Time to reassess the international observer mission in Hebron

By Dag Tuastad, Associate Professor, IKOS

In 2007 the Israeli non-governmental human rights organization B’tselem published a shocking report on Hebron. The old city of Hebron, once the commercial centre of the whole West Bank south of Jerusalem, was dying. Half of the 35 000 Palestinian citizens of the area had evacuated the old city, and 77 % of the Palestinian shops had closed down. The original inhabitants of Hebron were driven out of their homes as the result of a systematic campaign by Israeli settlers, protected by Israeli soldiers, endorsed by the Oslo-agreement, and monitored by international observers. Since then, nothing has changed. But most of the Palestinian attackers during the 2015 violence have come from Hebron.

In 1968, less than a year after the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, what appeared to be a group of Israeli tourists rented a hotel room in Hebron. The next day they declared that they did not intend to leave the hotel, and that it was in fact theirs. Israeli government ministers started flocking to the hotel to show support. The Israeli army came to provide the settler activists with weapons and training. Six months later the settler movement and an Israeli ministerial committee declared the establishment of a Jewish neighbourhood in the centre of Hebron. Two years later a settlement for five thousand people, Qiryat Arba, was established near the city. After first relocating to Qiryat Arba, the Hebron settlers returned to the heart of the old city in 1979. The Israeli government then decided to build a Jewish religious school there. International law is clear when it comes to settlements. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population in the territory it occupies.” Today some five hundred settlers live in the centre of Hebron and 8000 in Qiryat Arba.

Hebron is where Abraham, his wife Sarah with Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah are supposed to be buried. At the burial site the Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of Machpela is built. In 1994 a Jewish settler living in Qiryat Arba, Baruch Goldstein, entered the mosque and killed 29 worshippers. The Palestinians saw the massacre as an outcome of having fanatical, armed settlers, being free to operate as they liked in the middle of populated Palestinian areas without the presence of any Palestinian security apparatus. After the massacre the Palestinians demanded the expulsion of the settlers from Hebron. But when the Israeli military authorities subsequently imposed new rules for movement in the town, the most dramatic measure was to close Al Shuhada street, a main street connecting the south and north of of Hebron, for Palestinians. Al Shuhada and other streets near Jewish settlements were closed for Palestinians only, while remaining exclusively open for Jewish Israelis. It was supposedly a temporary measure. The final status of Hebron was left for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiators of the Oslo-process to decide.

In 1995 Edward Said, the leading Palestinian intellectual and author of ”Orientalism”, visited Hebron. Mustafa Natshe, his old friend and mayor of Hebron, told Said that he had pleaded with Yassir Arafat and Palestinian negotiations not to sign any agreement that would imply a Palestinian approval of the illegal settlers of the city. But Said and Natshe would both experience that the PLO leadership did exactly what they had feared. The Oslo 2 agreement gave Israel exclusive control over 74 % of the West Bank, and the Palestinian Authority control over 3 % of the territory (the remaining area was to be under shared security arrangements). As for Hebron a separate agreement was signed in 1997. It stipulated that the downtown, the commercial centre and heart of the city, where 450 settlers lived protected by Israeli soldiers, was to remain under exclusive Israeli control, and that the area from the settlements of the old city, via the Ibrahimi mosque and to the Qiryat Arba settlement was to be under sole Israeli control. 0.03 % of the population got 20 % of the city, wrote Edward Said.  And to this day the Palestinians of the city have been banned from moving on the Shuhada street.

In 2003 an Israeli government report was leaked that said that the settlers of Hebron constituted a combination of ”fanaticism, lunacy and hooliganism” Settler leaders, the report said, would first identify a building they wanted, then they would break in, empty its content, and then, after it was left broken and empty, start settling it. “Ghost Town,” the B’tselem report in 2007 showed how humiliation was part of a strategy to drive the Palestinians out of the old city.  One of the many interviewed by B’tselem, a Palestinian mother, told fieldworkers: “In 2001 they torched our house and shattered the windows. In 2004 they broke into the house and stole the furniture. In addition they assault us, throw stones and us and chop our trees. Once they came to our house and told us that it belongs to them and that we had to leave.” A soldier told B’tselem that according to orders it was “forbidden to arrest settlers.” In fact, some of the soldiers were treating the Palestinian inhabitants as humiliating as the settlers did. A Palestinian mother of six said: “Our yard has become a refuse dump. The solders eat and throw the food scraps on the ground around the house. They also urinate on the roof. Three years ago, my little daughter, Abra, left the house and urine of one of the soldiers sprayed on her head. She came into the house and cried.” A soldier confirmed how soldiers who had forced themselves into living on the top flour of a building humiliated the family of the house: “That was the daily joke. Waiting for the father or one of the children to go on the coops, and everyone standing there and pissing down.“

Throughout the period of continuous harassments and human rights violations, half of the Palestinians of the area having evacuated Hebron’s old city and three thirds of the shops having been closed, 100 to 200 international observers from the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH) mission have been present in the city. As Israeli soldiers are in H2 to protect the settlers, while being exclusively responsible for providing security in the area where originally 35 000 Palestinians and 450 settlers were living, the purpose of TIPH was “to promote by their presence a feeling of security to the Palestinians of Hebron and to help to promote stability in the city”. For discriminated people there would normally be some comfort in being observed by witnesses, so that one at least knows that others learn about the humiliation one has to suffer. This is why programs like the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel are genuinely alleviating, the observers are present and they publish their observations and experiences. But TIPH is in this regard a strange anomaly.  TIPH observers watch what is going on, and write reports on incidents and human rights violations. More than 20 000 reports have been written. However, it is explicitly stated in the terms of operation for TIPH that “the reports are not public.” For the public, the people, the taxpayers, researchers, politicians, NGOs, institutions of international justice, the 20 000 reports are inaccessible. Many observers have asked themselves about the point in observing human rights violations if it leads to nowhere. How to tell the victims they observe that the reports are simply shelved away, and that the settlers can continue as they like with impunity. The observers thus epitomize the political impotence of the international community, only observing, not acting, on a situation that only deteriorates. Providing a sense of normality to a situation that lacks legitimacy among 99.97 % of the population hides underlying rupture dynamics that have been all but doomed to erupt.

On the 16th of October, the 17th, the 20th, the 22, the 25, the 26th, the 27th, the 28th, and on the first of November, the fourth of the fifth, the sixth, Palestinians were killed in Hebron. 23 out of the 30 Palestinians killed in the West Bank during the three weeks period were from Hebron, and were killed in Hebron. Most were killed by Israeli forces for attacking Israelis, according to the Palestinian human rights organization Al Haq. In Hebron unprecedented grievances have been accumulated over the last decades, largely from the impunity the settler population have experienced in the city. At this time it might be timely to reassess the mandate of the some 200 million dollar TIPH project. It also has to do with human dignity. If the observers remain prevented from informing on what they observe, the mission might not be worthwhile.