It`s easy to claim that the pen is mightier than the sword from the safety of a university lecture hall, or a middle class soiree in a suburban dining room. However, in the bandit country that is Hebron, the adage rings somewhat hollow, as I found after spending a day out on patrol with Temporary International Presence in the City of Hebron (TIPH). What I saw during my six-hour shadowing of the dedicated yet ultimately toothless members of the TIPH team made me question the wisdom of their presence in the troubled city.
Established in the wake of Baruch Goldstein`s shooting spree in a local mosque, TIPH`s raison d`etre is to `monitor the situation in Hebron and record breaches of international law.` In essence, they are stationed in the city to bear witness to the almost daily violent incidents that erupt between the Jewish settlers of Hebron and their Palestinian neighbours.
So it was on Wednesday, as I set out with Sibyll and Mortens, respectively Swiss and Danish TIPH workers, who are old hands at dealing with the explosive situation using the limited tools at their disposal. Our first incident was fairly mundane by comparison with what we`d see later - a youth protesting to the pair that every time Palestinian Authority workmen came to try and fix a sewage blockage in the souk, Israeli soldiers ordered them to leave the area without allowing them to carry out their repairs.
`This is the third time we`ve heard this story in four days,` said Sibyll, as she noted down the boy`s complaint in her notebook. `All we can do is to try and get our liaison officers to try to intervene with the army and the PA, and attempt to get permits for them to complete their work [unimpeded].` Mortens concurred with her plan of action: `It won`t happen overnight, though - we have to write a report, contact the DCO, and hope that they can achieve results.` And in the meantime, the stench of raw sewage hangs over the market and adds to the sense of discomfort that the shopkeepers are forced to endure.
There had been reports that it was the settlers who had blocked up the sewage system, causing the problem, although that was hard for the team to verify. However, the next incident they were called to appeared far more clear cut. In a busy street underneath a barred window of one of the settlement buildings, a couple of tin cans with unidentifiable viscous liquid oozing from them lay on the edge of the pavement. `They tried to light it before hurling it at us,` declared a middle-aged Palestinian man breathlessly, pointing up in the direction of the offenders` homes.
`They were 16 or 17,` he continued, `not small kids at all.` Hanging from the bars of the windows were sandbags filled with stones, which Sibyll said, `are prepared by the children, who then throw the rocks down at the Palestinians. The IDF come, but always deny that anything has happened.` All that TIPH can do in such circumstances is pull out their notebooks, log a record of the incident, and then file the report with the DCO, which does little to placate the injured parties or to reassure them that anything tangible is being done to protect them.
`There`s a feeling of real frustration amongst us,` said Ghassan, a Swedish member of TIPH. `We can`t intervene in a situation; all we can do is turn up and take photos.` He explained that this causes inevitable resentment on the part of the Palestinians, while others on the Palestinian side `don`t like us because they`re convinced we work for the Israelis.`
As we continued along the route of the patrol, we came across a gaggle of teenagers surrounding a dishevelled-looking man sitting askew in a wheelchair. His T-shirt badly ripped from shoulder to shoulder and covered in bloodstains, he shook as he turned plaintively to Mortens and Sibyll and pleaded for their help. `The army did this,` he began. `They beat me, and there are 15 of them still in my house now - you`ve got to go and do something.`
After taking photos of his injuries to use as evidence, we hurried off in the direction of his house in the company of one of the boys who was acting as guide. However, our way was obstructed by a shaven-headed Russian IDF soldier who ordered us to take a far longer, circuitous route, since the Palestinian boy was banned from walking past the Cave of Machpela. When we eventually got to the raided house, the operation was still in full flow, with heavily-armed soldiers milling around on every floor of the building as the children of the house nervously looked on.
Thanks to the terms of their mandate, TIPH members are unimpeded in their monitoring work, thus the soldiers had to let them photograph the ongoing search and interview the commander once he`d declared the building safe. `There were rocks being thrown from the roof,` he stated flatly when questioned. `I didn`t see anyone in a wheelchair,` he went on, looking to his charges for confirmation, `and if there had been, I promise you he`d still be here with us.`
`It`s a bit fishy that he managed to get out of the house and all the way down the road in a wheelchair in the middle of a raid.` He proposed that the man`s injuries might instead be a result of him jumping off the roof and trying to escape arrest, implying that the wheelchair was merely a prop used to garner sympathy from the TIPH team. Once the soldiers had left, we entered the house and interviewed the wounded man`s children, who assured us that he had been beaten by the troops.
However, they also admitted that their younger brother had been throwing rocks at the army, and refused to stop when his older siblings and father remonstrated with him. At the same time, they couldn`t give a convincing explanation for how their apparently wheelchair-bound father had made it up the impossibly narrow stairs onto the roof to chastise their brother. This prompted Sibyll to complain that the hardest part of her job was trying to decide who was being honest and who just wanted to apportion all the blame to the other side.
The commander`s parting words to us had been `We were just doing our job - no one should have rocks thrown at them, should they?` While entirely right, his concern seemed pretty ironic given the complete ambivalence the army showed earlier when Mortens and Sibyll tried to report the missile attacks on the Palestinians. That the IDF runs the whole show in the city, and TIPH can do little more than meekly complain from the sidelines is the heart of the problem when it comes to policing the area fairly.
Of course, Israel is hardly likely to agree to arm the likes of TIPH, just as they have all but repealed the authority`s mandate to be in charge of keeping order in the Palestinian half of the city. However, given that a large part of TIPH`s purpose is to try and afford the same level of protection and security to the Palestinians that the settlers enjoy, it is clear that there is no balance whatsoever at present.
Well-meaning but ultimately impotent foreigners wielding notebooks and pens are no match for M16-toting soldiers when it comes to delivering justice to the city`s residents. Therefore it is no surprise that, despite what TIPH was set up to deliver, the Palestinians feel no better looked after now than they did before 1994. And that is no more likely to assuage their frustration and fears than any other half-hearted internationally-led initiative - meaning that their ongoing feeling of abandonment is entirely understandable while the best they`ve got is TIPH.