Israel’s ejection of international observers leaves Palestinians defenceless

Barnaby Papadopulos speaks to Hebron’s Palestinian’s about the expulsion of international observers.

A confrontation between a Palestinian observer and Israeli settler. Credit: Youth Against Settlements

I’d last spoken to Mutasem some two years ago, just after he had graduated high school. We were outside the Ibrahimi Mosque in central Hebron, West Bank, where he had just shown me the tomb of Abraham – and the spot where his uncle had been one of 29 Palestinians shot and killed by Baruch Goldstein in an infamous 1994 massacre.

It’s been 25 years. But now, Mutasem is scared it could happen again.

Like many Palestinian cities, Hebron is almost ring fenced by Israeli Settlements, supported by heavily armed units of the Israeli Defence Forces. But in Hebron, settlers don’t just surround the city – they inhabit its heart.

Venerated in Judaism, the city is home to the Tomb of Abraham and has had a Jewish population for hundreds of years. The Hebron Agreement of 1997 saw the city divided into two parts – H1 and H2, with the latter being under full Israeli military control, despite being home to some 30,000 Palestinians, and just seven hundred or so Israeli settlers.

After the Goldstein massacre, it was agreed to establish the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH), a neutral, international force to create a sense of security for Palestinians, observe and report alleged human rights abuses, and promote peace between the two populations. Since its ratification, TIPH has recorded over 40,000 violations of Palestinian rights. But last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to expel the organisation from Hebron.

‘The decision took everyone by surprise,’ says Muhammed, a Hebron father of five. ‘It was a victory for the settlers… they campaigned for the removal of TIPH.’ Already, he says, incidents of settler violence are on the rise. The decision to revoke the TIPH’s mandate was closely followed by the decision of the World Council of Churches to remove its international observers from Hebron, citing security concerns, leaving the city virtually defenceless.

On many a Friday afternoon, after midday Mosque and as frustration and anger with the occupation peaks, thick black smoke begins to billow from a point in the city centre, and amid the rhythmic staccato of small arms fire you wonder if the city is about to descend into utter bedlam as Israeli soldiers fire rubber coated bullets and lob stun grenades at demonstrating Palestinians.

The next morning, walking streets littered with tear gas cannisters, empty of demonstrators rushed to hospitals with broken bones and smoke inhalation, it feels nothing short of a miracle that no one was killed. That miracle, it seems, was the TIPH.

Ayla is nine years old. She enjoys playing with her sisters, and exploring her local area. She also lives in a house surrounded by barbed wire, with metal grilles on the windows and bolts on the front door. Where are her parents? I asked her last summer, as she bustled around her kitchen making coffee.

‘They are taking my little brother to hospital,’ she replies, matter of fact. ‘He hurt his arm on broken glass running away from the soldiers.’ In a part of the city where Arab houses are daubed with racist graffiti, and children as young as Ayla are regularly searched by soldiers and beaten up by settlers, the removal of international observers is deeply worrying for Issar Amoro, an activist based in Hebron’s H2 area.

A TIPH human rights observer. Credit: Youth Against Settlements

‘Civilian’s don’t feel safe in their own city, in their own streets,’ he says.

He and others have established their own, Palestinian force to observe any human rights violations. ‘We can’t replace TIPH’ he admits, after the force’s first outing. ‘We were physically attacked by the settlers, and by the army …They made it impossible for us to document violations’.

It’s not just about recording abuses. In the old city, the main market sits adjacent to the settlement of Beit Hassadah. A mesh stretches out atop the narrow streets, weighed down by the rocks, bottles and other waste that settlers periodically throw out of their windows in the hope of injuring and humiliating Palestinians.

Squads of soldiers sometimes patrol these streets, and the business of buying and selling groceries is done against the backdrop of IDF snipers silhouetted against the blue and white flags that dot the settlements rooftops. Here, the sight of international observers from the TIPH and World Council of Churches mingling with civilians was a source of security. It was a sign that the world had not forgotten Hebron.

In revoking the TIPH mandate, Netanyahu is attempting to generate support amid the nationalist wing of his supporters in time for the upcoming April elections, stating that he will ‘not allow the continued presence of an International force that acts against us’.

He’s referencing a video that surfaced online, purportedly showing a TIPH member slashing the tires of a settler’s car. This undoubtedly damaged the organisations impartiality – but in a city where tension is almost palpable, expelling it is a decision paramount to licencing Israeli attacks, abuse and further oppressive measures against Palestinian civilians.

‘There has been no real international intervention to hold Israel to account,’ says Issar, pointing to a recent UN Security Council resolution intended to express ‘regret’ at the decision that was voted down by the US.

This is only the most recent in a series of damming events for Palestinians over the last year. The recognition of Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel, the passing of a nation state law that declared the establishment and expansion of West Bank settlements a ‘national value’, and the worst violence in Gaza since 2014.

‘Things are going to deteriorate,’ Muhammed says. With the removal of international support, NGO’s in Hebron will be stretched to breaking point, with potentially disastrous consequences for his family, who relied on international observers for protection.

For Issar, the ebb and flow of state politics is incomparable to the situation on the ground.

‘Hope is our only weapon,’ he says.

The memory of Mutasem’s uncle, who was gunned down whilst at prayers, still haunts his family.

As international observers leave an already tense and unstable city, the future seems ominous. Is he optimistic? I ask, will Hebron’s Palestinians get through this?

After a short pause, he laughs dryly.