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8 Months after Massacre, Fortified Tomb Reopens

By Barton Gellman
The Washington Post
HEBRON, West Bank

Israeli authorities changed what they could, grafting electronic gates onto ancient stone walls and ringing the perimeter with cameras. When the Tomb of the Patriarchs reopened here Monday, eight months after a Jewish settler gunned down 29 Muslims at prayer, the army had built it into a fortress.

Yet if the structure stood transformed, the attitudes of its claimants had also hardened. In a cold, driving rain, Jews and Muslims came to vent their rage at sharing the site where Abraham and his progeny - regarded as patriarchs in both religions - were laid to rest.

For Monday, at least, the new arrangements held. Zealous Jews tried to disrupt Muslim prayers, but all they could do was shout and pound on the tall steel doors erected to divide the antagonists. Islamic militants threatened to stage an attack, but none took place.

Every entrant to the tomb passed through two metal detectors and a phalanx of police. Only 300 of each faith could go in at a time, and Jews and Muslims were prevented from mingling. Embarrassed at their ghetto connotations, the army hastily removed new signs reading "Passage for Jews" and "Passage for Muslims," but separate entrances and prayer halls remained.

Outside the tomb, Hebron remains a focal point for struggle between Jews and Palestinians - a struggle that is violent and spiteful. No one speaks of a "peace process" here. Each side claims the same place, every inch of it, and there is not a voice of compromise to be heard.

"You can't command all the people to behave in a non-violent way," Mustafa Abdel-Nabi Natshe, the PLO-appointed mayor of Hebron, said in an interview. "Maybe one expresses his point of view in a political way. Others, they behave violently. We are afraid the Arabs or the Jews will commit a new massacre."

The talk of killing was not far beneath the surface.

Ephraim Rosenstein, a Jewish settler from Kiryat Arba, praised the man who committed last February's massacre. Baruch Goldstein, the American-born physician who brought his assault rifle to the tomb and fired into the mass of kneeling Muslim worshipers, was actually preventing a "massacre of the Jews," Rosenstein said.

"In 100 years they will say (Prime Minister Yitzhak) Rabin and (Foreign Minister Shimon) Peres were small players in the era of Goldstein," Rosenstein said. Leaving the tomb, he collected a .45 caliber pistol from soldiers who now require entering Jewish worshipers to check their guns.

Said Tamimi, 70, whose son Nidal died recently in a confrontation with soldiers, expressed the Palestinian view.

"This land we inherit, father after father, father after father," he said. "The Jews, they are gathered from different countries, and they come here, and they are immoral. Sooner or later, one day, we will kill them."

Deputy Defense Minister Mordechai Gur expressed the hope that "after the first emotional reaction, logic will prevail."

Hebron, however, has been a magnet for extremists, a stronghold of both the banned Israeli nationalist group Kach and the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas. Their mutual rejection is sometimes expressed in strikingly similar language.

From his office at the Islamic Trust, Sallah Natscheh pored over a blue-and-yellow schematic diagram of the tomb. Every part from which Muslims are excluded, he said, is anathema. "All parts of the mosque are important to Muslims," he said, "and we will never, ever forgive any of it."

The Jews, he said, "have no relation with Abraham. There is no relation of Abraham to Judaism."

Not far away, at the Jewish Hebron Settlers Gift Shop, settler Dani Hizme pulled out a similar schematic diagram, this one in orange and black. It showed all the places Jews cannot go in the new arrangement.

"The Arabs," he said, "they don't know exactly the connection between Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They don't have a real connection."