HEBRON, West Bank — Following Israel's expulsion of an international observer force from the volatile West Bank city of Hebron, Palestinian activists are trying to fill the void by launching their own patrols to document alleged Israeli settler violence.
Armed with video cameras and donning blue vests, the activists say they will replace the Temporary International Presence in Hebron. The group has enlisted 18 volunteers and began its work this week.
"By expelling the international monitors, the Israeli government wanted to hide the Israeli settlers' and soldiers' violations, but we will not let them get away with that," Issa Amro, an activist leader, told The Associated Press. "We will document any attack by photos and words, and we will circulate it all over the world."
Hebron, the West Bank's largest city, is a frequent flashpoint between settlers and Palestinians. Over 200,000 Palestinians live in the city, along with several hundred ultranationalist Israeli settlers who live in the down town area in heavily fortified enclaves protected by the military.
Palestinians frequently must pass through Israeli checkpoints in the area of the settler enclaves, restrictions that have hit the once-thriving city center and forced many businesses to close.
Adding to this combustible mix, Hebron is home to a holy site revered by Jews and Muslims as the burial site of religious patriarchs. Jews revere the site as the Tomb of the Patriarchs, while Muslims call it the Ibrahimi Mosque, after the patriarch Abraham.
The site has been divided into Jewish and Muslim prayer areas since shortly after a settler opened fire on Muslim worshippers at the shrine in 1994, killing 29 people and wounding over 100 others.
The international mission, known as TIPH, was initially established after the mosque shooting, and began operating in its latest form after a 1997 agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Until recently, the mission stationed unarmed civilian observers from Norway, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey to report on alleged violations of international humanitarian and human rights laws in the divided city.
But last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the mission would be halted, saying Israel "will not allow the continuation of an international force that acts against us."
The development, seen as a gesture to his hard-line base as Netanyahu seeks re-election, drew declarations of concern from the United Nations, European Union, and contributing countries.
In a joint statement, TIPH member countries said the suspension "undermines one of the few established mechanisms for conflict resolution between Israelis and Palestinians." The EU said it "risks further deteriorating the already fragile situation on the ground."
The mission has long had a strained relationship with the settlers.
TIPH had drawn negative press in Israel in recent years after one of its observers was deported by Israel after slapping an Israeli child and another was filmed puncturing the tires of a settler's vehicle. In December, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that TIPH had produced an internal report criticizing "several and regular" Israeli violations of international law.
Amro, the activist leader, is well-known in Hebron. Saying he promotes non-violent opposition to discriminatory Israeli policies, he has run afoul of both Israeli and Palestinian authorities.
He is on trial before an Israeli military on accusations of inciting violence. In 2017, he was arrested by Palestinian authorities for a Facebook post critical of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Amro and other volunteer activists began their work on Sunday as a "human rights monitoring and protection team" by escorting Palestinian students to school in Hebron's Israeli-controlled downtown area.
Tensions started right away, Amro said.
An AP cameraman filmed a settler cursing the activists in front of the Israeli soldiers as "dogs and sons of dogs." An activist cursed the settler back.
Amro said he was "slapped and punched by the settlers" and vowed to file a complaint with Israeli police.
Yishai Fleisher, a settler spokesman, said the Hebron Jewish community is "fully against violence and vigilantism" and doesn't condone its members' altercation with Amro and the other volunteers. At the same time, he accused Amro of being an "instigator," and the main source of tension between Jews and Arabs in Hebron.
"This is the ultimate fake observer, fake peace monitor," Fleischer said. "He's interested in demolishing any sense of normality that has been built up between Jews and Arabs in Hebron."
Hundreds of Palestinian students study in schools in Hebron's Old City. Altercations between Palestinians and Israelis are not uncommon, but Fleisher insisted that day-to-day affairs between the two communities function normally.
The students' families expressed relief at having the volunteers in the street.
"These groups are very good; we need them after the departure of the TIPH and the foreign researchers," said Sameh al-Muhtasib, a father.
In response to the arrival of the activists, the Israeli military declared the area of the Old City a military closed zone on Tuesday and banned the activists from remaining there.
Izzat Karaki, another activist, vowed to continue the work. "We will stay here and support our students and people," he said.