Foreign Ministry raps Hebron observer group, stops short of ending mandate

After TIPH workers filmed slashing one settler’s tires and slapping another, summoned international mission head vows no further misbehavior will be tolerated

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Illustrative: Observers of TIPH, an international monitor group, walk in a street of Hebron on November 19, 2007. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Illustrative: Observers of TIPH, an international monitor group, walk in a street of Hebron on November 19, 2007. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Despite pressure from right-wing groups, Israel settled with censuring the head of the TIPH West Bank observer group Tuesday rather than ousting the international mission completely, after one its members was filmed slashing the tires of a Jewish settler in Hebron.

After being summoned for a meeting at the Foreign Ministry at the request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Einar Johnsen, who leads the Temporary International Presence in Hebron, expressed regret over the incident and made clear that any of his soldiers found to have acted inappropriately will be sent home immediately.

Johnsen assured Alon Bar, who oversees the ministry’s international organizations department, that his organization was taking action to prevent similar issues in the future.

TIPH is an international civilian observer group tasked with “monitoring and reporting efforts to maintain normal life in the city of Hebron, thus creating a sense of security among the Palestinians in Hebron.” It also reports alleged human rights abuses and violations of accords in the city between Israel and Palestinians. Observers for the group come from Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, and Turkey.

Asked for comment on the calls to oust TIPH completely, Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said the government has no plans to do so.

“The organization operates under the Wye Agreement and I do not know of any intention to change things,” he said, referring to the 1998 bilateral agreement between Israelis and Palestinians that saw the observer organization’s force expanded.

The Times of Israel was unable to reach a TIPH representative for comment.

On Monday, Hadashot news aired security camera footage which showed a uniformed member of TIPH slashing the tires of an Israeli settler in Hebron.

Israeli security forces guard settlers as they enter the Palestinian side of the West Bank city of Hebron to visit the tomb of Othniel Ben Kenaz, on April 5, 2015. (Photo credit: Hazem Bader/AFP)

Police contacted TIPH, which said it would conduct an internal probe. When police contacted TIPH again after several days to say they wished to question the man, they were told he had left the country after the first call.

Earlier this month another TIPH member, a Swiss man, was expelled from the country after a video emerged of him slapping a young Jewish boy across the face, sending his skullcap flying.

Following the airing of the footage, Switzerland’s ambassador to Israel apologized to leaders of the settlement community in Hebron.

The pair of incidents drew the ire of various pro-settlement right-wing groups, including the Yesha settlement umbrella council and My Israel, which had praised Netanyahu for summoning Johnsen but called on him to expel the entire group from the country due to its alleged bias against the Jewish state.

Lawmakers Michael Oren (Kulanu), Yoav Kisch (Likud) and Bezalel Smotrich (Jewish Home) have also joined the calls to oust TIPH over the past few weeks.

The lawmakers have argued that the international organization’s temporary mandate has outlived its usefulness.

“There is no justification for the presence of observers in Hebron, even if they were law-abiding and objective; but certainly not when reality proves that they are one-sided, hostile, and violent,” said Kisch and Smotrich in a joint statement Tuesday.

Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank, is divided between the Palestinian Authority and a series of Israeli-controlled enclaves where some 500 heavily guarded Jewish settlers live.

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