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Hebron Assassin Entered Mosque Without Challenge

By David Hoffman
The Washington Post
JERUSALEM

When the militant Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein arrived at the Tomb of the Patriarchs last Friday morning, he was not challenged for carrying five clips of ammunition into the mosque.

He was not searched. Israeli army guards did not ask why he was wearing his army doctor's uniform, although he was widely known as one of the "cave meshuggenah," or "crazies" -- the settlers who constantly harassed Arabs inside the tomb's mosque.

It was dawn, and the soldiers at the massive edifice were already short of the usual Friday complement of four paramilitary border guards, who were 20 minutes late arriving for their shift. When the border guards finally got there, Goldstein had already killed 39 Palestinians as they knelt in prayer inside.

The massacre has been blamed by Israeli leaders on the actions of a lone "lunatic," a doctor who had emotional problems and a deep hatred of Arabs. An Israeli general, Danny Yatom, said there is "no force in the world" able to stop a determined assassin or terrorist, given the close quarters shared by Israelis and Palestinians.

But when Goldstein decided to undertake his grisly murders, he walked through a door left open by Israel's political and military establishment, according to knowledgeable military and political analysts. They point to both small blunders and large blind spots that made it remarkably simple for Goldstein to enter a mosque crowded with Muslims at Friday prayers -- a place that Israel had a responsibility to protect -- and open fire.

From the prime minister to the lowest soldier, Israelis have focused for nearly half a century on the threat from Arabs, not Jews. Although members of a Jewish underground were apprehended a decade ago and militant settlers have long been making vocal threats against Palestinians, Israeli society was passive when it came to the potential for Jewish violence on such a grand scale.

As a soldier wearing a uniform carrying a Galil automatic rifle, Goldstein blended in as easily on the streets of Hebron as a businessman would be in a three-piece suit on a Manhattan street corner.

"The majority of Israelis would like to believe that terrorism is something that the Arabs are doing, or the Iranians, or crazy people somewhere. We don't do that," said Ehud Sprinzak, a Hebrew University professor who has been warning for months that the militant Jewish activists should be apprehended.

Goldstein was a leading activist in Kach, the Jewish extremist group whose symbol is a clenched fist and whose members believe Arabs have to be expelled from Israel and the West Bank. Although it was a small, remote organization to most Israelis, Kach -- founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane -- thrived in the tense environment of Hebron and nearby Kiryat Arba, the Jewish settlement where Goldstein lived and worked as a doctor.

The Kach formula was no secret. In press releases, the nationalist group threatened violence and urged the expulsion of Arabs. Last year, it invited television reporters to a nighttime "training" exercise. Members went on rampages, especially around Hebron, smashing Arab car and store windows and inflicting beatings. They listened to army communications with electronic scanners and were rarely caught.

"There were two legal enforcement systems in the territories," said historian and newspaper commentator Tom Segev, "the one which acted against the Palestinians, and the one which looked the other way when the settlers acted wildly."

Even this week, the night after Rabin's government approved the arrest of Kach leaders, two of the group's leaders eluded police and appeared on national television boasting about their freedom.

Right after the attack, Rabin still insisted that it was the work of one man, not connected to any organization. At a closed meeting with foreign diplomats, according to a participant, a shaken Rabin was asked why he had not moved sooner against Kach and other extremists, and he repeated dryly that the massacre was the work of one person.

The same mentality allowed Goldstein to walk into the mosque with almost no resistance, even though the ancient tombs of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their wives is one of the most intensely fought-over religious shrines in Israel and the West Bank.

The militant settlers are well-known to the soldiers at the site and are nicknamed "cave meshuggeneh," or those who are crazy about the Cave of the Machpelah, as Jews call the site. According to Yatom, the Israeli commander, "It was not something extraordinary or unusual to see this doctor, who was well known by the soldiers, wearing his military reserve uniform and carrying his rifle."