"We will not allow the presence of an international force that operates against us" – On the 28th of January 2019 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel will not renew the mandate of the international observer group “Temporary International Presence in Hebron” (TIPH). As its current mandate expired on January 31st 2019, TIPH is effectively being expelled from the divided West Bank city of Hebron after over 20-years of presence, leaving its Palestinian residents more vulnerable than ever.
The TIPH was originally established in 1994 when the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Government of Israel agreed on inviting the civilian observer mission as a reaction to a massacre in which the Israeli settler, Baruch Goldstein, killed 29 Muslim worshipers in the Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque and injured 150. Formalized as part of the Oslo peace process in the Hebron Protocol in 1997 the mission of TIPH is to report, but not interfere on human rights violations towards Palestinians and breaches against the Hebron Protocol. However, not only did the Hebron Protocol formalize TIPH but it also perpetuated the necessity for the civilian observer mission by splitting the biggest West Bank city in two between Israeli settlers and Palestinian residents of the city. The Israeli influence was later expanded as part of the 1998 Wye River Memorandum between Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat. According to B’tselem, today 180,000 Palestinians live in the Palestinian-controlled Sector H1, while 40.000 Palestinians live in the Israeli controlled sector H2 alongside around 800 heavily guarded settlers and the 600 Israeli soldiers entasked with their protection. The extensive obstacles, barriers and checkpoints set up by Israeli security around the settlements significantly limit the freedom of movement of Palestinians resulting in frequent clashes between Palestinians residents and Israeli settlers also limiting public life and economic opportunities for the Palestinians in the city.
The TIPH is funded entirely through the five contributing countries Italy, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey, while Denmark is currently not contributing to the mission. Its mandate needs to be renewed every six months, which, until recently, has not been a problem as the TIPH had a greater standing than many other external organizations in Hebron and enjoyed free access in a city known for its restrictions on movement. According to Deutsche Welle, there have been accusations made by Israeli settlers against the TIPH for allegedly obstructing the work of the Israeli soldiers and police and collaborating with radical Palestinian organizations, but the Israeli government expanded the TIPH mandate regardless to maintain good relations with the TIPH member states.
However, after navigating tensions for over 20 years, several incidents in 2018 gradually deteriorated the relation between TIPH and the Israeli government culminating in the discontinuation of authorization for TIPH. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in the summer of 2018 two incidents of violent transgression by TIPH staff against Israeli settlers were reported (punctured tires of a settler’s car, allegedly slapping of a settler boy), resulting in increasing pressure on Prime Minister Netanyahu from the right to cancel the observers’ mandate. Then in December 2018 Haaretz reported on a confidential report from 2017 in which TIPH criticized Israel for regularly breaking international law in Hebron based on, among other things, over 40,000 “incident reports” filed between 1997 and 2017. The report was the first one to be shared publicly as the TIPH reports are usually only submitted to its home countries and to the Palestinian and Israeli authorities. The TIPH harshly criticized Israel for violations against Palestinian’s freedom of movement, right to worship, right to non-discrimination as well as lack of protection against illegal deportation and impunity of crimes committed by Israeli settlers against Palestinians. Moreover, the organization disputed land ownership claims made by settlers and blamed the Israeli government and Israeli settlers for the increasing divide in Hebron.
While the Israeli government claims that the expulsion of TIPH was necessary given their hostility against Israel, according to Wafa news agency the PA Foreign Ministry classified Netanyahu’s decision as a means to cover-up the grave, systematic, and escalating human rights violations by getting rid of TIPH as a witness.
Even though Nabil Abu Rudaineh, spokesman for the PA presidency, has called on the international community to “take a clear position towards this dangerous Israeli stance”, enough international pressure to maintain the TIPH mandate is unlikely. According to the JPost no public comment has been made by TIPH on the Israeli government’s decision, but Norway as the leader of the observer force condemned the decision as a breach of Oslo Accords. The United Nations said that it “regretted” the loss of TIPH as its role in contributing positively to defusing tensions in such a sensitive area. However, these denunciations offer little consolation to Palestinian resident of Hebron fearing increased settler attacks, who are now left more vulnerable than ever without TIPH providing a measure of security against Israel.