Operating bulldozers and pneumatic drills, scores of Israeli troops today destroyed a shrine at the grave of Baruch Goldstein, the Brooklyn-born Jewish extremist who murdered 29 Muslims at their morning prayers in 1994.
As dozens of Jewish militants screamed, scuffled and shook their fists, the troops broke apart the memorial plaza in Goldstein's home community of Kiryat Arba, a Jewish settlement near the overwhelmingly Palestinian city of Hebron that had become a place of pilgrimage and prayer for some of Israel's most virulent anti-Arab militants.
"Shame! Shame!" cried Goldstein's father, Yisrael, 70, who threw his body on his son's tomb and sobbed as soldiers dismantled and removed lamps, planters, prayer books, tiles, a fountain, flower beds and the landscaped stone plaza leading to the tombstone.
The army's action was the culmination of an 18-month legal and political struggle over a murderer whose memory is a source of fury to Arabs and anguish to many Israelis. To a minority of radical Jews, his act of terror was a brave and noble deed.
Some Jewish militants said the razing of the memorial would be avenged. They warned it could lead to the desecration of the grave of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who was assassinated in 1995 after he inaugurated peace talks with the Palestinians. Like all of Israel's prime ministers, he is buried on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, where there is a constant security presence.
The troops, acting on a Supreme Court ruling last month, left the tomb itself intact along with its inscription to "the holy Dr. Baruch Kopel Goldstein." It reads, in part: "He gave his life for the people of Israel."
The army said it would decide next year whether to remove the inscription.
Many Israelis applauded the action, which came after a battle pitting liberal Israeli lawmakers and the army against Goldstein's family and the militant Jewish nationalists who revere him as a saint.
"Today was the beginning of the process to wipe away the stain on the brow of Israeli society and the Jewish people," said Ran Cohen, the Israeli minister of trade and industry, who sponsored a law last year to dismantle the shrine. "The stain will only be finally wiped away when the disgraceful inscription upon the grave is removed."
Goldstein, a physician, belonged to group Kach, a militantly anti-Arab group that has been outlawed by Israel. He lived a relatively anonymous life in Kiryat Arba, which includes some of Israel's most zealous ultranationalists.
His anonymity came to an end on Feb. 25, 1994, when he opened fire on Muslim worshipers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. He sprayed men and boys with automatic weapon fire, killing 29 of them before he was overpowered and beaten to death by infuriated survivors. Today, the hall where he carried out the murders remains pockmarked with bullet holes.
Israeli authorities refused to allow Goldstein the honor of a burial in the Jewish cemetery in Hebron, fearing it would become a magnet for violence and unrest. Instead, he was buried on the outskirts of Kiryat Arba.
His tomb there soon became more than an ordinary grave. His family had the site landscaped and adorned, and his father often visited several times a day. Jewish militants from Kiryat Arba and elsewhere also paid their respects, insisting that Goldstein was a good man, even a holy one. Some called him a Jewish soldier in what they described as a war against the Arabs. A few insisted, without proof, that he had acted preemptively to avert a planned Arab attack on Jews.
"Whoever has stooped to destroying graves, they are barbarians . . . and I would advise them to double or triple the guard duty on Rabin's grave," said Baruch Marzel, a Jewish militant in Kiryat Arba.
Goldstein's father, surrounded by police and television cameramen, uttered a phrase Jews routinely use for those killed by the Nazis and other persecutors: "He gave up his soul for sanctifying God's name."
CAPTION: Yisrael Goldstein weeps after being removed from the grave of his son Baruch, who killed 29 Muslims as they prayed in 1994. The grave site had been turned into a shrine by his family and other Jewish ultranationalists.