Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided this week that he would refrain from extending the mandate of the Temporary International Presence in Hebron, or TIPH, an international civilian observer mission that has been stationed in Hebron since 1997.

Im Tirtzu CEO Matan Peleg hailed the prime minister’s announcement, saying, “This is an important move that strengthens Israeli sovereignty.” He added, “The phenomenon in which foreign governments are working from within Israel to weaken the state must stop… ”

Headed by Norway, and with additional representatives from Italy, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey, TIPH’s website says its mandate is to “assist in monitoring and reporting efforts to maintain normal life in the city of Hebron, thus creating a sense of security among the Palestinians in Hebron.” TIPH’s reports are shared with Palestinian and Israeli Authorities, as well as the five contributing countries.

However, for years Israeli officials, pro-Israel NGOs and Jewish residents of Hebron themselves have complained that TIPH isn’t just in the city monitoring or even, as they claim, giving the Arabs a “sense of security.” Rather, they are busy stoking the hostilities and friction in this already edgy city, perpetuating the tension between the Arabs and Jews who live together in 20 percent of the city (the other 80 percent of the city was turned over to full Palestinian Authority control).

Ironically, it was Netanyahu himself who during his first term as prime minister agreed to the terms of that deal, which in 1997 saw 80 percent of the city turned over to full control by the P.A.

According to protocol, Israel and the Palestinian Authority can agree, twice a year, on whether or not to renew TIPH’s mandate and sign an extension to the agreement. Until now, the mandate was always extended, but after 22 years, Israel has decided not to sign it again.

‘Observers were supposed to be neutral and unbiased’

Two fairly recent incidents caught on video involving TIPH observers may have swayed Netanyahu’s decision not to lengthen the group’s mandate. In the first, a TIPH representative was filmed slapping a 10-year-old Jewish boy in Hebron across the face; in the second, a TIPH member was caught slashing the tires of a Jewish-owned vehicle.

Im Tirtzu listed other cases on its Facebook page demonstrating how TIPH wasn’t an impartial observer.

Peleg said the true reason TIPH is being shown the door is that while “the observers were supposed to be neutral and unbiased … TIPH has proven to be the exact opposite.”

Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs Gilad Erdan released a statement reacting to Netanyahu’s announcement, saying, “I congratulate the prime minister on his decision to cancel TIPH’s mandate, which hinders the work of the IDF soldiers and the police, creates friction with the Jewish residents [of Hebron], and [whose members] collaborate with the extremist organizations who promote the delegitimization of Israel.”

Erdan had recently suggested that Netanyahu expel TIPH following a report his office released highlighting how its representatives interfere with Israeli military activities, specifically at checkpoints when attempting to check Palestinians for potential security threats. The report also suggested that Palestinians exploit TIPH in order to falsely accuse Israeli security forces of human-rights abuses.

Yishai Fleisher, international spokesman for the Jewish community in Hebron, responded to the news about TIPH by telling JNS that “this is a great day for the efforts to normalize Jewish life in Hebron because residents of this ancient city will be able to go about their day without feeling like they are [being monitored] in a zoo—as though some Norwegian or Turk is going to protect the safety of ancient peoples in the city or judge the rightful morality of the Jewish presence in a city where we have been for 3,800 years.”

Fleisher added that “their mandate has run out. When they [TIPH] are gone, they won’t be remembered at all. They created an atmosphere of hostility here. Their main accomplishment was to continue the charade that somehow a Jewish presence in Hebron is irregular or unusual or an ‘occupation.’ Their whole job was to make Hebron’s Jews seem abnormal in the setting of the city.”

The idea for the creation of TIPH was spawned following the murder of 29 Palestinian Muslims and the wounding of 125 others at the hands of Israeli far-right religious extremist Baruch Goldstein on Feb. 25, 1994, at the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. He was beaten to death that day by survivors of the massacre.

The structure itself, which was built by King Herod, houses the actual burial cave underneath, and is considered to be the second holiest site in all of Judaism following the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

The building has also been used as a mosque by Muslims since the year 1260, when the Mamluks altered the structure, adding minarets and Islamic inscriptions while banning Jewish worship there.

Jewish entrance to the city and prayer inside the Holy site resumed at the tomb following the liberation of Hebron in June 1967 during the Six-Day War.

No response from TIPH

A TIPH spokesperson refused a JNS request for comment on the Netanyahu decision, but claimed that the mission had not yet received formal notice from the Israeli government that their mandate wouldn’t be renewed.

At the same time though, Norway’s Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide did confirm in a statement sent to JNS that Israeli authorities informed Norway’s Ambassador to Israel that the mandate would not be renewed. The minister warned that “the unilateral Israeli decision may imply that the implementation of an important part of the Oslo accords is suspended.”

He added that in his view, “the situation in Hebron is unstable. TIPH’s presence in the city has helped prevent violence and created a feeling of security in an area characterized by tension and conflict, therefore, the closing of TIPH gives reason for concern.”

Nevertheless, a statement was released by the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemning Netanyahu’s decision.

“The announcement aims to dismantle international presence in the Occupied Palestinian Territory to cover-up the grave, systematic, and escalating violations committed by the illegal Israeli colonial occupation and terrorist settler groups on daily basis against the Palestinian citizens in Al-Khaleel (Hebron) as well as to strip them of any protection. Moreover, the State of Palestine considers this decision a violation of UN resolutions and signed agreements as well as a blatant attempt to continue dismantling all foundations of a peaceful solution,” read part of the press release.

Yariv Oppenheimer, the former head of the Peace Now organization who is currently running for Knesset with the left-wing Meretz Party, said that the move by Netanyahu to cancel TIPH’s mandate was his way of capitulating to extremist elements within the Jewish population of Judea and Samaria.

Oppenheimer told JNS that “if you don’t have anything to hide, then what’s wrong with having inspectors? Only governments and states that would like to hide and cover up [what they are doing], these are the ones throwing out international inspection units.”

He added, “I think Netanyahu is giving in to extremist right-wing settlers who would like to stay in Hebron and not feel that they are committing atrocities which might be discovered by the international community.”

Fleisher connected Netanyahu’s decision to cancel TIPH’s mandate with the recent decision by the Trump administration (and subsequently Israel’s decision) to leave UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and how that decision is impacting facts on the ground in Hebron.

As JNS reported this past October, UNESCO adopted a pair of decisions titled “Occupied Palestine,” which call the ancient Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Hebron, and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, integral parts of “Occupied Palestinian Territory.”

“This ties in to the situation with UNESCO, another international body which claimed that Jews are somehow foreign to Hebron,” said Fleisher. “So now with the U.S. leaving UNESCO on the grounds of their anti-Hebron decision, and with Netanyahu’s ending of TIPH’s mandate and government decisions to allow for new building in the Jewish community in Hebron, we can really start to move forward—to normalize Jewish Hebron as a place that is so central to Jewish identity.”