Last week I gave a lecture to a group of new arrivals joining the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH). After an hour and a half of insights and questions about internal Palestinian workings, the Israeli occupation and regional influences on Palestinian politics and life, I was asked what the group’s head said was a customary question to all their guests. “What do you think of TIPH?” she asked.
TIPH was initially established after the massacre of 29 Muslim worshippers at the Ibrahimi Mosque by an extremist settler to observe and protect civilians. In 1997 under a clause of the Oslo II Accords, TIPH’s mandate was renewed. Today, the blue-vested and red-arm banned foreigners walking the streets of Hebron are, no doubt, a minor relief for the weary Hebronites living in the shadow of 400 settlers.
So, what do I think of them? I said, under the circumstances, Palestinians appreciated this effort. Hebronites in particular needed protection from the ideological settlers who have planted themselves in their midst. The Israeli army is no comfort, mostly turning a blind eye to the hostilities settlers show to the local Palestinians, which is often violent and abusive. One TIPH member told me settlers recruit young girls to throw stones at Palestinian homes and passersby in an attempt to scare them away.
What I did not have the chance to say and what would have fit perfectly with the tone of my lecture was that, had the Palestinian-Israeli conflict been solved from the bottom up, there would be no need for international observers in Hebron because, if things went the way they should have, there would be no settler presence there at all.
Settlers, the bane of our existence, to say the least. Hebron, where no more than 400 ideological settlers set the agenda for the population of Palestine’s biggest city is the extreme case. But Hebron is certainly not the only Palestinian community plagued by settler presence. The quarter of a million Jewish settlers squatting illegally on Palestinian land, invited there by consecutive Israeli governments since 1967, have been wreaking havoc on almost every Palestinian community in the West Bank and east Jerusalem with no end in sight.
Take for example the incident that occurred on February 11. Twenty-four year old Husam Rueweidi was stabbed and murdered by ultra-Orthodox Jewish settlers in west Jerusalem as he and a friend were walking home from work. After the settlers began beating on Ruweidi, who eventually tried to fight back, one attacker took out a knife and slashed the victim from ear to jaw. His friend, Murad Julani, was wounded.
While Israeli police said the attackers had been arrested, there is no telling if the settlers will be justly punished. Palestinians have grown wearily accustomed to Jewish attackers of Palestinians being let off the hook for crimes that would have otherwise been given heavy sentences if they were not against “Arabs.”
In the Nablus area, Palestinians are constantly harassed by rampaging settlers who ruin their olive groves and harvests, beating them with sticks or shooting at them when they don’t leave their own land. Settlers have burned olive harvests or stolen the olives, burned down mosques and desecrated graveyards. Complaints are filed with the Israeli police but only a fraction of these even sees the light of day.
As horrible as this may sound, even Ruweidi’s awful and unnecessary death is not the issue at hand here. It is merely one tragic outcome of a much larger problem, a problem which will have to be solved once and for all if any peace and stability is to come to this land. Settlers and settlements are illegal and foreign bodies embedded in Palestine, which have caused us all considerable distress, the worst of which has been in human loss. As the PLO resorts to the United Nations Security Council hoping for the passing of a resolution that condemns settlements and their expansion, I think it is imperative to realize just how detrimental settlers are to a real peace. Settlements and the structures that accompany them including bypass roads, the separation wall and checkpoints, take up over nearly 50 percent of the West Bank. In such a reality, there is no conceivable way that a free, contiguous Palestine could ever be born.
The question is why the international community –” first and foremost the United States –” has allowed Israel to continue with settlements for so long with such impunity? Why Israel embraces this policy is clear –” settlements and their expansion is the primary tool for realizing Israel’s ultimate goal: capture of the land. But anyone with even a smidgen of common sense, let alone decency, will see that peace and settlements can never go together and that anyone who purports to want a serious peace deal must also support the dismantlement of settlements.
The case of Ruweidi is also a bitter reminder that settlements do not come alone. Settlers, especially those ideological groups whose sense of righteousness means they dismiss any significance of others’ humanity, are Israel’s self-created monsters. In east Jerusalem, their primary goal is to judaize the city, taking over Palestinian homes and toting semi-automatic machine guns through Palestinian areas just to provoke and incite. And when they do strike, basically because they have been implicitly taught that they are above the law in regards to their Palestinian neighbors, they do so without fear of punishment.
That is why I said what I said about TIPH. In the situation we are in today, with Hebron’s settlers harassing, vandalizing and traumatizing Palestinians on a daily basis, I am relieved there are people on location to soften the blows. Ultimately, however, I hope one day TIPH can end their mandate here and leave a free Hebron knowing that its settlers have become a nightmare of the past.