30 years on, Oslo Accords betrayal still haunts Palestinians

Thirty years on, the Oslo Accords betrayal still haunts Palestinians
6 min read

Yara M. Asi

29 June, 2023
The Oslo Accords were never about peace or justice. Three decades on, they have only served to cement Israel's occupation and settler colonial expansion, while allowing the world to abandon the Palestinian cause, writes Yara M. Asi.
The Oslo Accords have paved the way for Israel's ongoing occupation and continuous violations of international law, writes Yara M. Asi.

Considering the violence of the last days, months, years, and decades that Israel and its settler-colonial regime has enacted on Palestinians, it is difficult to remember the sense of hope and optimism around the prospects of peace—vaguely defined—in the mid-1990s.

This optimism peaked with the signing of the Oslo Accords, after several years of secret talks between Israel and the Palestinians hosted in Norway. Yasir Arafat, then the Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), along with other members of Fatah, the political party he helped found decades earlier, met with members of the Israeli government to negotiate terms for some form of Palestinian self-governance.

Depending on who you ask, the talks were successful. Thirty years ago, on 13 September 1993, Arafat and Israel’s then-Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, shook hands on the White House lawn, overseen by US President Bill Clinton, and the Oslo I Accord was signed. This was followed two years later by the Oslo II Accord, signed in Egypt.

By this point, the state of Israel had existed for nearly 50 years. The occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was nearing its 30th year. The first Intifada was still within recent memory, and the PLO had publicly accepted UN Resolution 242, which called for Israel to pull out of the occupied territories while acknowledging Israel’s right to “secure and recognised boundaries.”

In the eyes of the international community, these events offered the perfect pretext for a two-state solution, with an Israeli and a Palestinian state existing side-by-side.

Yet, many did not share the enthusiasm and optimism that much of the world professed towards this seemingly ground-breaking step towards “peace” in the Middle East (Arafat, Rabin, and Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister who signed the Oslo I Accord, even won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994).

The power imbalance between the parties — Israel, an autonomous country with an advanced military, and the Palestinians, a stateless people with no military or representative governing body, whose land was being occupied by the other signatory — was not lost on many, including the Palestinian community.

Palestinian intellectual Edward Said skewered the Accords almost immediately after they were signed, calling the agreement “an instrument of Palestinian surrender, a Palestinian Versailles.” 

“It is patently obvious that Palestinian freedom in any real sense has not been achieved, and is clearly designed not to be, beyond the meagre limits imposed by Israel and the US,” he wrote.

Arafat, after backing Iraq during the Gulf War, had lost support from many of the Arab states and lost even more favour in the West, where he was already not a popular figure. His health was reportedly waning.

It seemed clear that there was significant pressure to negotiate and accept an agreement, especially one with the promise of troves of foreign aid ready to be deployed to Palestinians in their pursuit of a state.

Importantly, the Oslo Accords were not really about peace, or justice, despite the discourse surrounding them, but about setting the technical and logistic groundwork for some future undefined Palestinian state.

Lost in many contemporary discussions about the Accords is that they were meant to be a temporary, interim agreement that would establish a Palestinian National Authority (PA) and the structures of a Palestinian state.

As such, many important topics, like the status of Jerusalem, the right of return of Palestinian refugees, even borders, were completely left out of the Accords. The already tiny West Bank was split into three Areas of varying Palestinian autonomy, with 60% under full Israeli civil and security control.

As we now know, the warnings of Said and many others came to pass. The Oslo Accords cemented occupation as a permanent form of governance, giving Israel almost complete control of Palestinian borders and the Palestinian economy.

Settlement growth intensified throughout the West Bank, including in East Jerusalem. The PA, now with President Mahmoud Abbas at the helm, is a bloated and corrupt entity that pays mere lip service to Palestinian liberation while enriching many in the Palestinian elite.

The international community’s attention has shifted away from the plight of the Palestinians, only temporarily returning upon instances of extreme violence. Even then, any statement expresses no more than “concern” or tepid condemnation, while insisting “both sides” respect the other, ignoring Israel’s status as an occupying power.

Meanwhile, the goalposts for Israeli government policies have been essentially dismantled. Israel continues to blockade a civilian population (made up primarily of children) in Gaza and routinely bomb it.

In the West Bank, it has erected an apartheid wall and endless checkpoints, seizes Palestinian land for settlements, raids Palestinian towns and kills civilians, and enables deadly settler violence.

In the occupied territories and within 1948 borders, Palestinians face systematic discrimination and denial of basic rights, a system that local and international human rights groups assert is apartheid

Meanwhile, many of the newest crop of Israeli politicians empowered in last year’s election openly call for settlement of Palestinian land and the displacement of Palestinian people. Somehow, many in the international community continue to justify all of these actions as Israel’s unquestionable right to self-defence, underwritten with billions in annual military aid from the United States and the rhetorical support and diplomatic cover of the West.

For Israel, the Oslo Accords were an unquestionable success. The Israeli state gave up almost nothing, and in return, hobbled the Palestinian liberation movement for decades while giving themselves the ability to continue their project of settler colonial expansion.

For the Palestinians, the Oslo Accords cemented their subjugation. While the instruments of Israeli oppression today—be it the raids of Palestinian civil society organisations, the settler pogroms terrorising Palestinian towns, or the blockade of the Gaza Strip—were not born in Oslo, it helped to legitimise them.

It gave the international community an excuse to ignore Israel’s violence and incitement by merely repeating calls for a two-state solution, even though many seem to privately admit they know this is not possible.

The Accords gave Israel space to claim Jerusalem as its own, and to claim its own artificial borders while casting off the Palestinians displaced in 1948 and 1967 as rightfully belonging to other Arab nations—Lebanon, Syria, Jordan; it didn’t matter, as long as it wasn’t Palestine.

Thirty years later, the warnings of the Oslo critics seem to have come to bear.

With no enforcement or accountability mechanisms in place, no acknowledgement of power differentials, no consideration of the most complex topics, and no recognition of Palestinian’s historic ties to the land, it has become evident that Oslo was never about peace—it was about quiet.

And even at achieving that, it has been unsuccessful.

Yara M. Asi, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Global Health Management and Informatics at the University of Central Florida, a Visiting Scholar at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, and a US Fulbright Scholar to the West Bank.

Follow her on Twitter: @Yara_M_Asi

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.