The activities and presence of Jewish settlers in the divided city are the main reasons behind the need for this continued international presence.
In 1994, when a Jewish extremist massacred 29 Arab worshippers at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, the international community pressured Israel to allow the redeployment of scores of international civilian observers in the city “to provide a feeling of security” to the Palestinians.
A few weeks after the carnage, the UN Security Council resolution 904 called for “measures to be taken to guarantee the safety and protection of the Palestinians throughout the Occupied Territories”.
Initially, Israel rejected any foreign presence in Hebron, evoking the flimsy argument that whatever happened between Israel and the Palestinians was an internal Israeli affair.
However, as negotiations between Israel and the PLO progressed in the context of implementing the Oslo Accords, the Israeli government eventually consented to the deployment in Hebron of a few dozen observers from six countries: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Italy and Turkey.
"We don’t know when we will be leaving. We were supposed to leave a long time ago, but Israel violated the Hebron agreement, and that necessitated the extension of our mandate”
Norwegian head of mission
Consequently, on 1 February 1997, the multinational TIPH Mission in Hebron came into existence.
Few people then had expected the TIPH mission would linger to the present time.
"We don’t know when we will be leaving. We were supposed to leave a long time ago, but Israel violated the Hebron agreement, and that necessitated the extension of our mandate,” says Jan Kristensen, the Norwegian head of mission.
This is not to say that TIPH observers have grown tired or bored doing the same thing every day.
"We don’t do miracles, but I am sure that with our conspicuous presence in Hebron, we keep the level of Israeli violence relatively low,” said a Danish officer who refused to give his name.
Kristensen cautions against taking the TIPH mission lightly. He told Aljazeera.net the reports compiled by TIPH observers could eventually be utilised as recriminating evidence against
individuals involved in war crimes.
“If it ever comes to that point, our reports will be of great value,” he said.
Since the outbreak of the Palestinian Intifada nearly forty months ago, the Israeli army and Jewish settlers have been ganging up on Hebron’s 150,000 Palestinian citizens.
According to Hebron mayor, Mustafa Natshe, systematic Israeli repression, including protracted curfews and brutal harassment, forced the bulk of the 35,000 Palestinian inhabitants of the Old Town of Hebron (classified as H-2 pursuant the Hebron Agreement) to leave their homes.
“Their (Israel's) strategy is to clean the Old Hebron of Arabs and the tactic they employ to achieve this sinister goal is to make the daily life of ordinary people unbearable”
“Their strategy is to clean the old town of Arabs and the tactic they employed to achieve this sinister goal is to make the daily life of ordinary people unbearable,” asserts Natshe.
More to the point, the Israeli army destroyed numerous homes and several multi-storey buildings for “inflicting maximum pain and suffering on the inhabitants”.
TIPH observers are completely powerless to stop these brutalities, as their very mandate prevents them from going beyond “observing and reporting”.
This is not to say, though, that observer task force is doing nothing to help the local community.
In some cases, TIPH observers were able to videotape Israeli border policemen stealing and vandalising Palestinian property, which was later used as incriminating evidence against them.
Nearly two years ago, TIPH played an important role in apprehending three Israeli border policemen who abducted, tortured and eventually killed a Palestinian teenager who was working at a petrol station in the Old Town.
TIPH forces are powerless to stop
Moreover, Kristensen says, TIPH convinced the Israeli army of relaxing the curfew in the Old Town.
Palestinians, however, complained that the “relaxation” came too late.
“They (Israel) relaxed the curfew after we had been thoroughly tormented and thousands of people left their homes because they couldn’t endure the seemingly endless nightmare,” said Muhammad Miswadah, a resident of the Old Town.
Miswadah says he has nothing against TIPH. “They are good and kind people, but they just can’t help us.”
TIPH officials readily admit that their relations are “very good”
with all parties involved, except with one party: Jewish settlers.
There are up to 400-500 fanatic settlers in Hebron who openly advocate the expulsion or extermination of all Palestinians in Hebron and the rest of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Hence, TIPH is perceived as helping the Palestinian cause by enabling them, though partially, to withstand Israeli pressure.
There have been many instances of the settlers assaulting TIPHs patrols and once a TIPH car was overturned.
Settler youths routinely pelt TIPH cars with stones, especially
when TIPH observers foil settler designs against the Palestinians by appearing unexpectedly at a certain location.
Moreover, TIPH produces several kinds of reports, including incident reports, fortnightly reports, quarterly reports and situation reports about special incidents.
“I am sure their (TIPH) presence has prevented the recurrence of the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre”
Some of these reports are submitted to committees where the Palestinians, Israelis and TIPH are represented while other reports are submitted to the governments of the participating countries.
According to TIPH officials, during patrols throughout Hebron,
observers prepare elaborate incident reports, based on internationally recognised human rights standards and pursuant the agreement of TIPH.
Incidents that are more serious are discussed at the joint Hebron Committee (JHC), whose meetings are chaired by the TIPH Head of Mission and attended by the Israeli Military commander and the Palestinian Police Commander of the Hebron District.
TIPH observers, by their very presence and observing events in the streets and neighbourhoods in Hebron, give local inhabitants a certain psychological comfort.
“It is always in the victim’s interest to have a third party watching,” says a Hebron citizen. “At worst, their presence is innocuous.”
Other Hebron residents also think the presence of TIPH observers is quite useful.
“I am sure that their presence has prevented the recurrence of the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre,” said Nafiz Jaabari, a shopkeeper in the Old Town.
“Just imagine if those people were not here? What would prevent the settlers and Israeli soldiers from killing us in droves as they did in 1994?”
Hebron Mayor Mustafa Natshe agrees.
“TIPH people are acting as witnesses to the occupation and to settlers’ crimes against the citizens. We in Hebron appreciate what they are doing, and we want them to stay.”
TIPH mission has not been free of tragedies. On 26 March 2002, during the heydays of al-Aqsa Intifada, a Palestinian guerilla attacked the observers’ patrol, which was travelling on a bypass road, used mainly by Jewish settlers and Israeli troops.
Memorial plaques for TIPH dead
Two observers were killed in the ambush: Catherine Berruex, a Swiss, and Turget Cengiz Toytunic, a Turk.
The Palestinian attacker who shot the two, reportedly told his Israeli interrogators he mistook the observers for paramilitary Jewish settlers.
Two memorial plaques have been erected in the backyard of TIPH’s headquarters in Hebron in memory of the two observers, rightly referred to as “victims in the search of peace”.