. Most Palestinian eyewitnesses speak of more than one gunman, or gunfire coming from more than one direction. Some speak of the gunman, Baruch Goldstein, having an 'assistant' who helped him load the ammunition. Palestinian doctors in Hebron say multiple injuries indicate gunfire coming from more than one direction. But the Israeli army insists there was only one killer, using only the gun he was legally allowed to hold as a reserve soldier.

Palestinian eyewitnesses consistently talk of hearing a bomb or a grenade before the shooting began. Doctors in Hebron say shrapnel injuries may be consistent with such a bomb, or may suggest that high-velocity bullets were fired in addition to those from Goldstein's Galil rifle. The Israeli army denies any evidence of a bomb.

Palestinian eyewitnesses also consistently describe how before the massacre women were told by soldiers to pray in a separate room from the men for the first time in living memory. The Israeli army says this was due to the large numbers expected at the prayers.

Not even the number of dead has yet been established. Israel says 30 died in the mosque, while Palestinians say the figure is much higher.

Mr Dweik says witnesses at his inquiry will tell the truth. 'Justice is an ultimate goal in Islam,' he says. But it is doubtful whether any inquiry - Israeli or Palestinian - will establish the truth.

The Israeli commission will hear evidence almost exlcusively from the Israeli army, which moved immediately to close off the mosque after the crime had happened, barring independent investigators or lawyers and removing the evidence. Not one Palestinian eyewitness is expected to come forward to give evidence, even though the commission placed advertisements in the Arabic press last week calling for witnesses.

Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, denies threatening would-be witnesses, although it is clear that Palestinian participation in the inquiry would be seen as a form of 'collaboration'.

(Photograph omitted)