How Oslo failed today's millennial and Gen Z Palestinians

We need to talk about Oslo's betrayal of future Palestinian generations
6 min read

Emad Moussa

27 July, 2021
Opinion: The generational gap in Palestine is stark, and the Camp David-era leaders are failing the post-Oslo generation and the Palestinian cause, writes Emad Moussa.
US President Bill Clinton with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak (L) and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat (R) 11 July, 2000 at Camp David during peace talks. [Getty]

In July 2000, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak nudged each other in a playful dispute over who should go through the doorway first at the president's country residence, Camp David. A hopeful audience in Israel, the Palestinian Territories, and the world interpreted the leaders' gestures as a sign of smooth sailing negotiations which would eventually lead to a permanent-status solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

But in reality, the atmosphere between the two leaders was far from playful, and the negotiations were anything but smooth.

Arafat and Barak, according to the New York Times, apparently deployed their full array of bluffs and brinkmanship, rhetoric and reason as they invented, embraced, and rejected creative solutions to ending the conflict.

When the negotiations failed, each party immediately blamed the other, providing contradictory and self-serving interpretations of what happened behind closed doors. Barak accused Arafat of turning down a "generous deal," while Arafat accused Barak and former US President Bill Clinton of pressuring him, among other things, to give up Jerusalem and the right of return, both representing the backbone of the Palestinian struggle.

The failed peace process

The Camp David failure has since set Israeli-Palestinian relations on a fast downward trajectory that has only become steeper over the years. Each party, of course, experienced and filtered the aftereffects through their own narratives and expectations. The power asymmetry meant that the Palestinians bore the most severe consequences: dramatic settlement expansions, increased restrictions on movement, intense arrest campaigns, financial blackmail, and blockade in Gaza, among other things.

Yet the current Palestinian leadership in Ramallah under Mahmoud Abbas continues to pay lip service to the long-gone peace process while remaining confined to a geographical spot that has only become more restricted since the Oslo Accords were signed in the mid-1990s. 

The discrepancy is scandalous, yet to Abbas' cronies and apologists, the keyword is always "pragmatism" - defensive nonsense that in his book, 'The End of the Peace Process', Edward Said described as "nauseating".

Whether or not "nauseating" is a fitting term, the general sentiment is probably accurate. It reflects not only the Palestinian Authority's lack of realism and clear objectives: the madness of repeating the same strategies time and again and expecting different results but also the level of willful blindness that led the PA to truly and effectively act as Israel's helper.

In a sense, the PA has been reenacting the classic historical case of an authority under occupation, lacking meaningful autonomy and serving the very oppressor it claims to oppose.

The Palestinian generational rift

But forget about the narratives of loyalty and treason; the discrepancy here has also - rather brusquely - established a societal schism, not merely in relation to political polarisation, but largely in terms of a significant generational gap.

For those Palestinians who as children were amused by the two leaders amicably pushing each other into the doorway, and those who were too young to remember or were born after that, effectively the post-Oslo generation, the perception of history is different.

The gap between the Oslo generation: the leaders, and the post-Oslo generation: the led, is enormous. Sixty-nine percent of Palestinians are under the age of 29, while the average age in the PLO's Executive Committee - and by extension, the PA - is 65, and getting older

Millennials and Gen Z Palestinians face an entrenched leadership that has been in place since the 1980s. Young people, therefore, do not share their leaders' values or agree with their methods of handling the Palestine cause. They are especially unimpressed by the PA's cynical adherence to the so-called peace process with Israel.

Young Palestinians never experienced, much less benefited from, what was once retrospectively - but naively - labelled "the years of hope" that preceded and followed the Oslo peace process and promised a semblance of a Palestinian state. Rather, they came to know Camp David and the whole Oslo process that gave rise to it mainly through its negative consequences: deepened occupation, a series of intifadas and wars, deteriorated economic situations, and a detached and corrupt leadership.

Their worldview of Oslo, to put it differently, is not about the peace process per se, but of what remained of it. And what has endured has been largely perceived as detrimental to the Palestinian cause.

Almost all agree that the semblance of Palestinian sovereignty which Oslo created 26 years ago remains void - perhaps increasingly so - because the same structures that established it simultaneously undermined it. This form of sovereignty enables Israel to maintain control over Palestinians while assigning responsibility for their socio-economic affairs to the PA. In other words, a free-of-charge, somewhat sustainable occupation.

Nearly everything in this Oslo system is designed to drive Palestinians to fail. Israeli researchers Kotef and Amir point out that knitted together with a series of hidden and changeable demarcations - the Oslo system "renders Palestinians randomly as transgressors of rules invisible to them." Palestinian reaction to these rules turns them into undisciplined subjects, and as such, justifies the continued occupation.

Internally, the general feeling is that an entire generation was left out, both economically and institutionally. Years of PA elitism have constructed dire economic conditions and restricted political and human rights, while PA officials and their business partners enjoyed economic benefits and built luxury homes in Ramallah and Amman.

Oslo created a hierarchy of beneficiaries in Palestinian society, rendering the young generation - those unaffiliated with the "Old Guard" and currently the main sufferers under the occupation - at the bottom. 

A fair system would not have satisfied Israel. It had to be elitist and repressive as per the course of settler-colonial history.

To those willing to retrospectively engage in a debate about Oslo, a final conclusion is that the power asymmetry between Israel and the Palestinians rendered Oslo irrelevant. It may have even been a form of surrender, repackaged as a gamble between equals.

Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa

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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.