Hebron massacre: Twenty years on

Palestinians remember the day when an Israeli gunman opened fire at praying Muslims, killing 29 and injuring hundreds.

Pushing the wheels up the slight hill towards the army checkpoint, the strain on Kamal Abdeen’s face is plain to see. It’s not so much the physical. His arms are strong, his hands toughened. Twenty years in a wheelchair tends to do that. It’s more the emotional which makes this a difficult journey a return to the place where he was shot and paralysed.

With hundreds of others, the 20-year-old had gone to the Ibrahim Mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs for early morning Ramadan prayers. The place was packed.

A few saw when Baruch Goldstein walked in in his Israeli army reserve uniform. They must have wondered what was happening with such a puzzling sight before them. Over his shoulder, he carried his army issued Galil rifle and at least three full magazines of ammunition. Pulling his gun into position, he started firing at the kneeling worshippers and kept going.

Kamal remembers first hearing the gunfire. Those around him were not quite sure if it was coming from inside or outside. “People were terrified, some were dropping on the floor. When I turned to see what was going on, I received a bullet right here” He points to what is now a faint mark in his neck. “I woke up four months later in a hospital bed”.

Goldstein killed 29 that morning and wounded at least 125. He was only stopped when someone smashed him on the head with a fire extinguisher. The angry crowd then beat him to death. The American Israeli worked as a doctor in the local hospital. He had been a member of the Jewish Defence League, a group designated as a terrorist organisation by the US government.

All sides condemned the killing.

The massacre brought violence to the streets. More people died in days of rioting that followed. So the Israeli authorities, worried they would face retaliation on similar or even greater scale imposed heavy restrictions in the areas in Hebron where once Israeli settlers lived next to Palestinians. Two years after the massacre, in 1996, Shuhada Street, the main artery through the ancient city was closed to Palestinian Traffic. Then fourteen years ago, a large part of the street was declared a no go area for Palestinians. Homes were emptied, more than 500 shops were shuttered overnight. Human Rights groups described the action as ‘disproportionate and misdirected’.

Now to get on to the street, you have to pass a check point where young conscripts, fresh faced and suspicious at the same time, demand to see passports of anyone who is clearly not a local. At a second checkpoint, Palestinians are turned back. The rest of the street is strictly off limits, while Israeli settlers walk and drive unhindered.

In one of the homes before the second checkpoint, Mufeed Sharabati sits, nursing injuries he says were inflicted after a beating by Israeli soldiers. He shows me x-rays where pins were inserted in his back and holds up a bloody cup he says contain fragments of bones pulled from his body.
He’s 47 and lives on Shuhada Street, in the house where he was born. He and his brothers owned a tobacco shop on the street.

“Business was good, we were happy,” he said.

In a place where it seems every other person is frantically puffing on a cigarette it’s not hard to believe. But then he was told he had to close his shop.

“Overnight we were out of business. Even if we wanted to re-open again we couldn’t. The Israelis won’t allow it.”

He’s tried to understand what has happened, but he believes the massacre hurt the Palestinian community here, and the events since had made things even worse. “Palestinians have been punished, the mosque was divided, Shuhada Street was closed, stores were shut and people were caged in their homes. It’s like a prison, only you know when you will get out of prison.”

The Israelis insist by dividing the city of Hebron, they can keep more people safe.

Kamal Abdeen stops outside the mosque and looks over at its impressive clean façade. He’s only been inside twice since the shooting. It’s too painful to remember, too inconvenient in his wheelchair.

And so today, he won’t go in. He decides to go home, and he leaves. But looking at his face as he pushes his wheelchair down the hill, it’s clear the memories, the terror of that day twenty years ago never will.

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