The Hebron Massacre: The slaughter of the innocents: 'Preserve the sanctity of this building' reads the sign at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where dozens died at Ramadan prayers

AT THE Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron yesterday they were trying to wash away the blood. But evidence of the slaughter was all around. Blood was splattered on the large stone tombs, said to be the burial places of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and revered by Jews and Muslims. Running down the large steps a thick brown trail marked where body after body had been dragged out of the mosque in the early hours of the morning. Soldiers stood guard outside under the stone walls at the main entrance, enforcing the curfew as helicopters hovered overhead. 'Preserve the sanctity of this building,' said the notice. Palestinians, ordered inside their homes, pressed faces up against their windows all around while old men bowed their heads and whispered. Teenage Jewish settlers, Uzis on their backs, mingled with the soldiers outside, smiling and joking. What did they think of the massacre - why were they laughing? 'We think it is good. We are at war with the Arabs. But even this was not worth a Jew dying for,' said one settler.

By midday the list posted in Hebron's main hospital gave the names of 49 Palestinians dead and more than 70 wounded, most shot in the back as they knelt to pray, by a Jewish immigrant from Brooklyn, Baruch Goldstein, dressed in his army uniform, who chose to celebrate the Jewish festival of Purim by drinking with friends and then perpetrating the biggest massacre of Arabs carried out by Jewish settlers since the Israeli occupation began in 1967.

'I looked up and saw my friend slumped over. His brains were on my shirt,' said Khaled Hadour, lying in the Hebron Hospital, a bullet wound in his shoulder. 'People were screaming. The shooting lasted 20 minutes. We could not get out. The soldiers just looked on.'

Was this the act of a single madman, as official Israeli sources were saying yesterday? Palestinian witnesses say the killer was not alone: others helped him as he loaded his gun. How had the settler been allowed to enter the building, asked Hebronites looking for missing relatives.

The inquiry may place sole blame on a group of radical extremists, but this was a tragedy waiting to happen. In Hebron 7,500 Jews, protected by soldiers, live among 150,000 Arabs: hatred and revenge is the way of the street. While negotiators have been talking of co- existence, bloodlust has been rising since the September peace deal.

At 4.45am the muezzin sounded the call to prayer and the curtain lifted on Hebron's latest tragedy. From the tiny streets hundreds of Hebronites emerged to walk in darkness to pray in their corner of an imposing building, which the Jews claim as theirs.

Palestinian witnesses say there had been harassment from Jewish settlers - many, they claim, were intoxicated as a result of the Purim feast, falling on the 24th day of the Muslim fast of Ramadan.

A few hundred yards from the mosque live dozens of the most extreme Jewish settlers, in the enclave of Beit Hadassah, where a small museum commemorates the massacre of 67 Jews at Arab hands in 1929. Many in Beit Hadassah and in the big fortress of the settlement of Kiryat Arba, where 7,000 settlers live, are supporters of the extreme right-wing Kach group.

Baruch Goldstein lived in Kiryat Arba and had also made his way to the mosque in the early hours. Although Jews are barred from the Tomb of the Patriarchs during Ramadan, the settlers rule the streets, throwing stones at Palestinians and scrawling 'Kill the Arabs' graffiti all around the centre of Hebron.

According to one of Goldstein's neighbours, David Waldman, the killer, a captain in the Israeli reserves, spent the evening 'taking drinks' at a friend's home. The settler was a doctor, who, say his friends, 'had seen many Jews die in his hands. He was angry at the killing of Jews'.

As usual, there were soldiers present as the prayers began, but witnesses say there were more than usual - perhaps about 10. 'I walked over from my home. There was nothing strange, except the women were set further apart from the men than usual,' said Zlieka Muhtahseb. 'We had been praying for only about one minute when there was the sound of a bomb. All the people lay down flat on the ground. Then there was shooting. There was one man, in army uniform. And there were others. The people got him and attacked him. But there were others. The shooting didn't stop.'

Natsheh Shaban was praying in the back row. His brother, Jamil, was that day performing the adhan, or call to prayer. 'Soon after we had begun to pray we heard the shots. At first I thought they were coming from outside. We didn't see anyone to start with, as the shots were coming from behind. The back row of people were hit first. The line just collapsed. I was covered in blood but I was lucky.'

Mr Shaban said he only saw the settler after he had been killed by worshippers struggling to halt the slaughter. 'But there were others,' he went on. 'There was a man with a knife and bombs. They were all in soldiers' uniform. We didn't know if they were settlers or army. What is the difference? The soldiers were doing nothing. We could not get out. Nobody was coming to help us. It was a slaughter.'

As news came through yesterday of violent reaction throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Palestinians of Hebron could only bow their heads in shock, grappling to comprehend the events of the day. Inside their enclaves, Jewish settlers also sought their explanations. 'We are all of us in shock,' said Danny Hizni, a settler in Beit Hadassah, as his wife, Ruti, a recent immigrant from Reading, ushered their children inside. 'All of us knew this man well. He was a good man. He had helped so many people as a doctor. He had had the blood of so many Jews on his hands. Sometimes people just want revenge.'

(Photograph omitted)