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"The activity of the settlers and the army in the H-2 area of Hebron is creating an irreversible situation. In a sense, cleansing is being carried out. In other words, if the situation continues for another few years, the result will be that no Palestinians will remain there. It is a miracle they have managed to remain there until now."

This view of the situation in the Israeli-controlled area of Hebron comes from Jan Kristensen, the former head of the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH), who completed his one-year term of office last week. Kristensen, 58, is a former lieutenant colonel in the Norwegian army and has also held various positions in UNIFIL (the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon).

H-2, the 4.3 square kilometers of Hebron assigned to Israeli control by the Hebron Agreement, contains all of the city's Jewish settlers. When the intifada began, it had 35,000 Palestinian residents. Kristensen had no exact figures for how many Palestinians have since left but he said, "more and more people are leaving the area and it is effectively being emptied. The settlers' activities, which are aimed at causing the Palestinians to leave, and the army's activities, which impose severe restrictions, create an irreversible reality. Anyone whose economic situation permits him to do so, leaves.

"There are roadblocks in the area all the time. Once there were more than 100 days of continuous curfew, with only brief interruptions. The markets are closed, the roads are closed, and if you're a Palestinian who does not appear on the lists, you can't enter. The settlers go out almost every night and attack those who live near them. They break windows, cause damage and effectively force the Palestinians to leave the area.

"I don't see how this situation can change, and I see no possibility that the IDF will once again open the area and enable the Palestinians in it to lead normal lives. Personally, I don't believe it is possible for normal life to exist in Hebron between the communities, even if there are agreements between the leaders."

TIPH, originally established after Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Muslim worshipers in Hebron in 1994, is comprised of volunteer observers from six countries - Norway, which runs the operation, Italy, Denmark, Turkey, Sweden and Switzerland. Its annual budget is about $2 million, not including the observers' salaries, which are paid directly by their governments.

The 71 unarmed observers patrol the city under an agreement between Israel, the Palestinians and the other six nations concerned - the UN is not involved. Almost no one in Hebron - not Israelis, Palestinians nor international agencies - believe TIPH has done much good, yet inertia has caused its mandate to be renewed every three months.

For its European sponsors, its main value lies in creating a precedent for international observers in the territories. It was fear of such a precedent that made Israel insist that neither the UN nor any other international agency be involved.

"I ask myself all the time what we are doing in Hebron, but we are there on the assumption that there are agreements between the parties, and as far as I understand it, we change the situation," Kristensen said.

"We succeeded in changing the army's approach to curfews in the city and to how to leave civilians outside the cycle of violence. I understand why the commander of the [IDF's] Hebron Brigade has to act - after all, more than 30 suicide bombers have come from the city. But there is no reason for a curfew on all the inhabitants. We also raised the matter of house demolitions. To destroy a five- or six-story building and leave more than 100 residents homeless because someone hid there is unjust and unacceptable.

"I view our role as documenting events for the future. We transfer this documentation to the countries that sent us ... Residents of Palestinian houses that are destroyed frequently ask us why we didn't prevent the destruction, and it's hard to explain to them that we can't intervene."

Over the last year, TIPH has branched out into humanitarian activity, such as transporting students and teachers to schools during curfews. This has infuriated the settlers, and Kristensen said that settler attacks on TIPH personnel rose 60 percent in July-December 2003 compared to the first half of the year.

There have been "many hundreds of incidents," he said, ranging from spitting and cursing through blocked cars to being pelted with eggs and stones.

The IDF Spokesman responded: "The unique and complicated situation in Hebron, along with the activities of a murderous terror infrastructure belonging to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, obliged the IDF to act vigorously against terrorism in the city. The IDF's activities, which followed a series of deadly attacks deep inside Israel, admittedly caused harm and unpleasantness to the civilian population. But even during this period, the IDF enabled the orderly functioning of the education and health systems and enabled movement for humanitarian purposes at all times. Following the grave damage that the city's terrorist organizations suffered in 2002, the IDF changed its modus operandi in the city, which significantly eased life for the Palestinian residents."