Twenty-eight years ago today (on 25 February 1994), less than six months after the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat signed the landmark Oslo Accords in Washington DC, during the overlapping religious holidays of both the Jewish Purim and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, extremist Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein carried out a massacre targeting Muslim worshippers who were performing the dawn prayer (Fajr) at the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron.
This gruesome attack left 29 worshippers martyred and more than 150 others injured, before Goldstein was overpowered and beaten to death.
Word of the attack unleashed mass Palestinian protests across Hebron, the West Bank and Gaza, leading to an estimated 20 to 50 more fatalities, including nine Israelis, with more than 150 injuries recorded. The fallout from the massacre had far-reaching political and economic consequences that remain in place today.
The heart of Hebron’s history centres around the Ibrahimi Mosque, also known as the Cave of the Patriarchs, located in Hebron’s Old City, which tradition holds is built on the burial site of biblical patriarchs such as Abraham. It is revered by Muslims, Christians and Jews alike.
The aftermath of the Goldstein massacre provoked international outrage and condemnation. The United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 904 without a vote, calling for “measures to be taken to guarantee the safety and protection of the Palestinian civilians throughout the occupied territory”. Resolution 904 resulted in the creation of the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH), which was supposed to protect the Palestinian population.
However, Israel only allowed TIPH to act as observers, leaving Palestinians in Hebron at the mercy of settlers and the soldiers assigned to protect them.
In response to the international outcry, the Israeli government created a commission of inquiry that found Goldstein, a follower of the manifestly racist Rabbi Meir Kahana — an Orthodox Jewish American known for his ultra-nationalist ideology and for founding the Kach party in 1971 — had acted alone. The decision effectively absolved Israel of any responsibility
From the time that Israel was established in 1948, its policies and legislation have been shaped by an overarching objective: to maintain a Jewish demographic majority and maximise Jewish Israeli control over land to the detriment of Palestinians. To achieve this, successive Israeli governments have deliberately imposed a system of oppression and domination over Palestinians. The key components of this system are territorial fragmentation, segregation and control, dispossession of land and property and denial of economic and social rights.
Hebron is a city built around its most ancient relic, the Ibrahimi Mosque, a sacred structure listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2017, which should bring worshippers together, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim. Instead, the reality of Zionism and settler colonialism in Palestine has instead rendered the Mosque an apartheid construct, not a unifier.
The political, social and economic consequences of Israeli colonial expansion, the closures and movement restrictions, and the excessive use of force continue to affect the lives of all Palestinians, not only in Hebron.
In recent years (since around 2020), a succession of human rights groups in Israel and globally have conducted monitoring and have produced highly critical reports of Israel’s practices, mechanisms and measures and wider policies aimed at creating a coercive environment that triggers the forcible transfer of Palestinians from their land.
Israel’s policies in Hebron’s Old City reveal a system that infiltrates every aspect of daily life for Palestinian residents. Violating international humanitarian and human rights law, the Israeli regime creates a coercive environment that triggers forcible transfer of Palestinians living in the Old City.
Israel continues to restrict Palestinian rights, including free movement and access to property, while strengthening military protection of the colonisers. This in turn emboldens them to harass, abuse and attack the Palestinian population.
To this day, Palestinians under Israeli rule continue to experience widespread abuses, including killings through the excessive use of force, torture, arbitrary arrests and long-lasting curfews over wide areas. Strict and arbitrary controls on movement impede their ability to earn a living, study at universities, obtain goods and services and otherwise conduct their everyday lives.
The West Bank city, long a flashpoint of conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, has been the scene of widespread human rights abuses since the renewal of violent clashes on 29 September 2000, an uprising that Palestinians commonly refer to as the Al-Aqsa Intifada.
Hebron is the only major Palestinian city in the West Bank that remains in substantial measure under the direct control of the Israeli Defence Force. The crisis in Hebron, as in the rest of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, has at its core a disregard for human rights and international humanitarian law.
In November 2000, Human Rights Watch, in consultation with individuals and other organisations, undertook a two-week fact-finding mission to the West Bank and a three-week fact-finding mission to the West Bank and Gaza in February 2001 and released a study of human rights abuses in Hebron district.
As published in its report, Center of the Storm, the research found serious and extensive human rights abuses in the district, including excessive use of force by Israeli soldiers against unarmed Palestinian demonstrators, unlawful killings, unacknowledged assassinations of suspected Palestinian militants, attacks by Palestinian gunmen directed against Israeli civilians living in settlements and in circumstances that have placed Palestinian civilians at grave risk from Israeli response fire, disproportionate Israeli gunfire in response to Palestinian attacks and extensive abuses by Israeli settlers against Palestinian civilians.
In another report published in April 2021, Human Rights Watch said Israel was using “apartheid”. The report further noted that Israel was guilty of “persecution” under international law, because it deprives Palestinians of “key fundamental rights” based on “their identity as Palestinians”. The report concluded that the actions from Israel across a broad spectrum undermine the Palestinian people and deprive them of their universal and inalienable right to self-determination and equality. It goes against internationally adopted human rights instruments, violates international law, further provoking political tension, and endangers international peace and security.
The debate about whether the Israel-Palestine situation can be termed as apartheid has been gaining traction. After a four-year investigation, Amnesty International (AI), one of the most prominent human rights groups in the world, published on 1 February 2022 a comprehensive report entitled, Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians; Cruel System of Domination and Crime Against Humanity.
Amnesty’s report documents comprehensively the systematic discrimination and how Israel enforces a system of oppression and domination against the Palestinian people. Amnesty International became the fourth major human rights group to indict Israel for creating and maintaining an “apartheid” system to control Palestinians.
Amnesty’s report meticulously details the realities on the ground and what many Palestinians, activists and allies have said for years. The report has been widely received as an in-depth and concise compilation of incidents, policies and aggressions against Palestinians living under occupation and apartheid.
Some of the incidents and realities covered in the report include home demolitions, unjust imprisonment, detention of children, lack of water access, endless checkpoints, curfews and many more human rights abuses.
Over the last two years, South Africa has been instrumental in stepping up pressure on the government of Israel. In partnership with the government of Namibia, Palestinian and Israeli human rights organisations, and international legal scholars, it has been working to catalyse discussions on whether the actions of the Israeli government contravene international legal prohibitions on the Crime of Apartheid.
In keeping with South Africa’s long-term and principled support for the Palestinian people, the government of South Africa remains committed to supporting initiatives aimed at refocusing the international agenda on Palestine and the Middle East peace process.
The South African government believes that the only way to bring about lasting peace in the Middle East is to have a comprehensive and unconditional negotiated settlement to end the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and Israel’s continued blockade of Gaza.
The ongoing delay in achieving such a settlement leads to an unending cycle of violence.
South Africa’s foreign policy reflects its longstanding commitment to the development of a viable, sovereign Palestinian State, living in peace alongside the State of Israel. South Africa therefore supports international efforts aimed at the establishment of a viable Palestinian state, existing side-by-side in peace with Israel within internationally recognised borders, based on those existing on 4 June 1967, prior to the outbreak of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
In commemorating and marking the anniversary of the Goldstein massacre that took place on 25 February 1994, the story of what happened at the Ibrahimi Mosque and in Hebron 28 years ago should be told around the world.
What happened in Hebron was not only the responsibility of Baruch Goldstein. The Ibrahimi Mosque massacre was not just a passing event, but rather an act planned to impose a new reality through which the occupation could achieve its goals, seeking to expel the Palestinians from the Old City and control the Ibrahimi Mosque.
Since the massacre, the city of Hebron has been subjected to a series of measures that changed its historical features and strengthened Israeli settlement. The level of Israeli occupation and domination throughout one of the world’s oldest cities continues to rise.
The Israeli government, and those who push an anti-Palestinian narrative, must take responsibility for what happened and what continues to happen today.
Until constructive action to recognise accountability occurs alongside acute measures to end illegal occupation, the threat and reality of violence will remain.
As South Africa, we remain steadfast in our support for and solidarity with the people of Palestine on this day of remembrance. DM