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Netanyahu to eject international observers in Hebron

Benjamin Netanyahu said he will not renew the mandate of the TIPH observers from flashpoint West Bank city
TIPH was created after an Israeli settler killed 29 Palestinians at a holy site in the city in 1994 (AFP)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided to eject an international observer post aimed at safeguarding Palestinians in Hebron, a city in the occupied West Bank, accusing the mission of anti-Israel activity.

"We will not allow the continuation of an international force that acts against us," Netanyahu said in a statement on Monday about the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH).

Netanyahu did not elaborate on the alleged misconduct of TIPH, which draws staff from Norway, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey, nor did he say when he plans to expel them.

The agreement to deploy TIPH observers in Hebron was reached between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 1994 after an Israeli settler killed 29 Palestinian worshippers at the Ibrahimi Mosque, a site that is holy to both Muslims and Jews, who refer to it as the Cave of the Patriarchs.

The group didn't start its work in the city until 1998, however, after the Israeli army refused to leave Hebron following the establishment of an illegal Israeli settlement at the heart of the city.

TIPH's latest mandate - it is deployed in renewable, six-month terms - is due to end on 31 January, Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz reported on Monday.

The group has not yet commented on Netanyahu’s decision.

Israeli human rights violations in Hebron

Human rights groups have long decried Israel's policies in Hebron, a city in the southern West Bank that has both PA-held areas and parts controlled by the Israeli military.

Since Israeli settlers established a settlement in the city centre following the worshipper's massacre 35 years ago, Israel has subjected Palestinians in Hebron to severe movement restrictions, built a series of militarised checkpoints and effectively crippled what was once a thriving commercial hub.

Israel "has imposed physical and legal segregation between the hundreds of settlers and the thousands of Palestinians residents" in Hebron, Israeli human rights group Btselem says.

"This, coupled with violence by settlers and security forces, has made life intolerable for Palestinians, leading to a mass exodus and the economic ruin of the downtown area."

Since it was deployed, TIPH has "observe(d) and report(ed) on breaches of the agreements (and) violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law", the group says on its website.

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Palestinians denounced Netanyahu's decision to expel the international observers on Monday.

"The Israeli government's decision means it has abandoned the implementation of agreements signed under international auspices, and given up its obligations under these agreements," Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told Reuters news agency.

Last month, Haaretz reported that a TIPH investigation of "40,000 incident reports" showed that Israel had breached international law by restricting Palestinian movements in the city.

Israel's settlements in the West Bank are illegal under international law.

However, Netanyahu has played up his pro-settler credentials as he seeks re-election in a 9 April vote.

Also on Monday, the Israeli prime minister visited Gush Etzion, a string of settlements and settlement outposts in the southern West Bank, and pledged to continue his government's support for Israeli settlers living there.

"They want to uproot us from here. They will not," Netanyahu said, as reported by the government press office.

"There's a line of thought that says that the way to achieve peace with the Arabs is to be extirpated from our land. That is the certain path to achieving the opposite of this dream."