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Confidential Report Based on 20 Years of Monitoring Claims: Israel Regularly Breaks International Law in Hebron

The international monitoring force, recognized by Israel, disputes land ownership of settlers, slams restrictions on movement and worship, and says 'normal life' is nowhere to be found in the West Bank city

TIPH observers walking past a Palestinian man in Hebron.
Tess Scheflan / JINI

An international observatory task force established two decades ago to monitor the divided West Bank city of Hebron has produced its most exhaustive and damning internal report on Israel’s actions in the city, according to people with access to the report who spoke with Haaretz on condition of anonymity. This is the first time a report by the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH) is revealed in the press. 

The confidential report by TIPH, long regarded as toothless by the Palestinians, cites numerous violations of international law by Israel and seems to confirm Hebron’s status as a city torn by both a civilian and military occupation. Twenty years after the monitoring force was set up to help instill a sense of security and ensure prosperity for Palestinians, the report warns that the city is more divided than ever due to the actions of the Israeli government and Israeli settlers.

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According to the report, Israel is clearly in “severe and regular breach” of the right to non-discrimination as well as the obligation to protect the population living under occupation from deportation. The Israeli settlement in Hebron is a violation of international law and “radical Israeli settlers” make life in the Israeli-controlled area difficult for its Palestinian residents. 

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TIPH was established in 1997 as part of the Oslo Accords’ Hebron Protocol, which allowed the partial redeployment of Israeli military forces to the part of the city that remained under its control. The force was later expanded as part of the Wye River Memorandum, signed in 1998 by Benjamin Netanyahu, then serving his first term as premier, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Some of the people Haaretz spoke to for this article voiced concern that the publication of the report’s findings may result in Israel refusing to renew TIPH’s mandate to operate in the city, which comes up for renewal every six months.

During a visit to Paris in November, Netanyahu said he would take a decision in December “with regard to the continuation of TIPH.” Netanyahu has been facing increasing pressure from the right to cancel the observers’ mandate. 

In recent months TIPH has been at the center of negative attention, following two incidents involving the group’s employees, one in which a TIPH worker was filmed, according to the police, puncturing the tires of a vehicle belonging to a settler living in the city, and another in which a Swiss observer was deported from Israel after allegedly slapping a settler boy. Following those incidents, Netanyahu summoned the mission’s chief in July for a meeting.

The near-100-page-long report was commissioned to mark the 20th anniversary of TIPH. An earlier iteration of the international presence was formed after Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Muslim worshippers at Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs in February 1994. The force currently features 64 international mission members from five contributing countries, which also fund the mission: Italy, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey, after Denmark pulled out. The mission only submits its reports to its home countries and to the Palestinian and Israeli authorities, and does not share them publicly.

TIPH’s reputation is controversial. A common joke in Hebron is that its initials stand for “Two Impotents Patrolling Hebron.” However, while its power is limited, TIPH still has greater standing than many other external organizations operating in the area. Human rights and nonprofit groups operating in Hebron are usually slammed by Israeli officials as anti-Israel, left-wing groups. TIPH is different: Members of the group routinely meet with Israel Defense Forces representatives and officers from Israel’s Civil Administration; they enjoy free access in a city known for its restrictions on movement; and, most importantly, the group has been operating in Hebron with Israel’s permission for over 20 years. 

Their mission is also supposed to assist in the promotion and execution of projects initiated by the donor countries, and to encourage economic development and growth in Hebron. 

‘Severe and regular’ 

Late in 2017, TIPH produced one of the most significant pieces of work since its establishment: A report looking back on its 20 years of work, highlighting problems and patterns its members have identified. 

The report is based, among other things, on over 40,000 “incident reports” compiled over the years by TIPH’s team. 

TIPH’s report concludes that Hebron is moving in the opposite direction to the one agreed upon by Israel and the PLO in the Hebron Protocol.

The protocol was signed in 1997 and divided Hebron into two parts: H1, the Palestinian Authority-controlled area comprising about 80 percent of the city and home to about 175,000 Palestinians; and H2, the Israeli-controlled area where some 500 to 800 settlers live alongside 40,000 Palestinians.

Hebron: A city divided by the Israeli occupation

Israel is violating the right to non-discrimination as stated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by Israel in 1991, according to the report. Palestinians living in the Israeli-controlled area of the city lack of freedom of movement and the right to worship, clear breaches of this right, the report says. In addition, TIPH says, Israel is constantly in breach of Article 49 of the Geneva Convention (IV), forbidding the deportation of protected persons (those living under occupation who are not citizens of the occupying country) from occupied territory. 

A diplomat who has seen the report told Haaretz that it says “this basic human right is breached regularly and more and more severely for the Palestinians in Hebron – and particularly for those living in H2 – relating to lack of freedom of movement and the right to worship.” 

“Normal life,” especially in Hebron’s Old City area in the Israeli-controlled area of H2, is nowhere to be found, the report says, referencing the TIPH mandate that states that the mission “assists in monitoring and reporting efforts to maintain normal life in the city of Hebron." Furthermore, the old Palestinian vegetable market has become an Israeli military zone, often occupied by settlers and a playground for their children, according to the report.

The report also disputes land ownership claims in Hebron’s Old City made by settlers who say they represent previous Jewish owners who fled or were murdered during the 1929 Hebron massacre. Today’s settlers, the report says, have no family ties with previous owners of the property, and the question of ownership of land that had been inhabited or used by Jews prior to 1929 has still not been answered clearly. Regardless of these ownership claims, TIPH says the presence of any Israeli settlement in Hebron is considered a violation of international law. 

The report also notes the exodus from H2 of those Palestinians who can afford to move to Palestinian Authority-controlled H1, where they face fewer restrictions. Those who can’t or don’t want to leave H2 have to confront “radical Israeli settlers” who are supported by the Israeli government and Jewish foundations abroad, the report claims. 

The division of security responsibilities in H1 and H2 works in contradiction to the Hebron agreement and is hindering the movement of people, goods and vehicles within the city, the report warns. Obstacles and barriers between the two areas have developed into a military fortification consisting of numerous closures and checkpoints manned by Israeli security forces, especially controlling the city’s Palestinian inhabitants. 

The report highlights Shuhada Street, which is probably Hebron’s most famous thoroughfare. Once a thriving Palestinian market, today it is devoid of Palestinians and its shops are shuttered. Palestinians are still not allowed to drive on the street and can’t access parts of it on foot, the report notes, adding that, over the past 20 years, TIPH has witnessed how these tight movement restrictions for Palestinians on Shuhada Street have spread to other parts of H2. 

In contrast, Israeli drivers are granted access to all of H2’s roads. Gradually, the report says, settlers have been given the right to build and extend their settlement activities, including on Palestinian land. Infrastructure construction and maintenance for roads, water and access have also been prioritized for Israeli settlers, the report says. 

TIPH also says it has seen land in the settlement of Tel Rumeida, rented by Palestinians for more than a generation, being closed by Israeli military orders and used for archaeological excavations, seeking to prove a Jewish presence there from the first century B.C.E. 

File photo: A tour group speaks with TIPH observers during a tour in Hebron, August 3, 2009.
Tess Scheflan / JINI

Simultaneously, the TIPH report says, freedom of movement for the Palestinians living in Tel Rumeida has been seriously curtailed. Over the years, it has been enclosed and surrounded by several checkpoints – with dire consequences for its Palestinian inhabitants. They are not allowed to receive visitors who are not registered on a list held by the checkpoints guards. TIPH notes that Palestinians are often harassed at these checkpoints, and that the only way to bring food and other provisions to their homes is by foot. Studies, work and family relations are also very challenging for these residents, it writes.

TIPH also witnessed how paths and roads have been established on Palestinian farmland over the years, in order to create exclusive routes for Jewish worshippers heading from the settlement of Kiryat Arba to downtown Hebron. In addition, old Palestinian houses from the Ottoman era situated along this path were demolished in order to widen it.

The observatory mission also notes that Palestinians face numerous obstacles trying to access the Ibrahimi Mosque – which is an important religious site to both Muslims and Jews (the Tomb of the Patriarchs is also situated there). There are now only two access points to the Muslim holy site and worshippers have first to pass several Israeli-manned checkpoints. Worshippers are searched and sometimes required to lift up their clothes. The muezzin, TIPH notes, is not allowed to call worshippers for prayer on Friday evenings and Saturdays due to the Jewish Shabbat. The group adds that while some 1,600 Palestinian worshippers were counted attending the mosque on a given Friday in 2003, that number had been halved by 2017.

Although the report is highly critical of Israel, it does not lay out any demands or calls for action from either the Israelis or Palestinians. It was handed to the foreign ministers of the five contributing member states and was presented to diplomats visiting Hebron recently.  

Haaretz asked TIPH to comment on the report and whether any actions were taken based on its findings. In response, a spokesman said that their mandate “states that TIPH assists in monitoring and reporting efforts to maintain normal life in the city of Hebron, and in accordance with the Hebron protocol and the agreement between the parties. Regular reports are shared with the Palestinian and the Israeli authorities as well as the five contributions countries. As requested by the parties, all information produced by TIPH is strictly confidential. TIPH has a regular dialogue with both parties.”

Haaretz requested the Prime Minister’s Office comment on the report and its findings, but was referred to the Foreign Ministry, which said in response: “TIPH reports are not for publication. They are transferred to both sides based on the understanding that they will not be passed on to other parties, certainly not the media. Therefore, we have no intention of commenting on partial information or any other publications about this issue.”