The Cave of the Patriarchs massacre, also known as the Hebron massacre was a shooting attack carried out by American-born Israeli Baruch Goldstein, a member of the far-right Israeli Kach movement, who opened fire on unarmed Palestinian Muslims praying inside the Ibrahim Mosque (or Mosque of Abraham) at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, West Bank. It took place on February 25, 1994, during the overlapping religious holidays of Purim and Ramadan. The attack left 29 male worshippers dead and 125 wounded. The attack only ended after Goldstein had expended his ammunition, when he was overcome and beaten to death by survivors.
The attack set off riots and protests throughout the West Bank, and 19 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli Defense Forces within 48 hours of the massacre. Goldstein was widely denounced in Israel and by Jewish communities in the diaspora, with many attributing his act to insanity. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin condemned the attack, describing Goldstein as a “degenerate murderer”, “a shame on Zionism and an embarrassment to Judaism”. Some Jewish settlers in Hebron laud him as a hero and view his attack and subsequent death as an act of martyrdom.
In 1970s, Baruch Goldstein, who was born and lived in Brooklyn, New York, was a charter member of the Jewish Defense League, a militant group deemed terrorist by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and an anti-Arab hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
After emigrating to Israel in 1983, he served as a physician in the Israeli Defense Force, first as a conscript, then in the reserve forces. Following the end of his active duty, Goldstein worked as a physician and lived in the Kiryat Arba settlement near Hebron, where he served as an emergency doctor. Israeli press reports stated that Goldstein refused to treat Arabs, even those serving in the IDF, this was also reflected in comments by his acquaintances.
Goldstein became involved with Kach, and maintained a strong personal relationship with Rabbi Kahane, the militant Jewish nationalist whose views, regarded by the Israeli government as racist, had caused his party to be banned from the Knesset in 1988. Kahane was assassinated in 1990 by Arab militant El Sayyid Nosair, and Goldstein reportedly swore to take revenge for the killing.
Goldstein gave evidence of anti-Arab feelings far before the massacre. He was known to refuse to treat Druze soldiers that served in the West Bank, believing it was against Jewish laws to treat non-Jews even for payment. In 1981, Goldstein wrote a letter, published in The New York Times, which said that Israel “must act decisively to remove the Arab minority from within its borders”, which “could be accomplished by initially offering encouragement and incentives to Arabs to leave of their own accord”. In October 1993, inside the Ibrahimi mosque, acid was poured over the floor, leaving giant holes in the carpets, and six worshippers were assaulted. From the evidence of the sanctuary guards, Goldstein was identified as the culprit. A letter was written to Yitzhak Rabin, the then Israeli Prime Minister, by the Muslim authorities “regarding the dangers” of Goldstein and asking for action to be taken to prevent daily violations of the mosque. Four years before the massacre, an agent of Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security service, who had infiltrated Kach, passed a warning to his superiors about the danger posed by Goldstein. The agent ascribed to Goldstein the statement, “There will be a day when one Jew will take revenge on the Arabs.”
The Israeli government divided the Cave of the Patriarchs into two sections, one for Jewish worshippers and the other for Muslim worshippers. At 05:00 a.m. on 25 February, 800 Palestinian Muslims passed through the east gate of the cave to participate in Fajr, the first of the five daily Islamic prayers. The cave was under Israeli Army guard, but of the nine soldiers supposed to have been on duty, four were late turning up, and only one officer was there.
Shortly afterwards, Goldstein entered the Isaac Hall of the cave. He was dressed in his army uniform and carried an IMI Galil assault rifle and four magazines of ammunition, which held a total of 140 rounds in 35 rounds per each magazine. He was not stopped by the guards, who assumed that he was an officer entering the tomb to pray in an adjacent chamber reserved for Jews. Standing in front of the only exit from the cave and positioned to the rear of the Muslim worshippers, he opened fire, killing 29 people and wounding another 125. According to survivors, he bided his time until sojud, the prayer said while worshippers kneel towards Mecca. After someone in the crowd hurled a fire extinguisher, which struck him on the head, he was overcome and then beaten to death.
Reports after the massacre were often contradictory or ambiguous. There was initial uncertainty about whether Goldstein had acted alone; it was reported that eyewitnesses had seen “another man, also dressed as a soldier, handing him ammunition”. There were also reports that he had thrown grenades at the worshippers. Yasser Arafat suggested that the attack was the work of up to 12 men, including Israeli troops. There were also various questions as to the Israeli guards outside the cave having opened fire, while Israeli military officials claim that no Israeli troops fired on the Palestinian worshippers, the New York Times reported that over 40 different Palestinian eyewitnesses, many of them confined to hospital beds with gunshot wounds and thus “unable to compare notes”, all corroborated that three Israeli guards opened fire in confusion as the Muslims fled the shrine, with one firing into the crowd.
The testimony of various Israeli military officials was often contradictory. For instance, a Major General asserted that the guards had fired only in the air, but the guards themselves later testified to firing some shots “chest high”. The guards’ testimony was also at odds with the testimony of their ranking officer in claiming they had seen another Jewish settler enter the cave bearing arms.
List provided by the Palestine Human Rights Information Center.
- Abu Hadid, Jaber Aref Abu Sneineh, 12
- Abu Hamdiyeh Gheith, Walid Thuhair, 14
- Abu Nijmeh, Marwan Mutluk Hamad, 31
- Abu Sneineh, Abdel Rahim Abdul Rahman, 47
- Abu Sneineh, Ahmad Abdullah Mohammad Taha, 27
- Abu Sneineh, Ala’ Badr, 17
- Abu Sneineh, Tareq Adnan Ashour, 12
- Abu Hussein, Khaled Khalaweh, 55
- Abu Zanouneh, Mohammad Sadeq Ayoub, 46
- Badr, Saber Musa Katbeh, 35
- Burkan, Arafat Musa, 34
- Dandis, Talal Hamad, 24
- Fakhouri, Hatem Qader, 26
- Gheith, Mohammad Radi, 50
- Idris, Mohammad Salim Idris Falah (Imam), 35
- Jabari, Suleiman Odeh, 30
- Jabari, Abdul Haq Ibrahim, 57
- Jabber, Zeidan Hamoudi Abdul Majid, 30
- Kafisheh, Kamal Jamal, 13
- Karaki, Diab Abdul Latif, 20
- Karaki, Khaled Hamzi, 19
- Marakeh, Mohammad Kifah Abdul Mu’az, 12
- Mojahed, Nimer Mohammad Nimer, 30
- Muhtasib, Wael Salah Abed, 29
- Muhtasib, Nour ad-Din Ibrahim, 20
- Natsheh, Jamil Ayed Abdul Fattah (Muezzin), 50
- Natsheh, Raed Hassan, 20
- Rajabi, Rami Arafat, 12
- Zahded, Sufian Barakat, 20
The Kach movement, with which Goldstein was affiliated, was outlawed as a terrorist organization. The cabinet decided to confiscate the weapons of some they regarded as right-wing extremists and put them in administrative detention.
In an address to the Knesset, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin denounced Goldstein. Rabin, addressing not just Goldstein and his legacy but also other settlers he regarded as militant, declared,
You are not part of the community of Israel… You are not part of the national democratic camp which we all belong to in this house, and many of the people despise you. You are not partners in the Zionist enterprise. You are a foreign implant. You are an errant weed. Sensible Judaism spits you out. You placed yourself outside the wall of Jewish law… We say to this horrible man and those like him: you are a shame on Zionism and an embarrassment to Judaism.
Benjamin Netanyahu, then head of the Likud party, declared, “This was a despicable crime. I express my unequivocal condemnation.”
The Israeli government appointed a commission of inquiry headed by then president of the Supreme Court, Judge Meir Shamgar. The commission in the epilogue to its report called the massacre “a base and murderous act, in which innocent people bending in prayer to their maker were killed”. Among its specific conclusions were:
Goldstein acted alone in planning the massacre, telling no one of his scheme.
Coordination between the IDF, the police, and the Civil Administration was problematic.
The political leadership and security forces could not have been expected to predict the massacre.
Testimony from survivors referring to IDF assistance and grenade explosions in the massacre was found to be contradictory and inconsistent; investigators did not find any grenade fragments.
There were, as claimed by some Jews seeking to justify Goldstein’s actions as a preemptive strike, substantial warnings of a coming Hamas terror attack against Jews. It further stated:
8.2a “… warnings were issued regarding an expected attack by Hamas following the distribution of its leaflets in Hebron.”8.7a “Following an incident in Abu-Dis, which ended in the deaths of a number of members of Az-A-Din Al-Qassam of Hamas, emotions ran high among the Moslem worshipers (about two hundred), who shouted hostile slogans (“Qassam”, “kill the Jews”), [at the Jewish worshipers], making it necessary to call in army and Border Police forces. According to one of the Moslem witnesses, the Jews also shouted hostile slogans.” (This is in reference to persons present on the previous evening.)8.8a “Those in charge of security at the Tomb were given no intelligence reports that an attack by a Jew against Moslem worshipers could be expected, particularly since intelligence reports warned of the opposite: an attack by Hamas. Therefore, there was concern about an attack by Arabs against Jews.”
Critics of the commission have suggested that Shamgar’s judicial record has “consistently displayed his leniency toward the settlers, including those convicted of crimes against the Palestinians, but especially toward the soldiers who had fired at the Palestinians”.
There was widespread condemnation of the massacre in Israel. A poll found that 78.8% of Israeli adults condemned the Hebron massacre while 3.6% praised Goldstein. The Jewish Settler Council declared that the act was “not Jewish, not humane.”
Most religious leaders denounced the attack. The Sephardi Chief Rabbi said “I am simply ashamed that a Jew carried out such a villainous and irresponsible act” and suggested that he be buried outside the cemetery. His Ashkenazi counterpart Yisrael Meir Lau called it “a desecration of God’s name.” Rabbi Yehuda Amital of Gush Etzion said Goldstein had “besmirched the Jewish nation and the Torah.” Some rabbis reacted with ambivalence to the massacre, and a few praised Goldstein and called his undertaking “an act of martyrdom.” In eulogising Goldstein, Rabbi Israel Ariel called him a “holy martyr” and questioned the innocence of the victims by claiming they were responsible for the massacre of Hebron’s Jews in 1929. Rabbi Dov Lior of Kiryat Arba said he was a saint whose “hands are innocent, his heart pure” and compared him to the martyrs of the Holocaust. In response, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein of Alon Shvut denounced such eulogies, calling the act an “awful and terrible slaughter.” At the time, settler rabbi Yitzhak Ginzburgh was the only prominent Orthodox rabbi who praised the massacre. He has since been detained several times for espousing extremist views.
Veneration of Goldstein
In the weeks following the massacre, thousands of Israelis traveled to Goldstein’s grave to celebrate Goldstein’s actions. Some Hasidim danced and sang around his grave. Although the government has said that those who celebrated the massacre represented only a tiny minority of Israelis, a New York Times report states that Israeli government claims may understate the phenomenon.
In a pamphlet titled Baruch HaGever published in 1994, and a book of the same name in 1995, various rabbis praised Goldstein’s action as a pre-emptive strike in response to Hamas threats of a pogrom, and wrote that it is possible to view his act as following five Halachic principles.
The phenomenon of the adoration of Goldstein’s tomb persisted for years, despite Israeli government efforts to crack down on those making pilgrimage to Goldstein’s grave site. The grave’s epitaph said that Goldstein “gave his life for the people of Israel, its Torah and land”. In 1999, after the passing of Israeli legislation outlawing monuments to terrorists, the Israeli army acted to dismantle the shrine that had been built to Goldstein at the site of his interment. In the years after the dismantling of the shrine, radical Jewish settlers would celebrate Purim by invoking the memory of the massacre, sometimes even dressing up themselves or their children to look like Goldstein.
In the United Kingdom, Chief Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks stated,
Such an act is an obscenity and a travesty of Jewish values. That it should have been perpetrated against worshippers in a house of prayer at a holy time makes it a blasphemy as well… Violence is evil. Violence committed in the name of God is doubly evil. Violence against those engaged in worshipping God is unspeakably evil.
An editorial in The Jewish Chronicle written by Chaim Bermant denounced the Kach organisation to which Goldstein belonged as “Neo-Nazis” and a U.S. creation, funded by American money and a product of American gun culture. The same edition also reported that some liberal synagogues in the UK had begun fundraising for Goldstein’s victims.
Angry mobs began rioting in the aftermath of the massacre, which led to the deaths of 26 more Palestinians and 9 Israelis. As a reaction to the trauma induced in children in Hebron, the Palestinian Child Arts Center (PCAC), a non-governmental, nonprofit organization was founded. The activities of the centre primarily involve the intellectual development of Palestinian children, and to reinforce a positive role for the child within Palestinian society and culture.
Two separate suicide bombings took place in March 1994, carried out by Palestinian militants inside Israel and launched by Hamas’ Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, in retaliation for the massacre carried out by Goldstein. A total of 15 Israeli civilians were killed and 34 wounded in the attack, which took place in Afula on April 6, at the end of the forty day mourning period for Goldstein’s victims.
The United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 904 condemning the massacre and called for measures to protect Palestinian civilians.
The Cave of the Patriarchs massacre is also referred to as the Tomb of the Patriarchs massacre and the Hebron massacre, one of two events given that name, the other being the 1929 Hebron massacre.