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An agreement on indefinite occupation: Oslo celebrates 19 years

Regardless of the intentions of the people signing it, there is no denying what the Oslo Accords and the Paris Protocol have become: providers of the legal framework and international legitimacy for the oppression of millions. 

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, U.S. president Bill Clinton, and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat at the signing of the Oslo Accord (photo: Vince Musi / The White House)

Today, 19 years ago, hours before the Oslo agreement was signed in Washington, I set foot for the first time in Gaza. Our unit was sent for a week of foot patrols and flying checkpoints. Our commanders, who had been to the West Bank and Gaza in the past, were shocked to see the PLO flags that marked the signing of the agreement hanging in the streets. Until that day, flying a Palestinian flag was forbidden. It was a sign – an important one – that the occupation was ending.

The night before our deployment was tense – we had many leftists in our ranks, and at least one considered refusing to serve in the occupied territories. He was met with fierce pressure and threats from our commanders; but no argument had as strong an effect as the feeling that the entire occupation was about to end anyway. It made sense for us to help bring this temporary situation to an end, many in our ranks rationalized.

A couple of years later, I was back in Gaza. This time, my unit was in charge of the busy road between Khan Yunis and Gaza City. At a moment’s notice, we could cut the Strip in two. We often did. The pretext for our deployment there was the existence of – how surprising – a settlement. Unlike in the days before the Israeli withdrawal from Gazan cities under Oslo, Palestinians couldn’t enter Israel anymore, so the effect of the entire agreement on the local population was essentially a siege. So much for peace.

The same cycle of hope and disillusionment happened to me a year later in Hebron, after my unit transferred control over parts of the city to the Palestinian Authority. Since then, things have gotten much worse for the local population. Settlements in and around the city have expanded, and the IDF’s Civil Administration began pushing the Palestinians in the areas under Israeli control, especially south of the Hebron, into the cities, and declaring their lands natural reserves, archaeological sites or military training zones. Israel didn’t evacuate one settlement under this peace treaty. Instead, it began evacuating Palestinians.

A favourite intellectual exercise in progressive circles is the argument over the intentions behind the Oslo process. Some say it was an Israeli-American plot to deepen Israeli control of the Palestinian Territories; others view it as a noble effort gone wrong. Personally, I believe in the good intentions of Rabin, less so of Peres. It’s also clear that the pro-Israel bias of the Americans allowed Jerusalem to avoid the removal of the settlements, which meant that the agreement was bound to fail from the start. Not for the first time, peace fell victim to the “special relationship.” But regardless of the things Oslo was meant to be, it’s clear – and way more important – what it has become: the primary legal tool serving the occupation.

The agreement over the division of the land – handing the large urban areas to the Palestinians, the rural villages to Palestinian “administrative control,” and the rest to Israel – is now being treated by Israel as the de-facto annexation of 60 percent of the West Bank, also known as Area C. (The situation of the Palestinians in areas A and B is not much better: they need Israel’s approval to travel outside the West Bank and sometimes even within it, and they suffer from what has become the tiny tyranny of the Palestinian Authority.)

In Area C, Israel is building new settlements, universities and cultural centers; excavating natural resources and using them on the Israeli market; and displacing thousands of Palestinians living there – a massive human and civil rights violation that is condemned by the international community but at the same time accepted and even enabled by the insistence on keeping the Oslo Accords as the main diplomatic and legal framework on the ground. All those nice diplomats working so hard to save Oslo and the peace process are really saving the occupation.

The financial agreement which accompanied Oslo – the Paris Protocol – is keeping the Palestinian economy as a captive market for Israeli decision-makers and capitalists. Israel is collecting taxes for the Palestinians – and using them for diplomatic leverage. Under the Paris Protocol, the Palestinians are not allowed to have a central bank or use their own currency. In short, it is an agreement that was designed to make sure that regardless of other developments, the Palestinian economy will remain occupied.

It is no surprising then that Israel is doing whatever it can to prevent the Palestinians from walking away from Oslo or the Paris Protocol. The Palestinian Authority is exactly where Israel wants it – too weak and dependent on Israel and foreign donors to present a serious challenge to the occupier, but strong enough to oppress its own people (and it is treated by Israel with the same contempt all occupiers have for their collaborators). This is the reason for the financial aid Israel recently transferred to the Palestinians at the first sign of unrest. 250 million NIS is a tiny sum compared to the diplomatic meltdown and the financial costs that would accompany a move to the old model of direct occupation.

As Oslo – signed as an interim accord for six years – enters its twentieth year, it’s becoming clear that the only thing that the Palestinians got from the agreement was the right to raise their flag, given to them on day one. Today, Oslo is the occupation. The sooner we get rid of it, the better.

Read also:
No end in sight: Occupation marks 45th anniversary

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    1. Richard Witty

      Oslo was an outline, that could have and still could go in multiple directions, including to mutual respect.

      It was not “inevitably” anything.

      And, it is what is the law, good or bad currently. Any change starts in the present, not in a fantasy, and not without a clear goal.

      From that starting point, Olmert and Abbas proceeded to within what they each describe as weeks of an agreement to propose to cabinets, legislatures, populace.

      That is NOT a permanent occupation, but one chosen by a ratified administration. Other parties could be elected, that would complete the few weeks, if supported and encouraged to.

      Your presentation on the anti-normalization efforts (which include both rabid anti-semites as primary motive and sincere democratic single state advocates), was very sobering.

      That so many Palestinian solidarity express sympathy with the anti-normalization proponents’ arguments, suggests to me that it is very unlikely that a stable democratic single state is politically feasible.

      The factors that would confirm to me that it was feasible would be real statements of courage by Palestinian solidarity, in the form of “we are committed to democracy permanently, more than we are committed to national aspiration, to equal rights for all, to mutual health and well-being. We know that our dignity rests in unconditional inner resources rather than external conditions.”

      Where are those people, those “Gandhi”‘s?

      Reply to Comment
    2. Jan

      What a fool Arafat was to sign on to the Oslo Accords. He had to know that Israel had no intention of stopping the settlements or the occupation.

      I well remember when then Housing Minister Ariel Sharon proudly announced that Israel would be “creating facts on the ground” by doubling the number of settlements. If I, as an American Jew, knew it was all over for peace and an end to occupation, surely the Palestinians and Arafat had to know that as well.

      But then Arafat was very likely in the pay of Israel as was once reported in the Israeli press. He did what Israel wanted and signed his people’s rights away on the dotted line.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Kolumn9

      Oslo was signed by the PLO because the PLO was going bankrupt due to the loss of Soviet patronage and becoming irrelevant due to being stuck in Tunis. It was signed by the Israelis because it was too good a deal to pass up. The PLO recognized Israel while taking control over the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and Jericho and leaving the settlements in place. It is maintained by both sides because the PLO/Fateh is still desperate and Israel still doesn’t want to control the Palestinian population. The collapse of Oslo would mean the decline and fall of Fateh, the takeover by Hamas of the PLO and the elimination of the PA infrastructure which would cause massive poverty and anarchy in the West Bank. I fail to see any positive result from this for the Israelis, the Palestinians, or for peace. The Israelis get terror. The Palestinians get poverty, unemployment and anarchy (yes, much worse than now) and Hamas. Peace or even steps towards peace are an extremely unlikely outcome.

      Noam, you are a reasonable person, yes Oslo might appear hypocritical given the lofty way it was sold, but do you have a very different perception of how things will turn out from me? Because I can’t see them moving into any positive direction.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Aaron the Fascist Troll

      The Palestinians got a lot more than that for Oslo. What they got was a state in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, any time they want it: all they have to do to cash it in is to *seriously* accept Israel’s existence, in word and deed. Do that, and they’ve got a state almost immediately.

      I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t see what rights Oslo gives Israel that it doesn’t already have under the laws of belligerent occupation. If anything, it restricts the rights of the occupant, in return for, uh, peace. Oslo set up a Palestinian government, which is a benefit to Israel, and that’s not nothing. But it’s a political gain, not a juridical one. Settlement, tax collection, etc. – all those activities would have been just as legal or illegal under a straight occupation, without any Palestinian Authority, as they are today.

      There’s also a very serious downside to the PA for Israel, which was especially obvious in the 1990s. You might have missed it because you seem naturally sort of pessimistic. (I like that in a leftist!) Oslo set up a framework where the PA spokesmen could talk all nicey-nice and moderate, in English, while the PA allowed the militias to commit tactical acts of terrorism to achieve political goals. The West could then ignore reality and feel really good about itself. That was very bad for Israel. So those of you who think you support peace, be happy about that one lasting element of Oslo.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Aaron the FT, direct tax collection, I believe, ignited the first intifada. The PA now (I guess) aids in collection, sending it to Israel, hoping it will get some back. If I am wrong, let me know. Forgetting the bombings (which one really cannot), the vanguard settlements make a two State solution impossible; too much has been lost by one side, with more clearly coming.

      Oslo is dead; the Israeli State simply uses the term when it wants. Since the PA does not have direct revenue control, at bottom it is nothing more than a client entity, a bantu arm of the State. Eventually, the West Bank population will polarize–overt violence will begin. Because the Israeli political engine works on settlement expansion, this outcome is ignored. The expulsions must stop in all forms, the vanguard settlements removed, and territorial expansion of the remainder frozen. Then you can ask why the PA fails to sue for autonomy. Until then, you are asking those kicked to the ground why they don’t get up.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        Greg, you really can look some of these things up yourself instead of asking for corrections.. The PA does not send collected taxes to Israel. The ‘tax transfers’ you hear about is the money (duties) collected at Israeli ports of entry on goods destined for the Palestinian Authority. The first intifada was ignited by a traffic accident where an Israeli truck driver smacked into a Palestinian civilian car causing the deaths of its occupants.

        The PA also collects its own income taxes, but it doesn’t collect anywhere near enough to fund its operations (even with the transfers from Israel). So, the PA does have direct revenue control, though it’s ability to increase taxes is limited because the Palestinian population is very averse to paying taxes and deems it more noble to beg the international community to fund its expenses as compensation for their victimhood. This was last visible when Fayyad wanted to increase taxes to cover some of the budget deficit he faces on a regular basis. He had to back down from that plan.

        The West Bank population is already ‘polarized’. It has been polarized for the past 20 years and overt violence has already occurred and repeatedly. So, your menacing future is the present and the very concrete past and the threat of it is a weak motivator. You write like it is 1986 and the first intifada hasn’t broken out and the Palestinians still are governed by the Israeli civil administration. Did you miss the second intifada? You know… the one right after the peace offer was rejected by the Palestinians? You know.. the one which included the indiscriminate attacks on Israeli civilians? You know.. the one that was stopped cold by harsh Israeli repression (aka: kicked to the ground)? You know.. the one whose homicidal ‘martyrs’ the Palestinian Authority still celebrates on a regular basis?

        If the PA is a client entity it is because it turned itself into one when it refused statehood and a peace deal. It also isn’t a very good client. Too expensive and really bothersome diplomatically for an incredibly weak entity which relies on foreign aid for any of its staying power.

        Reply to Comment
        • K9, I recall Gershom Gorenberg saying that tax collection was also an issue in the first intifada, you know, when government was direct by the civil administration? But I did ask for correction, didn’t I? Tariff taxation is a primary tool because it is not a direct income tax.

          You cannot expect growth under import/export restrictions. The international victimhood you mention has also allowed the molification of the population, overall. Your occupation has been subsidized by the US, EU, IMF and, occasionaly, Arab states. You do not seem to care about the settlements at all; I conclude you want these to continue to grow to expunge more prior residents.

          Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            Blaming the occupation for the lack of economic growth and a bloated public sector is incredibly strange. The former is a constant presence and the restrictions placed have been loosened in the past 4 years, which should by itself be generating growth especially given the increases in the numbers of Palestinians working in Israel and the settlements (80,000 now compared to much fewer 5 years ago). The commonly stated excuse of the lack of access to 60% of the West Bank is also strange unless one expects economic growth to come from conducting agriculture in the middle of the desert that makes up the vast majority of that 60%. The bloated bureaucracy and the reliance on foreign governments is entirely a function of the priorities of the Palestinian government itself which has been expanding its payroll and social programs rather than building the infrastructure for a private economy.

            Nope, I don’t care about the settlements, at all. Settlements have been repeatedly shown to be removable. They are used as a proxy issue by the Palestinians for the insistence on the 1967 lines which are entirely unrealistic given Israel’s security interests. As such, they are an excuse used by those that wish to maintain the status quo on the pro-Palestinian side because they are unwilling to countenance the compromises required for peace and a red herring by those that have no desire to see peace in the first place. As long as that is the case I don’t see why I should care about the settlements.

            Reply to Comment
          • At the time of Oslo during Bibi the first, I felt that Arafat showed little resolve to open the economy; simply, independent economic agents portend an independent political force. This refusal placed Hamas in a better position, which with much prompting from Israeli policy, lead to the bombing war. Partonage reduces development by forbidding independence as dangerous. This locks one in a cylce of outside aid. But, as to Israeli import/export restrictions–I think you are exaggerating any easing.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            Greg, Levantine culture and social organization has a very strong patronage aspect, so it isn’t entirely surprising that Arafat and the PA pursued such a policy, but that was not a choice made by Israel which frankly couldn’t give two figs how the PA organizes Palestinian society as long as there is calm. I would point out that the pre-Oslo Israeli civil administration of the West Bank was significantly smaller in terms of manpower and much less prone to the nepotism and patronage issues that plague the PA administration of the territory, so again, it was a choice made by Arafat/PLO to institute a patronage system, not something they inherited.

            I am hardly exaggerating when I point out that the Palestinian economy *should* have been growing significantly faster in spite of any existing restrictions simply given the massive changes in conditions that have taken place since the end of the second intifada.

            Reply to Comment
    6. Jack

      Remember that in UN meeting later this month Abbas have said they would ask the UN General Assembly to become upgraded (not as a state but close to). This will be approved and then Palestinians could claim the land as recognzied by UN resolutions and world community more than ever. They could also refer Israel to the ICC etc. So here we might have a great breakthrough coming up.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bluegrass Picker of Afula

        >> and then Palestinians could claim the land as recognzied by UN resolutions and world community more than ever.

        Thatt would probably count for a lot at meetings of the Berkeley City Council. It would probably get the United Church of Canada to push their panties EVEN FURTHER up their unmentionables.

        It certainly will **not** change anything between our Eastern River and the Western Sea. Brush up on your Cherkassi-accented Hebrew, Jack. Could help you get through one of our checkpoints with a lower degree of strip-search.

        >> and then Palestinians could claim the land as recognzied by UN resolutions and world community more than ever.

        The big breakthru around here is the Ethiopit & the Bnei Menashe Tween-age kids getting interested in the ריקודים סלוניים championships that so far, the Russkies have had a lock on. Search Youtube with keyword “dancekesem”, Jack.

        Reply to Comment