Blessing in disguise: the Oslo Accords 20 years later

Published September 19th, 2013 - 07:00 GMT
Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton, and Yasser Arafat at the Oslo Accords signing ceremony on 13 September 1993. (File)
Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton, and Yasser Arafat at the Oslo Accords signing ceremony on 13 September 1993. (File)

One would really struggle to find any Palestinian, or advocate of the Palestinian cause, to say something remotely decent when mentioning the 1993 Oslo Accords.

When Oslo was signed it was based, in essence, on gradual Israeli army withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank that ultimately would lead to a complete withdrawal from the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel during the 1967 war.

Apparently something went wrong along the way, because Palestinians say that none of the agreement was carried out to the letter, while the Israelis refuse to accept that they violated any part of the deal. 

The Israelis accuse the Palestinians of violating the accords and forestalling its implementation. Nonetheless, the major sentiment of the Palestinians in the occupied territories and the diaspora, and passionate advocates of the Palestinian cause, is that the Oslo Accords were the biggest Palestinian mistake, error of judgement, and a disastrous move.

Some would go as far as labeling it an equivalent setback to none other than al-Nakseh of 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip, or al-Nakba of 1948, which saw the establishment of Israel on 78 percent of what was then called Mandate of Palestine. 

They might be right. 

In fact many are convinced beyond a doubt that they are right and that we as Palestinians would have been better off without Oslo and should have just continued with the first Intifada of 1987. 

The settlements have grown in area by almost 200 percent, and the number of Jewish settlers has almost tripled. 

Israel continues to control our movement, resources, borders, and imprisons thousands of Palestinians. In fact, Israel refuses to release thousands of prisoners that should have been released following Oslo. 

They restrict access to land and control of some 61 percent of the West Bank and at least 20 percent of the Gaza Strip. That does not mean that the Palestinians completely control the rest, but they have semi-control over administrative and security issues.

Again they might be right to want to discard Oslo and discredit it. 

So what went wrong? The simple answer would be that the side effects and symptoms of failure were not taken into serious consideration right from the beginning. 

But then again Oslo might be the best thing to have happened to the Palestinians

Before we see why, lets quickly review those side effects and failures. On one hand, the Israelis blame their Palestinian partner, the PLO, of failing to live up to their end of the deal of by controlling Palestinian militant groups on the ground within the occupied territory and beyond.

On the other hand, Israel has constantly refused to accept that they are the main contributors to the failure of Oslo right from the beginning. 

Israel's refusal to accept that Palestinians are fighting for their rights to freedom in all of its forms, and that the Palestinian militant groups are in fact freedom fighters, as well as its refusal to relinquish control over the land, release prisoners and simply recognize Palestinian rights to natural resources in the occupied territory, have made it all the more difficult to make the Oslo Accords a success. 

But in all fairness, we have also won with Oslo.

Yes. And why not call it as it is? Whether we like it or not we have to acknowledge the benefits of Oslo for the Palestinians and while much of the sentiments toward Oslo are based on regrets, let's consider other facts that could not have happened if Palestinians did not engage in the Oslo Accords.

For example, nowadays the Palestinians are well recognized as a people seeking their freedom from Israeli occupation. And we now have stages, platforms, podiums opened up to us all over the world, almost all of which were not available to us before. 

Regardless of the occupation, Palestinians today have diplomatic representation almost all over the world, and dozens of diplomatic representatives within Palestinian controlled Area A.

International organizations have numerous branches operating in Area A, in cooperation with PA ministries, and Palestine has an operational monetary authority and 17 different banks with 230 branches and 11 micro-finance institutions operating just in Area A. 

Palestinians can build within Area A and Area B almost at will if they obtain the building permits from local municipal councils. Actually, many do it after completing the construction, something that never happened during the time of the occupation. 

Infrastructure services like electricity, water, telephone lines, wireless communications, roads, and much more were scarcely available to Palestinians. This is not so anymore, and even though water is the most notable shortage that we continue to suffer from, compared to neighboring Arab countries, it is not really so bad.

The 1,500 or more NGOs that exist and operate within Palestinian controlled areas in various fields of services, employing thousands of Palestinians, could not have existed without Oslo.

The media never really existed before or operated in such a variety of different forms, and there has been an increase in education facilities, commercial shops, and industrial plants.

The list of benefits continues, but I am just making a point. 

Then again, many would point to the settlements and the increase in the number of settlers. Yes that did happen, but the fact of the matter is that plans to build and expand settlement were always there. 

The construction of settlements as it exists today is an inevitable consequence of the occupation. In fact, it might have been increased by much more if it was not for Oslo. Even the settler population might have been the same or more, because movement would have been easier and roads would have been better facilitated for the settlers.

In addition to that, it was clear to many a few years into the first intifada that we were going nowhere and we had no strategy whatsoever about what would happen next. Nothing tangible about life before the Intifada has changed. We only adapted to a new way of coping with checkpoints, curfews, demonstration, and strikes, but in reality life was pretty much the same. 

This could have continued for several more years and eventually faded but what happened is that we stumbled upon Oslo. The word stumble fits here because we had no idea what modern geography was and drawing a line on a map has serious consequences on the ground. 

Palestinians found this out the hard way. However, one of the things that we got from Oslo, and will remain ours no matter what happens, is world recognition of Area A, which will always be Palestinian even if Israel reoccupies the West Bank and Gaza.

Our legitimate rights for a state based on the 1967 borders will always be recognized internationally. East Jerusalem will always be recognized as under Israeli occupation.

Israel will always be shunned within the international community as an occupier. It is because of Oslo that it is possible for Palestinians to present their case in a clear manner, allowing the world to become aware of what is happening here and take serious action about it.

While many internationals sympathized with Palestinians prior to Oslo not many of them could act or do anything about it because it was a stigma that could not be afforded by many to be associated with.

However, at the end of the day, or 20 years after Oslo, the question is: was it worth it? 

The answer is in the eye of the beholder, or each to his or her own thought. Still one thing should be done before we pass judgment, and that is to look at the overall picture and weigh the gains and loses. It can not all be wrong. It got the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin assassinated by fanatics because they saw how Oslo would eventually lead to a Palestinian state. 

It led to Yasser Arafat's death, which is still surrounded by much skepticism, because he insisted on going through with Oslo.

Maybe the real tragedy of the last 20 years is that Palestinians stand as divided today as we were when the Oslo Accords were signed, which is what always made, and today still makes, the Palestinians weak negotiators. 

Suhail Khalilieh heads the Settlements Monitoring Department at the Applied Research Institute in Jerusalem

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