Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced last week that he would be expelling the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH), an international observatory task force that monitors Israeli human rights violations in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron.
“We will not allow the presence of an international force that operates against us,” Netanyahu said in his announcement, which came just one month after a confidential TIPH report citing numerous Israeli violations of international law in Hebron was circulated in the media.
TIPH was established in 1994 as part of the Oslo Accords, after an American-Israeli settler entered the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron’s Old City and shot and killed 29 Palestinians during the morning prayer.
The group — which consists of staff from Norway, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland, and Turkey — officially began its work in 1988, following the establishment of an illegal Israeli settlement in the middle of the city and the permanent deployment of Israeli armed forces in the area.
TIPH existed under a mandate that was renewed every six months by Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), and was up for renewal on January 31.
While no official time frame was given on TIPH’s removal from the city, the foreign ministers of the five countries that staffed TIPH issued a joint statement on Friday, saying they had no choice but to cease the mission’s operations.
“The TIPH will therefore close down in an orderly, safe and dignified manner within a realistic time frame. We call on both parties to assist and facilitate the TIPH through this process and remind them of their responsibilities for the security and inviolability of the TIPH,” the foreign ministers said.
Since its deployment in Hebron, TIPH has served as an observer and reporter on rights abuses in the city, and according to its mission statement, the group serves to “promote by their presence a feeling of security to the Palestinians of Hebron and to help to promote stability in the city.”
Its staff members maintain a visible presence throughout the city, especially in “known hotspots,” where they patrol areas to “monitor and observe the situation in the city,” and maintain a 24-hour hotline where Palestinians can call to inform the group of anything from arbitrary checkpoint closures and detentions to settler violence.
While TIPH is one of many international organizations who work to promote security for Palestinians in Hebron, it is the only organization that had an official diplomatic mandate allowing for its staff members to obtain Israeli-issued visas to stay in the country.
Without the presence of TIPH’s more than 60 staffers in Hebron, other rights groups operating in the city now fear that not only will their work will be subject to further scrutiny by Israeli authorities, but Israeli forces and settlers in the city might feel more emboldened in their attacks on Palestinian residents.
Under the condition of anonymity for themselves and the organization they work with, for fear they could be targeted by Israel, staff members of a human rights group operating in Hebron spoke to Mondoweiss about their fears and concerns in the wake of TIPH’s expulsion.
Hebron a ‘microcosm’ of Israeli occupation
Following the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre in 1994, Hebron’s Old City was divided into Palestinian and Israeli-controlled areas, known as H1 and H2, the latter being home to some 800 notoriously violent Israeli settlers.
Some 40,000 Palestinians living in H2 are constantly surrounded by more than one thousand Israeli soldiers and 20 military checkpoints that restrict their every move.
The high concentration of armed Israeli soldiers and settlers has turned the city into a major flashpoint in the occupied West Bank, where human rights violations are a daily occurrence.
“Hebron is a microcosm of the occupation,” ‘M.’, a human rights worker in the city told Mondoweiss. “You see everything there, which is why the presence of international observers like us and TIPH is so important,” he said.
M. works for an organization with a similar mission to TIPH: “The main work we do in Hebron is accompaniment work, monitoring and documentation, and third party advocacy,” he said.
The group’s staff, which number around six in Hebron, work around the clock, seven days a week, accompanying children as they pass through militarized checkpoints on their way to school from Sunday-Thursday, observing and assisting the safe passage of Muslim worshipers to the Ibrahimi Mosque on Fridays, and monitoring settler violence against Palestinians which typically increases on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.
“We also conduct emergency responses in situations like arrests and detentions, home raids, and settler violence,” M. said.
“In a place like Hebron, you need to be ready to work basically 24/7,” C., a colleague of M. continued. “The occupation of Palestine is ongoing, its 24/7, so we are always on call,” he said.
‘Emboldened’ under Trump
The expulsion of TIPH, according to Israeli media, was brought on by two incidents involving TIPH staff members in the Old City, and increasing pressure from Netanyahu’s right-wing base to cancel the group’s mandate.
According to Haaretz, in one case, Israeli police alleged that a TIPH worker was filmed puncturing the tires of a vehicle belonging to an Israeli settler living in Hebron. Another TIPH observer from Switzerland was deported from Israel after allegedly slapping a settler boy.
Following those incidents, Netanyahu summoned the mission’s chief in July for a meeting, Haaretz reported.
Despite the increasing Israeli government and media scrutiny of TIPH, M. and C. said they were still surprised when the expulsion was announced.
“It did come as quite a shock to us, especially given the fact that they are the only group diplomatic mission in the area,” M. said. “But when you consider upcoming Israeli election, the move makes more sense.”
“Netanyahu wants to prove a point, and the settlers in Hebron really hate all of us, and TIPH specifically,” he continued.
C., who is an American citizen, told Mondoweiss that he believes the Trump administration and it’s policies on Palestine over the past few years have played a significant role in Israel’s targeting of TIPH and groups like it.
“What we’re seeing is Netanyahu, the Israeli occupying forces, and settlers, have all been emboldened by the current US administration under Trump,” he said.
“Netanyahu wants to satisfy the settlers, and under Trump, they can get away with anything, including the expulsion of a mandated international presence,” C. continued. “The Israelis have always acted with impunity, but this is a whole other level.”
‘There will be an escalation in violence’
Both M. and C. expressed concerns to Mondoweiss that the absence of TIPH could make their work, and the situation for residents in Hebron, increasingly difficult in the future.
“The situation for human rights workers in Palestine is already getting worse and worse,” M. said, adding that in 2018, her organization saw a steep rise in the amount of staffers that were denied entry into the country.
“We are just a small team that cannot cover all areas that they [TIPH] covered, they are 64 people and we are only 6,” M. said. “We will continue to work in the best capacity we can, but the work TIPH does was really important.”
“Lets say a child is arrested. One of the organizations we inform to is TIPH, because they have their own liaison office with the Israelis and Palestinians,” M. continued. “Because they have resources we do not, when an arrest happens, they immediately start working on the case and follow up. That is something that will be missed here.”
M. and C. said they believe the expulsion of TIPH from Hebron could result in the increased harassment of international observers like themselves in the city, and disproportionately affect local Palestinian human rights workers and civilians.
“I think there will be an escalation in violence,” M. said, highlighting the fact that members of her organization already face harassment in the form of arbitrary stops at checkpoints, soldiers taking photos of workers’ passports, denying their staff access to certain streets, etc.
C. continued, pointing out the fact that the harassment faced by international observers is just a small taste of what Palestinians experience every day under occupation.
“At the end of the day, this isn’t about us,” he said. “These threats and forms of violence are an everyday reality for Palestinians.”
“Why is Israel so scared of people from around the world coming to do nonviolent accompaniment?” he asked. “What are they scared of? People need to ask, what are they hiding?”