TEL AVIV, Israel, Feb. 8 (UPI) -- The international observer force based in the West Bank city of Hebron left Wednesday under Israeli military protection after Palestinian rioters attacked its headquarters.
The rioters, many of them 14 to 20 years old, stoned the headquarters of the Temporary International Presence in Hebron, damaged cars and broke into the building destroying property. Shouting Allahu Akbar (God is great) they were protesting cartoons published in some European newspapers that depicted the Prophet Mohammad.
The observers' urgent departure might signal the end of the decade old TIPH. Its spokeswoman, Gunhild L. Forselv of Norway, told United Press International that representatives of the six European countries that contributed observers -- Denmark, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and Turkey -- are to meet Thursday to discuss its future. Their capitals will guide them, she said in a telephone interview shortly before the TIPH convoy reached a hotel in Tel Aviv where they were going to stay.
The force was sent to Hebron to provide "a feeling of security to the Palestinians of Hebron," help promote stability and develop the economy, the Israeli-Palestinian agreements, renewed every six months, say. It was initially formed after an Israeli settler, Baruh Goldstein, killed Muslim worshippers in The Tomb of the Patriarchs, the Foreign Ministry's spokesman Mark Regev noted. Part of Hebron is under Palestinian control and part under Israeli, through many Palestinians live also in the Israeli controlled area near settlers.
The observers, who are usually veteran police officers, were supposed to monitor and report events to the governments that sent them, to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but not enforce peace. They patrolled Hebron, potentially one of the most violent towns in the West Bank, in their blue uniforms and white cars armed with cameras and two-way radios, but no weapons. Several weeks ago this reporter saw a team checking locks of closed shops in an empty street near the settlers' Hadassah compound. A few streets away settlers allegedly broke into stores. The goods were torched.
Palestinians have been demonstrating outside TIPH's headquarters in recent days and the Danish observers were evacuated last week. However Wednesday the protests became dangerous.
According to Forselv a mob of stone throwers attacked the building and drove away the small Palestinian police contingent was supposed to guard the building. TV footage showed rioters throwing stones at the few armed policemen.
"I am not sure exactly how many (rioters) they were because (whenever) ... we were trying to look out of the windows to see who was there, the kids would throw stones at the windows and break everything so we basically had to hide in the back of our headquarters," Forselv said.
Several rioters jumped over the low gate, broke into the building, and damaged property.
That was the decisive element that eventually led TIPH's commander, Arnstein Oberkil of Norway, to leave the area. At that time he said their departure was temporary.
"We can't really protect ourselves against events like the one that happened this morning," Forselv said.
Palestinian Preventive Security men arrived after some 15 to 20 minutes, fired in the air, and then Israel soldiers arrived.
The Israelis sent over armored jeeps that led and closed the convoy of TIPH cars out of Hebron.
Forselv told UPI she hoped they would return to Hebron. "It's a very sad moment for us.... I really hope we'll be able to get back as soon as possible. Right now were not talking about that.... We'll have to wait," she said.
TIPH has had a difficult task in a hostile environment. In August 2001 it pulled its regular patrols out of the Israeli controlled sector because settlers repeatedly attacked them, its spokesman then Lars Tore Kjerland, told UPI. Adult settlers have hurled "big stones" at TIPH cars and smashed windshields but no one was injured, he said.
That hostility prevailed. Noam Arnon, a spokesman for Hebron's settlers Wednesday accused the observers of being "against the Jews" and of "yielding to Arab terror."
In March 2002 Palestinian gunmen shot and killed two observers and wounded a third who were driving out of town.
There seemed to a good deal of skepticism as to how effective TIPH has been.
An Israeli military source told UPI the army has been "quite indifferent" to it.
"We've been fighting terror as we do everywhere, in every Palestinian city," the source said.
A well-placed Defense Ministry source said TIPH's capabilities have been "limited from the very beginning... Their aim is not to enter conflicts, not to get into showdowns. None of them comes here to get killed and we do not expect them to do so....
"They're stuck between the Palestinians and the settlers and it's very difficult to work there with all the suspicions in that area," he added.
The Foreign Ministry's Regev dodged questions on TIPH's effectiveness. "It's not my job to give grades to the TIPH," he said.
Have their reports been effective, Regev was asked.
"I don't want to go into that," he said.
Are you sorry they are going?
"I don't want to go into that either," he repeated.
Hebron's Mayor Mustafa Natsheh told UPI he was very sorry the observers left. They have done a good job, he maintained.
"If settles or soldiers hurt our people they come quickly and ... in case the soldiers or settlers see the TIPH they stop harassing the people.... We need them," Natsheh said.
However Khaled Osaily who recently resigned as Hebron's deputy mayor seemed reserved.
"People don't feel they are effective (but) .... want them to stay, at least (so that) we'll have a witness of what is going on," he told UPI.
Their presence set a precedent for future arrangements with Israel, he maintained. "If we will have a solution we could have observers from the world," Osaily added.