March 8, 1998
For a moment use your imagination: A narrow street, shops, automobiles, horses, push-carts, tens (sometimes hundreds or more) of people milling about, in the middle of the street. Among the people some adorn Kafiyas. Some women wear clothe mask covering their faces. Others only cover their hair. Other men and women also have their heads covered, with kippahs (Yarmulkahs) and kerchiefs respectively. A uniformed military presence is obvious too.
Into this mass confusion add some surrealism: small white cars with red lettering on the side. Flying from the antenna is a triangular flag, also with red lettering. Standing next to the car are its driver and passenger, both wearing off-white gray uniforms and blue vests.
Now the icing on the cake: Walking down the middle of the street is a group of red-hatted (baseball cap) people.
It sounds like a scene out of a bad science fiction book? Well, its not science fiction, but it is strange.
Hebron 1998 - it's not enough that Jews and Arabs mingle - mostly indifferent to each other - sometimes doing business together - occasional problems, but mostly, each going about his or her own life, ignoring the others. Hebron has turned into an international city -- with unwanted guests.
Two groups today wander the streets of Hebron - one official, the other unofficial. They are both known by acronyms: TIPH and CPT: Temporary International Presence Hebron and Christian Peacekeeping Team.
TIPH has been in Hebron for about a year. Actually they made their first appearance almost four years ago but that didn't last very long. Then, they wore white uniforms and red hats - they were labeled "The Pizza Men." Today, these hundred or so men and women from various countries have invaded. Turkey, Sweden, Norway, Italy, Switzerland among those nations represented. What do they do in Hebron? Officially, they are 'observers.' So, they observe. What do they observe? That is a good question. They see what they want to see. And what they don't want to see - well, your guess is as good as mine.
To be fair, I have had some personal contact with groups of these people - periodically I give them tours of Ma'arat HaMachpela and an occasional lecture about the Jewish history of Hebron. Once in a while we strike up a conversation in the street. My experience has shown that they are not all Israel-Jew haters. Some are neutral, a few like us, and there are others However, the group, as a group, cannot be seen as impartial. I have been told that recently they began issuing reports about Palestinian infractions in Hebron. But these accounts are few and far between - and much too late. The Arab violence against Jews in Hebron, and unceasing violations of the Hebron accords has left a bloody trail one year long. The fact that now they remember to add a word here or there about Arab transgressions is no excuse for the overt bias shown since they arrived in Hebron.
Nevertheless, the problem with their being in Hebron is deeper than the pure objectivity, or lack of it. Again, imagine walking down the street - over one shoulder you watch to make sure your next-door neighbor isn't planning on sticking a knife in your back. Over the other shoulder you watch for the blue-vested TIPH with their movie cameras and notebooks, jotting down whatever you do or say. Shades of Big Brother is Watching! TIPH presence certainly doesn't add to a cool, calm and relaxed living atmosphere.
Occasionally tempers flare and uncalled for actions occur. For example, this week Israeli soldiers near Beit Hadassah apprehended an Arab on the Israeli 'wanted list.' The Arab resisted arrest, reacted violently and was subdued. Of course, TIPH missed the first part of the show and arrived for the second act, movie cameras and all. As they were filming, an eight year old, sitting on a soldiers lap, played with a toy water gun. It seems that he managed to shoot at one of the TIPH observers, whose pants were dampened. Whether the child did this intentionally or not, I don't know - possibly yes, possibly no. But the TIPH observer grabbed the child, hit him in the chest, and dug his fingers into the child's neck. Fingernail marks and the red patches on the boy's chest were both witnessed and recorded by Israeli police, when later, a complaint was issued.
The TIPH observer then removed his nametags, preventing identification, and attempted to leave the area.
Later, a Reuters correspondent called me, asking for a reaction to the following account she had received: Jewish settlers threw water and eggs at TIPH observers filming Israeli soldiers arresting two Arabs. Israeli cars blocked the road, preventing the TIPH people from leaving the area, until Israeli security forces intervened.
This is not the norm. It is serious, should not have occurred and should not be repeated. The TIPH observer who attacked an 8 year old who squirted him with a water gun must be severely reprimanded and possibly be brought to trial and deported.
The major problem with TIPH is the overwhelming naivete that plagues their existence here. They have no idea what they are observing, due to a total lack of cognizance as to the underlying conflicts that permeate Hebron. They try to make sense out of events which are foreign to their thought processes, because of their inability to understand what has led up to the event in question, and its possible consequences. They then report inaccurately back to their superiors giving accounts of what they thought they saw, without realizing what they truly witnessed. Of course, a staggering percentage of their subjective chronicles shed a negative light on the IDF and/or Israeli citizens in Hebron.
I once had an interesting conversation with two of these observers both of whom come from Italy. They said to me: "We are both religious Roman Catholics. You (the Jews) and the Arabs are both religious. Religion should unify you. Why doesnt it?"
So, I replied, "Where was this religious unity when Jews were slaughtered by the thousands by Christians during the Crusades, among other time periods, because they refused to accept Christianity?"
They looked at each other, scratched their heads, and then one responded, "Well, you are right, but that doesn't make it right."
This is the 'impartial observer force' doing its duty in Hebron. Strangers in a strange land.