The Oslo Accords’ calamities

The colonial framework of the Oslo agreements need to be replaced, writes scholar.

Gaza border Erez
Gaza's water crisis is a result of the Oslo Accords' legacy, writes Gordon [EPA]

On the eve of the September 1993 Oslo agreements, just before responsibilities were transferred from Israeli hands to the Palestinian Authority, five percent of Gaza’s residents did not have access to running water.

Twenty years later, the United Nations estimates that more than 80 percent of Gazans buy bottled drinking water either because they are not connected to water supply or because the water they receive is undrinkable. The water crisis in the Gaza Strip is just one concrete manifestation of Oslo’s legacy.

Surveying the contemporary Palestinian landscape, everywhere one looks calamities meet the eye. During the first 27 years of occupation (1967-1993), Israel killed an estimated 1,850 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. By contrast, during the 20 years since Oslo it has killed more than 7,100. Following the implementation of Oslo’s so-called separation principle – best captured through Ehud Barak’s slogan “us here, them there” – the average number of annual Palestinian deaths actually increased fivefold.

Along similar lines, the peace accords have increased the economic fragility of the Palestinians. GDP per capita in the West Bank and Gaza has risen from $1,320 in 1994 to $2,489 in 2011, not much more than a $1,000 increase in 18 years. In Gaza, where people now need to buy bottled water, the per capita GDP has risen by less than $300 in two decades, amounting to $1,534 in 2011. Moreover, this minute increase is an outcome of foreign aid and has nothing to do with an improvement of the productive capacity of these two regions. Twenty years after Oslo, Palestinian society is completely dependent on humanitarian assistance.

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Just to gain some perspective, during the same period the GDP per capita in Israel rose from $16,029 to $32,123. Thus, the per capita GDP disparity between Israelis and Palestinians increased from $15,000 to a staggering $30,000. Israelis, in other words, have not suffered from the occupation and, indeed, have experienced economic well-being since that dramatic day in Washington, DC.

While there is no causal relation between Israel’s impressive GDP growth and the Jewish settlement project, it too has experienced a dramatic surge. During the past two decades the number of settlers in the West Bank has increased by about a quarter of a million people, from 111,600 settlers in 1993 to more than 350,000 in 2013. If one includes East Jerusalem, then well over half a million Jews now live in the territories from which Israel promised – back in September 1993 – that it would withdraw.

A study conducted by myself and Yinon Cohen from Columbia University shows that during periods of negotiations more Jews migrated to the West Bank. The protracted negotiations, in other words, have only bolstered the settlement project.

Finally, two decades after Oslo, Palestinian society is divided, with the Hamas government in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank suffering from an acute legitimacy crisis.

The crucial question – not least now, when Israelis and Palestinians are back at the negotiation table – is whether these developments are due to some kind of malfunction of the Oslo process, or whether they are its natural manifestation.

Restructuring Palestinian space

The answer lies in the Oslo agreements themselves. If one reads the eight agreements Israelis and Palestinians signed over the years as texts that depict the modification or replacement of existing forms of control rather than peace agreements (as they were presented to the public), then much of what we are witnessing today becomes intelligible. Instead of stipulating the principles for the withdrawal of Israeli power from the Occupied Territories, the Oslo agreements actually specify how Palestinian space would be restructured and Israel’s power would be reorganised.

One cannot fully understand the reorganisation of power in the territories without considering the way the Oslo agreements restructured Palestinian space while preserving Israel’s distinction between the Palestinians and their land. As Israel transferred many of the responsibilities for managing the population to the Palestinian Authority, it retained direct control over most Palestinian space and over what John Torpey has called the “legitimate means of movement”.

In order to accomplish this goal, Israel rearranged Palestinian space, creating internal boundaries that produced a series of new “insides” and “outsides” within the Occupied Territories, each one with its own specific laws and regulations. The division of the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C determined the distribution of powers. While in all three areas the Palestinian Authority assumed full responsibility over the civil institutions, only in Area A, which comprises 17 percent of the land, was it given full responsibility for maintaining law and order. Moreover, the areas in which the Palestinians ostensibly have full control are like an archipelago, while the areas controlled by Israel are strategic corridors that interrupt the territorial contiguity of the West Bank.

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Intricately tied to the restructuring of Palestinian space was the reorganisation of power, which was carried out in three distinct spheres: the civil institutions, economy, and law enforcement. The overarching logic informing the different agreements is straightforward: Transfer all responsibilities (but not all authority) relating to the management of the population to the Palestinians themselves while preserving Israeli control of Palestinian space and resources.

Following the memorable ceremony on the White House lawn, the changes on the ground were rapid. By August 1994, the Palestinian Authority assumed full responsibility for the Palestinian education system and the dilapidated health institutions as well as social welfare organisations. Full responsibility meant funding and running them, but did not entail full authority.

In education, for example, Israel continued to have a say about the Palestinian curriculum, and could veto the inclusion of certain topics, particularly in disciplines such as history and geography. The representation of Jerusalem is a case in point. Although Jerusalem is presented in Israeli textbooks as Israel’s indivisible and eternal capital, if Palestinians were to depict Jerusalem in a similar manner it was considered incitement. Thus, even in the civil institutions that were handed over to the Palestinians, the agreements stipulated that Israel would maintain a level of remote control.

In the economic field the Palestinians have had even less autonomy. During the first couple of years after Oslo, the word on the street had it that the Gaza Strip would be transformed into the Middle East’s Singapore: Aid would come pouring in, a thriving industry would be established, and the Palestinians would enjoy the fruits of peace.

There are, of course, many reasons why this fantasy did not materialise, including Israel’s ongoing control of all Palestinian borders. One can gain insight into why the optimism was to be short-lived, however, just by looking at the major economic agreement signed by the two parties. The Paris Protocol on Economic Relations established a customs union with Israel based on Israeli trade regulations, allowed Israel to maintain control of all labour flows, and prohibited the Palestinians from introducing their own currency, thus barring their ability to influence interest rates and inflation. The colonial dynamics that had existed since 1967 were simply replicated in this agreement.

This has had far-reaching implications, since the economy serves as the source of revenue for all the civil institutions employed to manage and administer the population, such as the health-care, education and welfare systems. If they do not function properly then a crisis of governance is likely to emerge.

This is one of the reasons why in the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – also known as Oslo II – a relatively large section was dedicated to the Palestinian police force. The agreement expanded the police force, transforming the West Bank and Gaza Strip into zones where the ratio of police to civilians was among the highest in the world. The creation of a strong Palestinian police force was crucial not only because it allowed the Israeli military to shed many of its former policing responsibilities, but also because such a force empowered the new governing body, which had taken upon itself a huge amount of civil responsibility with very few of the tools necessary to provide the services it promised to supply.

A bloated police force was the Oslo response to the increasing loss of legitimacy of both the Oslo process and the Palestinian Authority; its goal was to repress internal opposition.

Oslo’s colonial framework needs to be replaced

All this, it is important to emphasise, is not a matter of interpretation, but rather written in black letters in the Oslo agreements. This is why when Israeli friends ask me why I am not more critical of the Palestinian Authority, I am not eager to the lay the blame on its shoulders. Much criticism is no doubt warranted, but targeting the Palestinian Authority assumes that this governing body is a free agent. The truth, however, is that the Palestinian Authority is a product of Oslo, an Israeli subsidiary of sorts that is confined by structures much greater than it can ever overcome in the current reality.

It is high time to put an end to Oslo’s colonial framework, and to begin thinking of creative political – rather than neoliberal – solutions to the current devastating reality.

Reading the agreements carefully it becomes clear how Oslo created the Palestinian Authority as an Israeli subcontractor, and how it transferred to this fledgling body weak civil institutions and a totally dependent economy that could not support the institutions.

The manifestations of this legacy are apparent everywhere – not least in Gaza, where the water crisis serves as an allegory of what Oslo has inflicted on the Palestinians. It is also a good metaphor for the stifling Oslo-effect, particularly because it underscores the fact that Palestinians do not control their own resources – in this case, the water aquifers in the West Bank – and do not have a sustainable infrastructure.

The distribution of water bottles also reflects the type of solutions leaders have offered to the Oslo predicament. Instead of political solutions, they advance neoliberal ones: namely, you don’t have drinkable running water, so why not buy bottles?

Just like Marie Antoinette’s French peasants, who could not eat cakes to sustain themselves, a magic resolution will not emerge from the bottle. It is high time to put an end to Oslo’s colonial framework, and to begin thinking of creative political – rather than neoliberal – solutions to the current devastating reality.

Neve Gordon is the author of Israel’s Occupation and can be reached through his website.