The morning news show on Israel Radio opened with a sensational item: Our reporter has learned that personnel of the international force in Hebron have been leaking to the Palestinians information about Israel Defense Forces and Jewish settler activity in the town. That afternoon, Meir Sheetrit, at the time justice minister in the Likud-led government (and now interior minister) paid a visit to the old quarter of Hebron. "This scandal should teach us that it is impossible to trust the United Nations," thundered Sheetrit to reporters. However, the observer force in Hebron is not subordinate to the UN at all, and does not report to any international institution. (Later in the day the Foreign Ministry issued a statement that the "leaking" charges were unfounded.)

That was in the summer of 2001, more than seven years after the establishment of the Temporary International Presence in the City of Hebron, known for short as TIPH. Today, more than seven years after that embarrassing incident, when the disputed quarter in Hebron is refusing to leave the headlines, TIPH is still observing from the sidelines.

Last Tuesday, the memorial day for Yasser Arafat, we were guests of the 10th commander of the force, Brig. Gen. Roy Grottheim. Like his predecessors, as stipulated in the mandate, Grottheim comes from the Norwegian armed forces. This is why the Norwegian ambassador to Israel, Jakken Biorn Lian, also came along to the disputed town.

On the way to the retail market, most of which has stood empty since the slaughter of Palestinian worshippers in the winter of 1994, we stopped near the "Red House." A tall Palestinian man in a gray djellaba slowly passed through the IDF roadblock that had been set up in front of the disputed building. Fathi al Razm wanted us to know that he has nothing against the bored soldiers who were gazing at us. The fellows in the gray TIPH uniforms are also nice guys. "Everyone is all right except for the Jewish settlers," he said. "They don't want peace, they just want to make trouble."

Grottheim listened in silence. You won't get a bad word out of him about the settlers for the newspaper. He would be glad to meet with them, and has even sent a message to them via the police commander. It is true that the settlers' children throw stones at his people, but from time to time the observers also get hit by the Palestinians.

If Baruch Marzel and his friends implement their threat to set the town on fire in order to thwart the High Court of Justice order to evacuate the disputed house there, Grottheim's people will be there. With steely determination they will draw their weapons - pens, notebooks and cameras - and document the events. Reporters and cameramen will send their reports and pictures to editors and television networks. The TIPH reports will be placed in envelopes, far from the public eye; they will be analyzed at the force's offices and delivered to the liaison officers of the IDF and Palestinian Authority. The officers will request the responses of the commanders on the ground, and transmit these responses. The summary report will be sent to the donor countries, the force and the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. Until the next report.

In one of the alleys we met the commander of the Judea Brigade, Colonel Udi Ben Moha, armed to the teeth and wearing a steel helmet. He shook Grottheim's hand warmly and suggested that we turn back, to avoid the tear gas that his soldiers were raining down on a group of demonstrators trying to mark the anniversary of Arafat's death.

Under the Oslo Accords, Hebron was split into two zones: H-1, where the Palestinians are supposed to be in control, and H-2, where Israel is supposed to be in control. Also located in this zone, covering 4.3 square kilometers, are the Jewish settlers' neighborhoods. In April 2002, the IDF took control of the whole city and a while later set up permanent guard towers in H-1. The official TIPH Internet site notes: "Since then, the Israeli army operates over the entire area in violation of the agreements." It adds: "More than 100 roadblocks, fences, walls and checkpoints are put up in the city center around the settlements and the access roads to them. This separates the Jewish settlers and the Palestinian residents. Furthermore, it severely hampers freedom of movement. Due to the restrictions and violence surrounding the settlements as well as prolonged curfews, large areas of the old city are deserted. Several main shopping streets are closed by military order."

The brigade commander and the Norwegian general agreed that the IDF is scrupulous about cooperating with TIPH, and that they have a respectable working relationship. The TIPH's mandate is "to provide protection and security for the Palestinian people." The observers are supposed to protect 170,000 Palestinians from 500 settlers, without weapons and without the authority to separate the sides. They do not even have the authority to prevent violent incidents.

According to Hagai Alon, who in his capacity as diplomatic adviser to the defense minister kept close tabs on TIPH's activity: "Instead of making things easier for these excellent people and using them as a helpful tool for solving problems such as local crime, they made trouble for them in securing diplomatic transit permits and ignored their reports."

Second Lieutenant E., who served at the end of the 1990s for two years in the unit for liaison and coordination with TIPH, told of a typical incident in his testimony to the organization of demobilized soldiers, Breaking the Silence: "One day a complaint came in from a Palestinian family in whose building soldiers had established a post and were urinating on the roof. I transferred the complaint to the company commander, and a month and a half later I received an answer that this was an irregularity and would not recur, and that was it. That is, 'The system is fine and there are irregularities.' But in Hebron everything is irregular."

"I didn't have any way of ascertaining whether our soldiers had fired on a Palestinian, because he really did try to flee," continued Second Lieutenant E. in his testimony. "I couldn't say to a company commander, 'Enough - give me a real answer.' The brigade commander didn't care one whit about those observers. It was a joke. They were very serious, but it is ridiculous to be in Hebron and talk about human rights. It's like being in a country afflicted with starvation and treating a cold. Everyone plays with public opinion. When the annual report went out to the six countries that participate in the force and they asked for explanations, the Foreign Ministry would freak out and a few days later everything would go back to the way it was. From the perspective of the liaison unit, the way of dealing with this was to find an answer to TIPH's questions, not a solution. Everything I did was just the state covering its ass."

Throughout the tour of Hebron I did not notice any of the observers in gray. General Grottheim said that Hebron is big and his force is small. After the killing of two observers by Islamic Jihad people who mistakenly believed that they were Jewish settlers, the force was reduced from 100 observers to 63. The operating budget for the force comes to $4.4 million annually, and together with the salaries (each country pays the salaries of its representatives), the total budget is estimated at $87 million.

The observers come from Norway, Italy, Denmark, Turkey, Sweden and Switzerland. Among them are Christians and Muslims, men and women, former military and police personnel, university graduates, a number of Arabic speakers and a handful of Hebrew speakers. Apart from two or three observers who have lodged their families in Bethlehem, they live together in a shared stone building high on a hill that overlooks Jerusalem and the Ashkelon coast. They have a dining hall and even a small pub.

In his day, Jan Christensen, the head of the observer force who completed his tour of duty in the city five years ago, kicked up a storm when he told Haaretz reporter Arnon Regular that in a certain sense ethnic cleansing was taking place in Hebron, and that if the situation continued for several more years, the result would be that no Palestinians would be left there. Christensen expressed doubt that the situation would change for the better and it would be possible to conduct normal life in Hebron between the communities, even if there were agreements between the leaderships.

Grottheim insists that the situation has changed for the better. He is familiar with the assertion that his observers provide a fig leaf for the Israeli occupation more than they protect the Palestinians. We will never be able to know how many violent clashes have been prevented thanks to his people's notebooks and cameras.

The prescription for the "International Presence in Hebron" is written in the name of Dr. Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 worshippers in the Tomb of the Patriarchs during the holy month of Ramadan. UN Security Council Resolution 904 stressed the need "to overcome the adverse impact of the massacre on the peace process currently underway."

Before we parted, I asked Grottheim what his observers would do if they saw an armed settler heading for the mosque. "They would report this immediately to both sides," said Grottheim with a completely straight face. "How is it possible to ensure normalcy in a place that isn't normal?"