Palestinian Survivors of the Ibrahimi Mosque Massacre Remember the Horror

Twenty-nine years ago, Baruch Goldstein, a US-born Jewish settler, shot and killed 29 Palestinians in Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque. Jacobin talked to witnesses, who now face a rise in the same extremist Zionism that motivated Goldstein’s slaughter.

Massacre survivor Husni Hussein al-Rajabi. Behind him, the walls are still riddled with patched up bullet holes. (Jaclynn Ashly)

Twenty-nine years ago — on February 25, 1994 — Baruch Goldstein, a US-born Jewish settler and member of the far-right Kach movement, entered the Ibrahimi Mosque in the Old City of the southern occupied–West Bank district of Hebron. It was during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and hundreds of Palestinians were crammed inside. When they bowed in prayer, Goldstein, dressed in his Israeli army uniform, unshouldered an assault rifle and began shooting indiscriminately.

Twenty-nine Palestinians — some of whom were as young as twelve — were shot and killed while offering fajr, the Muslim dawn prayer. At least 125 other Palestinians were injured.

“The entire mosque was turned into a pool of blood,” remembers forty-seven-year-old Mamoun Wazwaz, a survivor who was eighteen at the time of the massacre. “I was walking among the martyrs and injured; people were screaming. I was speechless. It felt like I was in a nightmare.”

Mamoun Wazwaz with his daughter at the mosque. (Jaclynn Ashly)

The Israeli government has long claimed that Goldstein had acted alone and was psychologically disturbed; however, Palestinians believe that the massacre was a planned attack, of which the Israeli military was aware in advance. Witnesses have also claimed that there was more than one shooter.

“It has continued to affect all of us here in Hebron,” Wazwaz continues, seated on the red carpet of the Ibrahimi Mosque, intermittently glancing at his young daughter playing in the corner. “I still cry like a child when I remember. It has had an endless impact on us. We have never healed from what we witnessed that day.”

Otzma Yehudit

Nearly three decades after the tragic day, life for Palestinians in Hebron’s Old City has only deteriorated further, with Israel’s labyrinth of military checkpoints and restricted roads suffocating the city’s residents. Jewish settlers, meanwhile, strut confidently down the city’s narrow streets, winding between centuries-old stone buildings; most are strapped with pistols or machine guns. Israeli soldiers, with gun barrels always hanging past their knees, keep a watchful eye on Palestinians.

Increasingly, the future seems set to be even more dismal, as the radical Zionist ideology of the late US-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, which inspired Goldstein’s attack on the Ibrahimi Mosque, has found a new home in Israel’s mainstream. Israel’s national elections this last November saw this once obscure and deplorable ideology, infamous for its extreme anti-Palestinian sentiments, enter into some of the highest echelons of Israeli politics, following nearly four years of political deadlock and five elections.

Inside Ibrahimi Mosque. (Jaclynn Ashly)

Otzma Yehudit, or Jewish Power, the far-right party led by Itamar Ben-Gvir, signed a coalition agreement with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and its allies, leading to a majority-seat win in the Israeli parliament, or Knesset. Ben-Gvir was a Kahane supporter in his youth and later attempted to moderate and popularize Kahane’s messages.

Jewish Power is considered the ideological descendant of the Kach party, which was founded by Kahane in 1971 and banned in Israel after its members expressed support for the Ibrahimi Mosque mass shooting. With Jewish Power’s support, Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, has formed what observers have called the most right-wing parliament in the country’s history.

Ben-Gvir, a resident of Kiryat Arba — the same Hebron settlement where Goldstein resided — and who was known to have a portrait of Goldstein hanging up in his living room, was named national security minister in the new government. In Hebron’s Old City, where survivors of the massacre are still haunted by what they witnessed decades ago, the rise of Kahane’s radical ideologies and their entrance into the mainstream has stoked fear and anxiety.

“Our relationship with the settlers is even worse now than it was back then,” Wazwaz says, his eyes scanning the mosque’s walls, which are still riddled with bullet holes. “What’s stopping them from doing this again to us — now that these same settlers are controlling the [Israeli] government?”

A Day of Carnage

The Ibrahimi Mosque, located in the heart of Hebron’s Old City and known to Jews as the Cave of Machpelah, is sacred to both Muslims and Jews. The cave, which the mosque was built over, is believed to contain the tombs of the prophet Abraham, or Ibrahim in Arabic, and his wife Sarah, along with their children Isaac and Jacob.

On Thursday evening, the night before the massacre, confrontations broke out between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis around the mosque, a result of Ramadan and the Jewish holiday of Purim overlapping that year. It was Purim-eve and a large crowd of Jews attempted to enter the Ibrahimi Mosque at the same time that Muslims were supposed to pray Tarawih, congregational prayers performed during Ramadan.

However, there was no serious violence that night. The next morning, however, on February 25, as Palestinians crowded into the Ibrahimi Mosque for fajr, a series of unusual events occurred.

Israeli authorities, who even at that time controlled the Ibrahimi Mosque, gave an order that all women worshippers be moved to another area of the mosque. Usually, women and men would pray in two adjoining rooms, with men in the main front section and women in the back.

“But for the first time in the history of this mosque, the women were all transferred to an entirely different area,” says seventy-one-year-old survivor Husni Hussein al-Rajabi. Israeli authorities had claimed this decision was due to overcrowding in the main area of the mosque. Palestinians believe it to be the result of much more nefarious intentions.

Rajabi remembers feeling a tinge of unease when he entered the mosque, about thirty minutes before the mass shooting occurred. “One of the Jewish settlers, a Russian, was standing by the mosque’s main entrance and welcoming worshippers,” recounts Rajabi, who was accompanied by his wife and six children. “He said ‘b’vakasha’ [a Hebrew word meaning “please,” “go ahead,” or “you’re welcome”] to Palestinians when we entered. We had never witnessed the settlers behave like that before.”

A view of Ibrahimi Mosque. (Jaclynn Ashly)

The first round of shooting occurred at the moment worshippers bowed to their knees to perform sajdah, a portion of prayer when Muslims prostrate and touch their foreheads to the ground. Sheikh Mohammad Ziad Jaber, sixty, believes Goldstein had meant to start shooting during ruku, the portion of prayer when worshippers bend forward and place their hands on their knees, but had gotten confused.

“Since people were bowing to the ground, it helped many of us avoid the first round of shooting,” Jaber says, standing at the exact location where he was praying that day. “This was God’s mercy on us.”

According to Jaber, Goldstein, who was a physician in the Israeli army, threw a stun grenade right before the shooting. The shrapnel struck Jaber in his leg, leaving him unable to walk for about a week.

Sheikh Mohammad Ziad Jaber stands beside Abraham’s Tomb at Ibrahimi Mosque. (Jaclynn Ashly)

Rajabi, who was in the third row from the Imam, or the worship leader, was shot in this first round of shooting. One of the bullets hit his forearm, while another went right through his elbow, shattering his bones. He says the injuries were sustained from two different types of bullets, one of which was a “dumdum,” or expanding bullet — further evidence, he says, that there was more than one shooter.

“I saw Goldstein standing between two other settlers,” Rajabi tells me. “They continued shooting until they ran out of bullets. One of the settlers grabbed a backup bag of bullets and began distributing them to the others.”

“[Goldstein] tried to escape through the gate beside Abraham’s tomb,” Rajabi continues. “But it was locked and he got trapped. So people attacked him, beating him with anything they could find. But the other settlers managed to run away through other exits.” Goldstein was beaten to death, his face becoming so disfigured that the coroners could only identify him by the army ID tag dangling from his ankle.

“All I could think about was my wife and children,” Rajabi adds. When he rushed toward the room where the women and children were praying, he immediately ran into four Israeli soldiers accompanied by several settlers, which convinced him that even the Israeli army was involved in organizing the shooting.

“I found the women and children screaming and crying,” Rajabi tells me. “And then I started losing consciousness due to the loss of blood. And I collapsed on the ground.”

But the massacre in the Ibrahimi Mosque was just the beginning. As fierce protests erupted outside of the mosque immediately following the massacre, more Palestinians were killed by the Israeli army. Others were killed outside the Ahli Hospital, where Hebron’s residents rushed to donate blood for the scores of wounded. Still others were killed in the local cemetery as they were burying their dead loved ones.

Palestinians estimate that the final number of deaths was between fifty and seventy, with about 250 more injured over the course of the day. Life would never be the same for Hebron’s residents — and the massacre would cement Israel’s occupation over the city for decades to come.

The area of the mosque where Goldstein was standing when he opened fire on the worshippers. (Jaclynn Ashly)

“Angel of Kiryat Arba”

While Palestinians mourned their slain loved ones, hundreds of residents in Kiryat Arba (located on the outskirts of Hebron, just a few minutes from the Ibrahimi Mosque) gathered to bury and pay respects to Goldstein, a man they deemed a fallen hero. Goldstein had resided in Kiryat Arba since immigrating to Israel from Brooklyn, New York in 1983.

For these radical Jewish settlers, Goldstein was not a murderer, but a savior for the Jewish people. Local imaginings built around him have reached Biblical proportions, with residents claiming Goldstein is “in third place behind King David and Sampson,” two Biblical giants.

Many here believe the unsubstantiated narrative that Palestinians in Hebron were planning an attack against Israelis and that Goldstein had merely staged a preemptive strike to save them. He has been referred to as the “angel of Kiryat Arba.”

For his supporters, even the timing of the massacre has deep significance in the Jewish tradition. According to the Book of Esther, the holiday of Purim celebrates the delivery of Jews from a genocidal plot organized by a minister of the Persian Empire named Haman. At the last moment, the plot was thwarted and Haman was hanged and his accomplices were killed.

Before descending down to the Ibrahimi Mosque to unleash violence that would, in a split second, transform Palestinian worshippers into wailing mourners, Goldstein had written a farewell note, left behind at the small clinic where he had worked. “May it be the will of God that you continue serving our blessed people faithfully,” it said. “With love of Israel, and prayers for a full redemption.”

Israeli checkpoint Palestinians must pass to enter the mosque. (Jaclynn Ashly)

Goldstein’s grave is located opposite the Meir Kahane Memorial Park in Kiryat Arba. It still serves as a pilgrimage site for Jewish extremists, with his tomb inscribed with the words: “He gave his life for the people of Israel, its Torah and land.”

Like all of Israel’s settlements in the occupied West Bank, Kiryat Arba, where about 7,326 settlers reside, is considered illegal under international law. It has long been considered a hub for Jewish extremism. But Goldstein’s radicalization occurred years before he settled atop the rolling hills of the occupied West Bank. Goldstein was radicalized when he was still living on the concrete streets of Brooklyn, New York.

In Brooklyn, Goldstein met Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League (JDL) and the religious Zionist Kach political movement. Kahane, who was also from Brooklyn and eventually assassinated in New York City in 1990, often preached violence against Palestinians and called for their expulsion from Israel and the West Bank.

Kahane, who served in the Israeli parliament in the 1980s, promoted enforcing halakha, or Jewish religious law, and encoding it into state law. He proposed laws such as banning relationships between Jews and non-Jews and formally separating Jewish and Arab neighborhoods.

The followers of Kahane and his ideologies are referred to as “Kahanists.” They support the full annexation of the occupied West Bank and believe the entire territory exclusively belongs to the Jews.

Goldstein became very active in this movement while in Brooklyn, joining the paramilitary JDL, where he learned to fire a weapon. Kahane even performed Goldstein’s marriage ceremony in Jerusalem at the site where Jews believe the First Temple, commissioned by King Solomon, had once stood. The site is known among Muslims as Al Aqsa Mosque compound. This area is often a flashpoint between Palestinians and Israeli settlers.

After the massacre, the overwhelming majority of Israelis were appalled by the killings. Even now, almost thirty years later, the Kahanist movement remains on the extreme fringes of Israeli society, only espoused by the most radical Israeli settlers.

There are, however, signs that this is changing.

Ideological Scaffolding for Settler Outposts

Shaul Magid is a distinguished fellow in Jewish studies at Dartmouth College in the United States and author of the book Meir Kahane: The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish Radical. According to Magid, the late Kahane and his current followers believe that “Israel is or should be a Jewish state in which Jews have domination over all of the non-Jewish inhabitants. . . . And if the non-Jewish inhabitants, meaning the Arabs [Palestinians], are not willing to acquiesce to this second-class status then they have no right to be there.”

However, having spent years reporting from Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory, I can affirm that this viewpoint is not so different from what one might overhear in cafes or bars in any major Israeli city. It’s a sentiment I’ve heard firsthand from numerous Israelis on a typical night out in Tel Aviv. While these viewpoints are merely anecdotal, they nonetheless reveal the chilling popularization of these right-wing perspectives in Israel.

Ben-Gvir is a self-described disciple of Kahane and had once been a member of the now-outlawed Kach movement. In the past, Ben-Gvir has advocated for the expulsion of Palestinians from the country. He has also faced charges over hate speech against Palestinians. In 2007, because of his involvement with the Kach party, he was convicted of “supporting a terror organization.” He was also charged for incitement to racism for carrying placards that read: “Expel the Arab enemy” and “Rabbi Kahane was right.”

In an interview in 2021, Ben-Gvir denied that he was a pure ideological descendant of Kahane, claiming that “I’m not Rabbi Kahane word-for-word. I wouldn’t propose bills for separate beaches,” and noted he disagreed with “generalizing” all Arabs, or Palestinians.

But he went on to express his appreciation for the late radical rabbi: “I think Rabbi Kahane was a holy man, a righteous man, who fought for the Jewish people and was murdered for the sanctification of God’s name.”

A checkpoint near Ibrahimi Mosque. (Jaclyn Ashly)

In November last year, shortly before he was appointed national security minister in the new government, Ben-Gvir attended a commemoration event in honor of Kahane in Jerusalem, which is held each year. He stated that he would not advance legislation expelling all Palestinians from Israel and the West Bank or create a regime of ethnic separation — statements that elicited booing from the audience.

“We will of course work and act to expel terrorists from Israel for the sake of Israel’s Jewish character, for the sake of settlement and for the sake of Jewish identity,” he added.

Archival video footage of Kahane was also shown during the event, including one clip where he expressed his oft-repeated goal of expelling all Palestinians from Israel and the West Bank. Several stalls sold far-right merchandise, including bumper stickers stating, “Coexistence with the enemy doesn’t exist,” and “Transfer for the enemy.”

Ben-Gvir has already retroactively approved nine settler outposts established in the West Bank. According to Israeli law, while government-approved Israeli settlements are considered legal, unauthorized Israeli settler outposts are illegal. Ben-Gvir has called for the approval of more settlements in the West Bank.

According to Calev Ben-Dor, a senior research associate at Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM), Ben-Gvir’s rise in popularity can be attributed to Israeli reactions to large-scale unrest and rioting in mixed Jewish-Palestinian cities in Israel during May 2021. The turmoil erupted in response to Palestinians facing forcible evictions from the occupied East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah to make room for Israeli settlers.

In addition, the Islamist-Arab party Ra’am joining the coalition of Naftali Bennett, Israel’s former prime minister, in June 2021 to boot Netanyahu out of power created anger among other right-wingers. “Ben Gvir was able to harness opposition and fear of these events to onboard new support amongst many voters. He subsequently became the big winner of the elections,” Ben-Dor tells me.

“Rather than being an indication of an increase in public support for Kahanism, Ben Gvir’s popularity is more a testament to his success — like other far-right populists in the United States, Italy, Sweden and France — of tapping into feelings among the public of being sidelined, disenfranchised, and fed up with traditional politicians,” he adds.

Magid, for his part, says the Kahanist movement has grown “because it has become more normalized, more acceptable in its broad parameters of a kind of Jewish chauvinism in Israel,” he explains.

“One of the things that Ben-Gvir represents is a normalization of the ideology, but not necessarily advocating for the massacre of human beings,” Magid continues. “There’s a certain kind of Jewish supremacy in the country. . . . There’s a growing number of people who feel that the Palestinians are a threat and it’s not their country and they don’t have the right to the land.”

“I don’t think there’s much sympathy in the country for Baruch Goldstein, besides a small slice of the population. But there is growing sympathy for his larger worldview,” he adds. A poll conducted in January 2023 found that around half of Jewish Israelis believe they should have more rights than Palestinian citizens in Israel.

According to Ben-Dor, these feelings among Israelis have also manifested in response to an increase of armed Palestinian resistance movements in the West Bank, such as the Lions’ Den in Nablus and the Jenin Brigades. There have also been a series of deadly attacks against Israelis.

Israeli army raids on West Bank cities have led to scores of Palestinians being killed, most recently this last Wednesday when at least ten Palestinians were killed and dozens injured in an Israeli raid on Nablus city. Since the start of 2023, at least sixty-one Palestinians, including thirteen children, have already been killed by Israeli forces in the Palestinian territory.

Ben-Gvir’s politics have also emerged in the mainstream over decades in which Israelis have become less concerned about the occupation, Magid says. “There was a time in the 1990s, during Oslo, when they thought maybe there would be a resolution, but I don’t think most Israelis think that anymore,” he explains. “Most Israelis just don’t care or think about the occupation.” Therefore, “some of the more radical settler ideologies espoused by people like Ben-Gvir are just filling that vacuum.”

“Making Life Horrible”

Jewish Israelis typically live their lives without thinking much about Israel’s more than half-century military occupation of the West Bank. But it is a reality that has defined the everyday life of Palestinians in Hebron, with checkpoints, Jewish-only roads, and armed Israeli soldiers stripping them of any sense of normalcy.

Following the massacre, Israeli authorities divided the Ibrahimi Mosque, with Muslim access reduced from the entire space to around 40 percent of the site. The other 60 percent was allocated to Jewish worshippers, who access the site from a separate entrance.

Entrance to the mosque where Palestinians must show their IDs and go through a metal detector. (Jaclynn Ashly)

“Instead of this massacre showing to the world the need to end this occupation, Israel used it to further entrench it,” Wazwaz says, indignantly. “In the end, the settlers were rewarded for murdering us and the victims were punished.”

Shuhada Street, the main road leading to the Ibrahimi Mosque that had once functioned as Hebron’s bustling economic artery — along with other parts of the city close to Israeli settlements — was closed off to Palestinian traffic. Hundreds of Palestinian businesses were shuttered. Checkpoints were also erected around the entrance to the mosque, forcing Palestinians to pass armed Israeli soldiers and metal detectors each time they enter for prayers.

In 1997, Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) signed an agreement that saw Israel hand over 80 percent of Hebron city, known as H1, to the Palestinian Authority, while maintaining control over the remaining 20 percent. This latter portion, referred to as H2, includes four Israeli settlements that are home to hundreds of settlers.

Shuttered area of Hebron’s Old City. (Jaclynn Ashly)

Within H2, Palestinian neighborhoods adjacent to the Israeli settlements have been restricted since the massacre. They are isolated from the rest of the city by Israeli military checkpoints and areas where only residents are allowed passage.

“So you are not allowed to even invite a friend or relative for a cup of tea at your house,” says Hisham Sharabati, the Hebron field researcher for Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights organization. “To enforce this Israeli authorities blocked completely or put checkpoints around these neighborhoods.”

According to Sharabati, there are sixty-five types of movement restrictions in the city, which include nearly twelve kilometers of road on which Palestinians are not allowed to drive. And out of those, there are about two kilometers where Palestinians are not even allowed to walk. Over the years, the restrictions on Palestinian movement in Hebron city have “only gotten worse,” he says.

Closed area in Hebron. (Jaclynn Ashly)

This has transformed even simple daily activities into a nightmare for Palestinians. “Even something as simple as purchasing a washing machine involves coordinating with the Israeli army to bring it to your home because it cannot fit through the turnstiles,” Sharabati explains.

Especially during the summer months, Palestinians often face issues of water shortages, forcing the municipality to deliver water to Palestinian homes in large trucks. But for those Palestinians living in the restricted area, where trucks cannot pass through the checkpoints, they are forced to collect water in plastic containers and carry them by hand through the checkpoints to their houses.

“[Israeli authorities] make life horrible for these Palestinians,” Sharabati says. There are also three primary schools within the restricted area, in which children are forced to pass checkpoints and have their backpacks searched by the Israeli army en route to school.

According to Sharabati, all of these Israeli restrictions placed on Palestinians in Hebron’s Old City are for a simple purpose: to force the Palestinian residents out.

“All of this contributes to what we believe is a project to annex a big part of the Old City of Hebron and the eastern neighborhoods and add them to the settlement of Kiryat Arba; to declare the whole area as a Jewish Hebron, entirely controlled by the Israelis,” he tells me.

Israel’s supposed goal is working. According to Sharabati, before the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre, the restricted area of the Old City had a population of about seven thousand people. The number has now fallen to less than four thousand.

The Ibrahimi Mosque is at the center of these settlement plans, and the various Israeli restrictions have caused a significant decrease of Palestinian worshippers attending prayers there. “Some Palestinians have to cross four checkpoints just to get to the mosque,” Sharabati explains. “Since the youths are often the ones targeted by soldiers, who search and harass them, it deters many of them from going to the mosque.”

“Even families become worried and don’t want their children going to the mosque, which is the holiest site in the town,” he continues. “There are youths, and even some older people, who have not been to the mosque in the last thirty years.”

Despite the continued trauma Rajabi has dealt with for nearly three decades following the massacre, he continues to brave the Israeli checkpoints, harassment, and daily searches to continue going to prayers at the Ibrahimi Mosque.

Husni Hussein al-Rajabi shows the scar on his forearm from when he was shot in the massacre. (Jaclynn Ashly)

While he still believes another massacre could be carried out at any moment, Rajabi says he “does not have a single molecule of fear” inside him. “All of this is to make us scared to go to the mosque so that we leave and the Israelis can take it over,” Rajabi tells me. He rests his forearm — which still has a scar running down its length from when he was shot — on his knee as he sits on the carpet of the mosque.

“This mosque means the world to me,” Rajabi says. “If I pray outside of the mosque, I feel as if I didn’t pray at all. The more [the Israelis] try to scare us, the more time I will spend at this mosque. We will never give it up — no matter how much they try and scare us.”