The EU, Italy and Norway expressed their concern over Israel’s decision to oust an international observer force from Hebron.
Fearing for the safety of its observers, the World Council of Churches said it plans to also halt its mission in the West Bank city, which is one of the flash points for violence between Palestinians and Israelis.
Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi, who is visiting Israel and the Palestinian territories this week, said he regrets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement Sunday
that Israel does not intend to renew the mandate of the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH).
The mandate for the observer mission in Hebron, whichbegan in 1997, is signed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority twice a year. Its 64 observers come from five countries: Norway, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey.
“We learned about this decision with regret, but we maintain our commitment,” said the minister in a press statement.
“We will discuss it also with the other states involved,” said Milanesi in a statement that was posted on the Palestinian news agency Wafa.
He met on Tuesday with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah and with Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Monday.
Israel may have breached the Olso Accords by ending TIPH’s mandate, Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Soereide said on Tuesday.
“The one-sided Israeli decision can mean that the implementation of an important part of the Oslo Accords is discontinued,” Soereide said. “The situation in Hebron is unstable and characterized by conflict.”
Soereide said that Norway, which led the observer force for those 22 years, found the decision “worrying.”
The European Union, which has no direct relationship to the TIPH mission, also said it is concerned.
“TIPH has played an important role in preventing violence between Palestinians and Israeli settlers in Hebron. The first call for an international presence in Hebron was made by the UN Security Council through Resolution 904,” it said.
“The EU is not a party to TIPH but will be coordinating its position with the Norwegian coordinators of the TIPH as well as with other contributing countries, in particular Italy and Sweden,” the EU added.
The Israeli government has been fairly silent on the issue of TIPH since Netanyahu’s announcement Sunday. A Foreign Ministry official said that the TIPH mission would shut down as of February 1, when its mandate expires, but that the observers would be given a reasonable amount of time to prepare to leave the country.
The official added that TIPH bears no relationship to the Oslo Accords.
The TIPH mission was tasked with reporting on alleged Israeli abuses toward Palestinians in Hebron, by both the IDF and the city’s Jewish residents.
Netanyahu ended the mandate under pressure from right-wing politicians who had waged a campaign against TIPH, arguing that its members had incited the Palestinians against the city’s Jewish residents.
The World Council of Churches said Wednesday that it plans to also pull its observers from Hebron, fearing that they are no longer safe from “harassment” by Jewish residents of the city and the IDF.
The WCC said that its program is “among several nongovernmental and peacemaking organizations that have reached a critical point this week as a result of alleged harassment by settlers and by Israeli soldiers.”
WCC general secretary Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit said, “The WCC accompaniers are currently prevented from fulfilling their role as a peaceful protective presence for residents in Hebron.
“We must strengthen our resolve for the pursuit of just peace, and not allow harassment or threats to keep us from this pursuit.”
The WCC’s program in Hebron is part of the church’s larger “Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel,” which was created in 2002 and operates in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. It was created in response to a call from Palestinian church leaders in the region.
The Israeli right-wing NGO Im Tirtzu said it is certain its operation against the group in the last few months had helped lead to its decision to leave Hebron. An Im Tirtzu representative said that members of its group had been filming the WCC observers and posting those videos on social media. The videos showed the observers trying to hide from the cameras.
Matan Peleg, CEO of Im Tirtzu, said: “We are pleased to see that foreign government-funded delegitimization organizations are beginning to leave Hebron.
“These organizations do nothing apart from fuel the fires of conflict and provoke IDF soldiers, and they are the true obstacle to peace. We are pleased that our efforts to ‘film the filmers’ succeeded, and we promise to continue working on behalf of IDF soldiers and the State of Israel,” Peleg said.
A small group of Palestinians on Wednesday staged a sit-in strike outside the TIPH offices in Hebron to protest against Israel’s decision not to extend the observers’ mission in the city.
The protest was organized by a local group called Youth Against Settlements.
The protesters carried placards that read: “TIPH in Hebron until the end of occupation,” “We need protection,” “No more massacres in Hebron,” and “TIPH are legal, settlements are illegal.”
The small turnout is in sharp contrast to the strong condemnations made by Palestinian officials in response to the decision not to renew the mandate of the observers.
Several residents of Hebron said on Wednesday that they do not expect real changes in the city after the observers leave.
“The observers were not able to protect the residents of Hebron,” said shopkeeper Nabil Natsheh. “Many residents did not take them seriously.”
A senior official with the Hebron Municipality concurred.
“While it was nice to see international observers in our city, they were unable to change the reality on the ground,” the official said. “Israel did not take them seriously, and it appears the observers’ reports about violations against the Palestinians did nothing to improve the situation.”
Palestinian officials in Ramallah continued on Wednesday to criticize the decision. PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi said in a statement that the decision was “intended to cover up on crimes committed by armed settlers against a civilian population.”
She said that Netanyahu “and his right-wing and racist coalition government are expelling the witnesses to the very crimes committed by their extremist and armed settler population in order to shield them from any accountability for their lawlessness and egregious violations.”
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