Cartoon protests force observers out

IDF, PA Police team up to protect international peacekeepers in Hebron.

For the first time since its establishment, members of the Temporary International Presence in Hebron were forced to leave their headquarters because of violent Palestinian protests over the Danish cartoons seen as insulting Islam. On Wednesday morning, scores of protesters threw stones and some forced their way into the mission headquarters, damaging property. TIPH spokeswoman Gunhild Forselv said a decision was taken to leave the headquarters temporarily. "Because of the stone-throwers and the fact that 16- and 17-year-old teenagers broke into the headquarters and damaged property, we decided to return to Tel Aviv until the situation quiets down," she said. "It is the first time members have been forced to leave the premises." Protesters attempted to set fire to the building, while others damaged TIPH cars. In a somewhat surrealistic situation, armed PA policemen joined IDF soldiers to protect the TIPH members against the angry stone-throwers. "Almost all the windows in the building have been smashed; a group of teenagers succeeded in climbing over the gate and entered the building and began to damage property before they were thrown out by Palestinian security forces," Forselv said. While the violence lasted only 15 minutes, a group of protesters remained in the area throughout the day, she said. "It is a weird situation - on one side there are Palestinian police who Israel permitted to carry arms, and there are also IDF soldiers, all present to protect us," she said. The army said the soldiers' presence was to protect the TIPH members who required assistance. "There were some 100-200 youths demonstrating," said Muhammad Khalil, a Hebron police officer. "We dispersed them easily." Forselv said that last week 11 Danish members left the Hebron headquarters at the request of their embassy and are currently residing in Tel Aviv until the situation calms down. She said members of Hamas and other terror organizations gave mission members assurances that they would protect them and attempt to restore calm. In the morning, a local Hamas leader arrived at the site to calm the tension, she said. Throughout the day, TIPH team members donned flak jackets and helmets because of the unrest, she said. According to Forselv, the mission received the assurances of the PA Police that they would guard the headquarters located until the members return. Some Hebron residents condemned the actions of the youth. "It is wrong to say that Norway and Denmark are responsible for this issue, and it's wrong to attack the offices of TIPH," said Safwan Sughier, 41, a former driving instructor who recently became involved in local politics. "They came here to protect us. They support many projects in this society. I feel very badly about this. It's shameful for us to attack this place." Sughier said the violent actions hurt the Palestinian cause. "Now the world will say the Palestinians are terrorists because they voted for Hamas and they are attacking the people who came to help them." Sughier said Muslims have other means of showing their pain. "We don't need violence," he said. "We can boycott Denmark and Norway." Anger against the international observers in the city has been mounting ever since the cartoons were first published, said Lt.-Col. Alex Rozensveig, head of the Hebron district coordinating office. The hundreds of students who participated in Wednesday's violent demonstration were clearly incited, he told The Jerusalem Post. "Where were their headmasters and teachers; hundreds left the classroom in the middle of the school day to participate in stone-throwing," he said. Last week, while there were a few violent protests, and in some instances protesters set fire to Danish flags, there were also peaceful demonstrations, he said. While the mayor and other local officials as well as city residents condemned the violence, many elements in the city sought to incite, including those affiliated with Hamas, Fatah and an extreme Islamic group with ties in Syria called Tahrir, he said. Because of the situation, the army coordinated the traveling routes of TIPH observers in the city as a safety measure. Due to the upsurge in violence in the morning, the army permitted Palestinian policemen to carry weapons in the hope that they would restore order and protect the observers from the rioting mob. However, the policemen failed to restore the calm, and soldiers were deployed to the site, he said. According to security officials, later in the day when it appeared that a tense calm was holding, soldiers left the site but shortly after the violence resumed, and TIPH officials called on the army once again for assistance. "Not one window in the three building complex was left intact, some of the demonstrators succeeded in forcing their way into the compound, they damaged computers, chairs and tables. The office used by the head of the TIPH team was totally destroyed by the stones," Rozensveig said. Later in the day, when the observers realized their safety could not be guaranteed because of the failure of the Palestinian Police to disperse the mob, a decision was made to leave the city, officials said. Before nightfall, under IDF escort, the convoy of TIPH observers left the city, said Rozensveig. Security officials said that the Danish members of the team were planning to fly home to Denmark in the coming days. Besides the 11 Danish members, the TIPH team of civilian observers hails from Norway, Italy, Sweden, Turkey and Switzerland. Its main task is to monitor and report misconduct by either side in the conflict, but observers are not permitted to directly intervene in incidents. Its mandate is the result of negotiations conducted between Israel and the PLO between 1994 and 1997.