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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Israeli Gunman Massacres Moslem Worshippers

HEBRON, Occupied West Bank -- An Israeli settler of American descent mowed down dozens of Moslem worshippers kneeling at a mosque with an automatic rifle Friday. The massacre ignited riots throughout the occupied territory and in Jerusalem.

Hospital officials said 54 Palestinians were killed in the Hebron mosque shooting and 19 others by Israeli soldiers in riots that spilled over into other West Bank towns, the Gaza Strip and the old walled city of Jerusalem. Some 170 Palestinians were wounded, scores in the mosque massacre.

The attack, the bloodiest since Israel captured the occupied lands in the 1967 Middle East war, took place at the Ibrahim Mosque where 800 worshippers had gathered. The mosque is on the site of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a 2,000-year-old shrine sacred to Moslems and Jews.

The army said the attacker, a physician originally from Brooklyn, New York, killed himself, but Palestinians said worshippers overwhelmed and killed him.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin called PLO chief Yasser Arafat and apologized. "As an Israeli, I am ashamed of this deed," Israel radio quoted Rabin as saying.

Arafat blamed the Israeli army for not protecting the worshippers and said the massacre would set back the Middle East peace process.

But both sides agreed to a proposal by Bill Clinton, in which the U.S. president summoned Arab and Israeli leaders to Washington to keep the tragedy from derailing peace talks.

"It is my hope that the parties can turn today's tragic events into a catalyst for peace," Clinton said during an impromptu news conference.

Police identified the gunman as Dr. Baruch Goldstein, 38, from the Kiryat Arba settlement who moved to Israel 11 years ago. Settler leaders said Goldstein was a major in Israel's army reserves.

They said he supported the antiArab Kach movement advocating expulsion of Arabs from Israel. Rabbi Meir Kahane, assassinated in New York City in 1990, founded the group.

Noam Arnon, a settler spokesman, said Goldstein suffered a "mental crisis" after Moslem fundamentalist gunmen killed two Kiryat Arba settlers in December.

The Itim news agency reported that a group calling itself the "Organization of Avengers" phoned army radio and said the killing was in reprisal for the killing of Kahane.

Moslems were observing Ramadan, the holy month of fasting for spiritual purification and sacrifice, while Jews were celebrating Purim, a holiday marking the saving of the Jews from an ancient Persian king.

Jewish and Moslem worshippers had argued Thursday night over the right to pray at the mosque, said Ron Schechner, head of security for Jewish settlements near Hebron, 32 kilometers south of Jerusalem. Schechner said some Palestinians had chanted, "Slaughter the Jews."

The attacker returned to the mosque early Friday with a pistol and an M-16 rifle, his face covered with a white scarf.

Witnesses said he fired on the back rows of worshippers as they knelt, heads to the floor, for dawn prayers.

"Suddenly I heard shots," said Ahmed Jabari, 50, a worshiper. "I turned around and saw a man with a beard and black kippa who started shooting at people. I heard people screaming. I lay on the floor and then fainted."

Hundreds of shoes left by worshippers were lined up outside on the bloodstained stairs.

The army deployed extra troops and clamped a curfew on Hebron, a city of 50,000. It also sealed off the occupied Gaza Strip and banned Palestinians under age 40 from entering Jerusalem.

Despite the crackdowns, riots erupted.

Israelis shot a Palestinian to death after a bus was stoned in Beit Jallah near Jerusalem, soldiers shot another in Gaza City and a third died in the West Bank town of Nablus.