Oslo’s legacy - Disaster for the Palestinians

13 September 2018 marks the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords by Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1993, an agreement ostensibly designed to bring about a peaceful end to the Israeli-Palestinian ‘conflict’. In truth, 25 years of Oslo’s legacy have seen Israel’s oppression and dispossession of the Palestinian people continue unabated – a consequence built into the Oslo framework from its inception. At a time when many are lamenting ‘the end of Oslo’ as a path towards peace, we look back at the history of the Oslo Accords and how the subjugation and defeat of the Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation is still the central aim. Wesam Khaled reports.

The years before the signing of the Oslo Accords saw the most significant uprisings in modern Middle Eastern history. After decades of occupation, violence, land expropriation, and denial of Palestinian rights by the Israeli state, Palestinian grassroots organisations mobilised a mass uprising which erupted in 1987. Known as the Intifada, the Arabic word for ‘rising up and shaking off’, this mass mobilisation saw hundreds of thousands of Palestinians take to the streets in unprecedented mass action. Street barricades were erected and thousands of Palestinian youth waged daily street battles against Israeli soldiers with rocks and petrol bombs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Protesters in Jerusalem burnt down Israeli banks and firebombed the US consulate. Protests in the Occupied Palestinian Territories spread to Palestinians within the Israeli state; on 21 December 1987, Israel’s 750,000 Palestinians declared an unprecedented and total general strike. An industrial and commercial strike followed in the West Bank and Gaza in January 1988. By the end of 1988, there had been over 23,000 demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza.

The Palestinian people had taken a momentous step towards unreservedly demanding and fighting for their rights to self-determination and freedom from Israeli oppression. The uprising was led by the most oppressed sections of the Palestinian people – the poor and unemployed youth, workers, peasants and refugees. In discussing the makeup of the protesters, The Observer noted: ‘… most of the blood being spilt does not belong to the merchant class. It flows from the rough boys whose families never got out of refugee camps.’ While other classes in Palestinian society followed their example, it was the most downtrodden Palestinians who led the way.

The Israeli response to the Intifada was bloody and brutal. Israeli soldiers were instructed to break the bones of demonstrators. During the first two years, over 5,000 Palestinians were wounded by Israeli soldiers, more than half of them children, and over 5,000 were held in administrative detention without trial or charge. Approximately 175,000 Palestinians were jailed at some point during the Intifada, thousands of whom were tortured. In a form of collective punishment, 2,000 Palestinian homes in the Occupied Territories were demolished. By the time the Oslo Accords were signed in September 1993, Israeli forces had killed 1,108 Palestinians, including at least 237 children. A further 54 Palestinians had been killed by Israeli settlers.

In spite of this brutality, the Palestinian resistance continued unbroken. The Intifada presented imperialism with an unprecedented crisis, acting as a vanguard movement for the Middle East as a whole and demonstrating the strength and necessity of unyielding grassroots struggle against Israel and its imperialist allies. Imperialism needed a solution; it could not grant the demands of the Palestinians for freedom and self-determination, as to do so would undermine the existence of Israel, a vital ally of imperialism in the region whose racist character necessitates the denial of Palestinian rights and statehood. However, Israel’s brutally repressive measures had not succeeded in putting an end to the Intifada. A different strategy would be required to subdue the Palestinian resistance.

The preferred alternative was to try to convince the Palestinians to give up their resistance in exchange for an empty ‘peace plan’ involving negotiations with Israel. Such a plan would ostensibly be designed to bring the Palestinians closer to independence, but in effect would neutralise the resistance to allow time for Israel to continue its expansion into Palestinian territory, thereby making the prospect of an eventual Palestinian state more and more unlikely. Similar offers had already been rejected by the Palestinians: one such offer in 1988 for a ‘transitional period’ of limited ‘autonomy’ with a vague offer of a future settlement was blasted by then mayor of the Palestinian city of Ramallah as offering little more than ‘power to collect garbage and exterminate mosquitos.’

What imperialism needed for this strategy to succeed was a credible Palestinian leadership that would be prepared to lead its people into the trap of a ‘peace plan’ charade. It eventually found a willing ally for this strategy in the head of the PLO, Yasser Arafat. The PLO was made up of a coalition of various Palestinian resistance groups; it was majority led by the right-wing Fatah party headed by Arafat. Arafat had already signalled his willingness to play a collaborationist role in November 1988, when he won majority support at the Palestine National Council for acceptance of the principle of a two-state solution and recognition of Israel’s right to exist. This unilateral concession was not predicated on any similar recognition of the principle of a Palestinian state by Israel. George Habash, General Secretary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine which opposed the concession, pointed out that ‘After the Intifada, Israel should be making concessions not us.’ This unreciprocated recognition of the Israeli state would later become the bedrock of the Oslo ‘peace process’.

At the same time, the Intifada was entering an increasingly difficult international situation. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 saw a rampant western imperialism unleashed upon the world as the main force standing in its way was defeated. This unfettered imperialism set about putting an end to any potential obstacles to its imperialist aims in the Middle East and elsewhere. The invasion of Iraq by the United States and Britain in 1991 gave a taste of what was to come. In the absence of significant support from the Arab masses in the surrounding countries, or from the working classes in Israel’s imperialist backer nations, including Britain, the Intifada was isolated.

Those most oppressed sections of the Palestinian population, who formed the backbone of the Intifada and for whom a return to the norm of Israeli occupation was unbearable, would not back down easily. But the Palestinian bourgeoisie, that section of Palestinians that could potentially cut a deal with imperialism at the expense of the liberation struggle as a whole, was more open to reconciliation with Israeli occupation as the struggle dragged on. The Palestinian bourgeoisie were Arafat’s and Fatah’s main backers; thus emerged the PLO’s ‘moderate,’ ‘realistic’ position that was open to a ‘peace process’ with Israel. The groundwork for an alliance between Israeli occupation and a collaborationist Palestinian leadership had been laid.

Oslo takes hold

Arafat and Rabin signed the Oslo Accords, officially known as the Declaration of Principles, on 13 September 1993. The Declaration split the West Bank and Gaza into three different zones: Area A, comprising 18% of the territories over which a new Palestinian administration (later called the Palestinian Authority – PA) would have full autonomy; Area B, comprising 22% under joint Israeli-Palestinian control; and Area C, comprising 60% of the land where Israel would maintain full control. The words ‘independence’, ‘sovereignty’, ‘self-determination’, ‘freedom’, ‘two-state solution’, and ‘Palestinian State’ do not appear anywhere in the text of the Declaration. In contrast, the word ‘security’ – meaning primarily Israeli security from the sort of Palestinian resistance embodied by the Intifada – appears 12 times.

No solutions were proposed to the key issues of importance to the Palestinians: the right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees to the land they were expelled from when Israel was established in 1948; the dismantling of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories; or the status of East Jerusalem, as the capital of a Palestinian state. All of these issues were left for resolution in later negotiations. The only immediate requirement of the Declaration was the establishment of a Palestinian police force ‘in order to guarantee public order and internal security’. To this day, the primary role of this police force has been suppressing Palestinian protests.

The Declaration did not require Israel to fully withdraw its military from the Occupied Territories or to halt its expansion of settlements in Palestinian territory; in fact, the number of settlements doubled in the following decade. The new administration of the Palestinian territories mirrored the bantustans of apartheid South Africa: nominally self-governing territories which the apartheid government continued to exploit and control in all but name. Oslo did nothing to advance the cause of Palestinian self-determination, bring an end to Israeli oppression, or find a just settlement to the conflict; its chief aim was to put an end to the Intifada which was threatening Israel’s stranglehold on Palestine.

In this Oslo succeeded. The resistance networks that had been carefully organised during the Intifada were gradually disbanded as Palestinians placed their hopes in the peace process. Israel got its ‘security’ and the Palestinian leadership gained positions of privilege in the new PA. The Palestinian masses, who bore the chief sacrifices of the Intifada, gained nothing but an oppressive administration peddling an illusory peace process.

The consequences of that process are clearly visible today. 25 years after the Oslo Accords Palestinians are further away from independence and self-determination than they were on the eve of the Accords being signed. Israel has never accepted the principle of a Palestinian state. The number of settlements in the West Bank has quadrupled since the Accords were signed. Israel maintains an economic and military blockade on the Gaza Strip, which has created what the UN has described as ‘an unprecedented humanitarian crisis’ in the territory. Over 9,500 Palestinians, including over 2,000 children, have been killed by Israel since 2000 alone.

The corrupt leadership of the PA still holds on to power, still advocating for the ‘peace process’ while crushing any Palestinian resistance that poses a challenge to itself or the Israeli occupation that sustains it. The current right-wing leadership in Israel is becoming increasingly blatant in its rejection of even the weak promises Oslo made to the Palestinians. It is bolstered by the Trump administration, which by moving its embassy to East Jerusalem is hoping to put an end to any prospect of it ever becoming a Palestinian capital.

Some have lamented these Israeli and US actions as spelling ‘the end of Oslo’. These criticisms miss the mark; such actions are in fact that the realisation of Oslo’s true purpose: cementing Israel’s control of Palestine and undermining any hope of Palestinian aspirations for self-determination and independence.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 266 October/November 2018


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