A monitoring force that has been in place for more than two decades in the West Bank city of Hebron is to be no more come the end of January. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Monday that he would not renew the six-month lease of the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH), claiming that it “acts against” Israel.
He has decried that the international observatory task force documents Israeli violations in the city and calls out the country’s military for regularly contravening international law through its illegal occupation of the West Bank’s largest city.
It is no coincidence that Mr Netanyahu's decision comes just one month after the most thorough report from the observer group was released and said "radical Israeli settlers" were making life increasingly difficult for Palestinian residents living under the military's occupation and that the city was moving in the opposite direction.
But what was TIHP exactly created for and what does it consist of? It was established in 1997 as part of the Oslo Accords’ Hebron Control. It came after the massacre of 29 Palestinian Muslims at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron three years earlier by radical settler Baruch Goldstein, a man still revered by a portion of the settler community to this day for his actions.
So the observer force was established in order to provide the Palestinians with a semblance of security in a city dominated by the Israeli military and its network of checkpoints that restrict the movement of Palestinian residents.
The observer force was launched by Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey and Norway at the request of the UN Security Council and agreed upon by the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Israel. It was expanded in 1998 following an agreement between Mr Netanyahu and then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
It was also hoped it would help lay the groundwork for peace in the city and promote stability. But the city has experienced anything but since TIPH’s foundation. The city has served as an epicentre of violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians, with radical settlers regularly assaulting Palestinians and Palestinians launching attacks on Israeli soldiers.
Its unarmed observers patrol in the city seven days a week but cannot intervene in any incident. They collect information for reports that are shared with the Israelis, the Palestinians and the member countries of the task force.
The reports look for incidents that involve damage caused to Palestinian property by the Israeli military or the illegal settlers that live in the city, who number around 600, physical or verbal harassment by Israeli soldiers, and other violations of international human rights standards.
It was therefore not intended to be a neutral task force as it was there to monitor the welfare of the Palestinian population who live under occupation and the violations committed against it. But it was meant to report impartially and fairly on the situation in the city.
The Israelis claim that TIPH staffers have been involved in several incidents that have angered the settler community in Hebron. This includes a 10-year-old Israeli boy being slapped and the tyres of the car owned by an Israeli family being punctured.
Mr Netanyahu has faced a wave of domestic problems in the last year, specifically a series of corruption allegations that could culminate this year. They forced him to call early elections and in a bid to win support he has been courting the right-wing and religious ultra-right as he tries to hold on to power and become Israel’s longest-ever serving leader.
He has been under pressure from the settler right to cancel the mission’s remit in Hebron. In the hope of currying favour, he appears to have capitulated. So the observers have just lost out to very people they were there to monitor. For Palestinians, the end of the observers – albeit toothless – leaves them more open to Israeli violations in the city than at any point in the last 21 years.