With attacks on Palestinians by settlers commonplace, the last thing Hebron needs is the removal of international observers
"The situation is getting worse here," says Zleikha Muhtaseb, the principal of a Palestinian kindergarten in Hebron's old city. "After the intifada calmed down, we thought things were improving, but now it's getting worse again: roadblocks are increasing, soldiers are attacking Palestinians at checkpoints, and the settlers are becoming more violent. Day and night the settlers threaten [local Palestinians], throwing stones and trying to burn their property, in order to put more and more pressure on them."
Since the establishment of Israeli settlements in Hebron, life has never been easy for the Palestinian residents, who have felt the full force of the occupation come down on their city and stifle the area both economically and socially. In the once-heaving souk, fewer than 10% of the shops are now open for business, with scores forcibly closed by the army for "security reasons". Anti-Arab slogans are sprayed on shutters throughout the old city, and the windows and doors of Palestinian homes are shielded by metal mesh to try to prevent attacks by settlers.
In the initially euphoric wake of the Oslo Accords, Israeli and Palestinian officials agreed to station a force of international observers, called TIPH, in Hebron "to monitor the situation ... and record breaches of international law". Despite their ostensibly toothless directive – they are not allowed to intervene when they witness to a crime, nor are they free to publish their findings without prior consent from Israeli officials – many Palestinians have come to view TIPH as a vital tool in their struggle for justice in a largely lawless city. "When TIPH are present, the soldiers feel more responsible for their actions," explains Muhtaseb. "If no one is watching, violence from the soldiers and settlers will increase."
TIPH has been ever-present in Hebron since its establishment in 1997, but its days may be numbered. Israel's deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, warned that TIPH's mandate might not be renewed when it expires at the end of the month. "They are exceeding their mandate," Ayalon said in the Israeli press. "They report cases of harassment against Palestinians, and do not deal with cases of opposite harassment."
Ayalon spent time in Hebron last week on the orders of foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, and his conclusions echo the sentiments of Hebron's settler community, who see TIPH as being entirely in the pockets of the Palestinians. According to a leaflet on offer in Hebron's Beit Hadassah museum, TIPH is in league with "groups of anti-Semitic Christians [who] encourage terrorism and endanger the lives of soldiers and civilians alike... even though TIPH is supposed to be objective and to refrain from provocations".
Under a photo of "TIPH observers co-operating with leftwing anarchists", the text goes on to condemn those it deems to "breach and trample the Jewish citizens' rights to life and safety", echoing the hostility the settlers feel towards human rights groups operating in the area.
Despite the official accord between the IDF and TIPH, some soldiers are sceptical of the observers' motives too, as I found on a visit to Hebron. During yesterday's trip, the army were out in force in the souk, the commander of the recently arrived platoon leading his charges on an introductory patrol of the old city. A sergeant manning the Tel Rumeida roadblock sneeringly derided TIPH as "smolanim [leftists] – they're here to work against us. [They] only help the Palestinians. God forbid we should raise a hand to a Palestinian kid, then TIPH take photos and send them to all the world's media".
"If TIPH are withdrawn, it will be [in line with] Israel's ethnic cleansing agenda," says Fathiyeh Gainey, 44, who is interning with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), an NGO which maintains a constant presence in Hebron. "The Israeli government wants to get foreigners out so that [the world] can't see what they're doing on a daily basis." Gainey believes there is "no truth" in the accusations of bias against TIPH, noting that "like us, TIPH are here to work with both sides".
"The decline has accelerated since Gaza," adds Muhtaseb, who believes that Israel's leaders now feel entitled to take a tougher line in the West Bank.
If TIPH's mandate is indeed withdrawn, the impact will be heavily felt both within Hebron and in the wider political sphere. Such a move would signal the Israeli cabinet's continuing disregard for agreements signed by former governments, and send a strong message to Palestinians that Israel's leaders are in no mood for rapprochement and conciliatory gestures.
While TIPH's work is at best palliative rather than having any serious impact on resolving the tensions in Hebron, forcibly evicting it would nonetheless deal a serious blow to any Palestinian hopes that their Israeli counterparts might be open to negotiation. The decision taken later this month will be a critical one not only for the beleaguered residents of Hebron, but for the region as a whole.
Map showing Hebron -
Click to view image: 'Map showing Hebron'
Harassment by Hebron Settlers
Hebron settlers and the olive harvest
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