A 'Look, but Don't Act' Mandate in West Bank

Norway's observers have little clout

Clutching his side, a young Palestinian boy shuffles up a dusty road in Hebron, the most disputed town in the West Bank.

He heads toward Kristin Olsen, hoping for help. She is a towheaded, pale Norwegian clad in a bright-blue-sleeved shirt - a splash of color amid the earthen browns of this desert town. Hers is the uniform of Norway's observer force, which aims to watch over the delayed exit of Israel's military forces from Arab areas in this town of 120,000 Palestinians and 400 Israelis.

When the boy complains that he was beaten by an Israeli soldier near one of the Jewish settlements, Ms. Olsen and her partner listen and, without comment or question, turn away from him and continue talking.

"We really have to see it with our own eyes to do anything," she says. "We're not to interfere," adds partner Daniel Gundersen.

For many, this limited mission raises questions of how effective an observer force can be, especially in an era when the United States and other Western nations are trying to police global trouble spots.

Called the TIPH - the Temporary International Presence in Hebron - these 30 or more observers are supposedly "temporary" - though how long temporary will be is the riddle of this ancient West Bank town.

And the team has yet to become international as other countries have refrained from joining in until the long-delayed Israeli troop redeployment - agreed upon in the Israel-PLO peace accords - becomes a reality.

So the Norwegian government, which helped broker a landmark agreement between Israelis and Palestinians in far-off Oslo, has been footing the entire $5 million cost of maintaining the force. Now, those observers are left in limbo, trying to ease enmities with a very limited mandate as mere onlookers.

To many Palestinians here, they are a powerless crew who can do little or nothing to keep the peace or stop alleged abuses by the Israeli Army or by settlers. To the Jewish settlers, the Norwegians are a biased group who have come only to listen to Arab complaints while they turn a deaf ear to Jewish ones.

Olsen, for her part, says she felt more useful in her year-long stint as a peacekeeper in the former Yugoslavia than here.

"Then, at least we could give people food and medicine," says Olsen, who left her job as a police officer in Tonsberg, near Oslo, to come here a week ago.

The team is able to "interview, but only in serious situations," Mr. Gundersen says. Neither Palestinians nor Israelis are obliged to answer the observers' questions. Video cameras and notebook pads for recording acts of violence are available to the observers, but were nowhere in sight on a recent visit.

UPON seeing Gundersen and Olsen's uninterested response, the Arab boy eventually shuffles away. And it is these, as well as more volatile moments, that have dissuaded many Palestinians from their hopes that Norwegians would bring justice and independence - or at least protection.

Restive Hebron is the major stumbling block in reconciliation. Israel, due to withdraw from four-fifths of the town, wants to alter the agreed plan to increase the security of the town's Jews. But Palestinians will not agree.

Palestinians point to the massacre of 29 Arabs in Hebron two years ago by a Jewish settler. Jews here remember their 69 brethren killed by Arabs in 1929. Things have rarely been calm since the Jews returned two decades ago to be near their holy Tomb of the Patriarchs - also revered by Muslims as the Ibrihimi mosque.

Last week, when a few hundred Palestinians tried to protest the Army's closure of an Arab market by trying to open it by force, minor fighting broke out. One Palestinian in the crowd derided the late arrival of TIPH to the protest, sneering: "And on the seventh day, TIPH showed up." Many locals laugh at the acronym itself, which means "spit" in Arabic.

"The observers are not very useful, but they are not harmful," says Khalid Amayreh, an Islamic journalist critical of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's peace deal with Israel. "Their mandate is not to investigate ... that's why Palestinians are not overly infatuated with their presence."

In contrast, the Jewish settlers never had high expectations of TIPH. Opposed to any kind of Israeli troop withdrawal, they hung banners upon the Norwegians' arrival welcoming them "as tourists, but not observers." Since then, the settlers say the Norwegians have showed their prejudice.

"If a Jew comes and complains that an Arab threw a rock at him, they say they don't care about Jews," Baruch Marzel says.

The Norwegian mission does not refute settlers' complaints.

"According to our mandate, we are here to create a feeling of calm for the Palestinian population," says Martin Yttervik, the observer's spokesman. He says that while they will report on settlers being the target of harassment "if we see it," the preponderance of the instigation and violence is committed by settlers.

In the observers' compound, however, there is more conviction that they are doing a worthwhile job. To be sure, there is evidence that their mere presence quells tensions and discourages belligerent behavior. Mr. Yttervik says that they had one Israeli soldier removed from his post and one settler arrested.

The Norwegian government, however, might eventually set a limit on its largess. The mission, which was supposed to be completed this summer, has already been extended twice. There may not be a third extension, Norwegian diplomats have indicated, if there is no progress in sight.

But now, after several months, observers say residents have a better understanding of why the Nordic visitors have come, of what they can and cannot do.

Most often, the observers field two questions from Palestinians: "When are the Israelis pulling out? When is Arafat coming?"

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