Massacre Probe Puts Israel Army on Defensive
Nearly a million Israelis were glued to their radios and television sets last week for an extraordinary broadcast: For the first time in history, an Arab judge aggressively interrogated the highest-ranking military officer in the land--live and in color.
The subject of inquiry: just how much blame Israel’s security forces must bear for a Jewish settler’s massacre of about 30 Palestinian worshipers in a mosque in Hebron’s sacred Cave of the Patriarchs on Feb. 25.
And Israel’s military chief of staff was on the defensive.
The sometimes harsh questioning of Gen. Ehud Barak by the Israeli Arab justice, Judge Abdel Rahman Zouabi--a scene unthinkable to many Israelis--was the latest act in a running drama that has riveted the Israeli public and forced many to re-examine their view of the powerful armed forces.
In the two weeks since the five-member Israeli Commission of Inquiry began hearing sworn testimony about a massacre that shook the nation, the official judicial body has produced an almost daily diet of startling disclosures.
These revelations have reinforced the commission’s credibility, even for some Palestinians--who nevertheless have initiated two separate inquiries of their own. And the facts have put Israel’s once-sacred armed forces on the defensive for the first time in more than a decade.
Among the disclosures from 70 witnesses who have testified before the official Israeli commission, which will continue its work for at least two more months:
* Israeli security at the cave was inadequate at the time of the massacre. Three of the six guards who should have been inside when Brooklyn-born physician Dr. Baruch Goldstein opened fire at about 5:30 a.m. were sleeping. Two others were away from their post. The only guard who was present said it was routine for guards to show up late.
In addition, security cameras that should have warned other guards that the massacre was under way were either broken or focused elsewhere. If the full guard contingent had been present and the equipment working, Barak and other senior commanders concluded, the massacre could have been prevented or stopped before so many died.
* The Israeli soldiers who were on sentry duty outside the cave that day said in testimony confirmed by their commander that they would not have opened fire on Goldstein in any event. They were under orders, they said, never to shoot at Jewish settlers, even if the settlers were killing people. Barak and other senior commanders called it a “misunderstanding,” but commission members have concluded that, at the very least, it indicated a breakdown in the chain of command.
* Israeli intelligence and military commanders in the occupied territories never imagined or planned for a Jew firing in anything but self-defense. The settlers were allowed to enter places of worship fully armed because Palestinian attacks on them in the occupied territories had escalated in recent years.
And despite increasing acts of violence by the settlers against Palestinians--a trend so clear that even Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin warned his commanders last October that it was a potentially explosive security hazard--those commanders never drew up contingency plans to defend against such a massacre.
* There may well have been a second gunman who joined Goldstein in the slaughter. Two of the Israeli sentries said they saw a second Jewish settler enter the cave before the shooting began. He was armed with a Glilon assault rifle, the weapon used in the massacre.
Goldstein, they said, was carrying an M-16 when he walked past them at the cave’s entrance. And three Palestinian survivors testified they heard shooting from more than one direction. Taken as a whole, the testimony directly contradicted the Israeli government’s conclusion that the massacre was the act of a single settler gone mad.
For the Palestinians, and even some Israelis, a host of questions remain: Did Goldstein, in fact, act alone? Was there a conspiracy that included elements of the security forces? Will the commission ever find out?
For some regular observers, the questions were echoes from another crime in another country in another time. They have likened the Israeli inquiry to that of the Warren Commission, which never quite satisfied the public demand for historical truth after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
The Israeli commission has even come to be known by the surname of the chief Supreme Court justice who heads it, Meir Shamgar, and skeptics point to several apparently critical lapses that have hampered the Shamgar Commission in its work.
The cave where the worshipers were gunned down was hosed clean of clues before the commission members paid their official daylong visit to the site, which remains off limits to the public, to the Palestinian inquiry commissions and to the press. And the commission must rely entirely on the military’s forensic and ballistic data as well as its description of the crime scene.
At least five key Palestinian witnesses--members of the religious board that oversees the shrine--have refused the Israeli commission’s invitations to testify.
Instead, the religious leaders have testified only before a commission of their own creation--a rival Palestinian inquiry board based in Hebron.
The alternative commission underscores the skepticism most Palestinians share about the Shamgar Commission. And the existence of a rival Palestinian investigation underscores the splits in their community.
For most in the occupied territories, the slaughter of the unarmed worshipers confirmed their worst suspicions about Israeli justice.
“The accused cannot be the judge,” said Abdul Aziz Dweik, chief administrator of the 11-member Palestinian commission appointed by the shrine’s religious leadership.
Dweik, who recently returned to his home in the occupied territories after Israeli authorities deported him for a year to a southern Lebanon no-man’s-land as a suspected fundamentalist extremist, said his group’s inquest has persuaded him that there were at least two gunmen in the cave that day. And he said he suspects that the massacre was the result of a conspiracy involving the Israeli army.
He conceded, however, that his panel’s work has been severely hampered by its lack of access to the crime scene and to the key Israeli military officers who have testified before the Shamgar Commission.
Hashem Salman Qawasme heartily agreed. He is chairman of the other Palestinian inquiry commission, a body handpicked by Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat within days of the massacre, apparently as an alternative to Dweik’s commission, whose members are opposed to Arafat’s peace efforts with Israel. And Qawasme also admitted that key details will be missing from both Palestinian inquiries because of lack of access.
Sitting in his commission office--two rooms on the second floor of an otherwise empty building in Hebron, with one computer, two desks, one secretary and 10 chairs--Qawasme also conceded that he has far fewer resources than the Shamgar Commission. That panel has a battery of investigators and administrators and a modern hearing room inside Israel’s Supreme Court.
But from the more than 50 witnesses his commission has interviewed, Qawasme, a veteran judge in the occupied territories, said it has concluded that there was more than one gunman in the cave.
He stressed, however, that his most dramatic finding was what he called “a second massacre,” in which the Israeli army allegedly killed five Palestinians--most of them waiting to donate blood--during rioting outside a Hebron hospital where many of the wounded had been taken from the cave.
Assessing the work of the Shamgar Commission, Qawasme said, “The (Palestinian) people don’t trust anything being done by the Israeli authorities anymore.”
Asked why he thought the Israeli government appointed the commission, he said, “I think that what this committee is for is to take away the madness of the general public after this horrible act.”
Qawasme had rare words of praise for the work of his Israeli rivals. He applauded the objectivity of the five commission members; besides Zouabi and Shamgar, they include a university president widely known for his liberal views, another Supreme Court justice and a retired general. And, citing the series of disclosures the Shamgar Commission has produced on live national television, he said: “They have some positive points. Some facts that have been unknown have been aired by them.”
The most provocative of those facts for most Israelis has been the “open-fire” order that middle- and low-ranking officers said barred them from shooting a Jew who was shooting Arabs.
Here’s how it sounded to an audience that the Israeli Broadcasting Authority estimates at nearly 1 million at any given time during Zouabi’s interrogation of Deputy Cmdr. Meir Tayar, head of Hebron’s border police:
“Even if I had been there,” Tayar said, “I could not have done anything, because there were special instructions. The open-fire instructions in the event a settler or a Jewish resident of Hebron shoots with intent: Under no circumstances shoot at him. . . . We are to overcome him by other means. For example, to take cover and wait for the (ammunition) magazine to be used up.”
Zouabi was incredulous: “You mean, to wait until he killed other people?”
And Tayar confirmed that, indeed, that was the order.
It was in response to a flurry of public reaction to such a policy that Barak last week flatly denied, before the commission and the nation, that he or any other senior officer ever gave such an order. Rather, he said, it appeared that somewhere down the chain of command his orders were “misunderstood.”
The testimony, however, gave rise to additional, widespread criticism of the security forces.
“Three security organizations are supposed to cooperate in fulfilling a clear mission: guarding the Cave (of the Patriarchs),” concluded a recent commentary in the Hebrew daily Davar, which often reflects the views of Rabin’s ruling Labor Party.
“From the testimony heard so far by the Shamgar Commission, a chilling picture is being painted of a lack of coordination and, occasionally, conflicting interests. It is a pity that we needed such a tragic and brutal event to reveal this.”
The commission’s disclosures have spawned growing concern in Israel’s political right wing about the image of a military Establishment unaccustomed to scrutiny in its task of protecting a small nation surrounded by enemies and enforcing 27 years of occupation in hostile lands.
More liberal Israeli analysts, such as Uri Avnery, brushed aside such observations. Avnery, a peace activist and frequent commentator, has attended every commission session since it opened March 8. For him, the Shamgar Commission already has done irreversible good for the army and the nation.
“I see it as a very healthy process for Israel,” he said. “The army has been a (sacred) cow for a generation. What is happening with this commission is it’s forcing us to rethink our attitude toward the army. For the first time, we’re getting a normal attitude toward the army, seeing that it is filled with normal people, both good and bad.”