Palestine: Two decades After Oslo Accords
Dr. Mozammel Haque
Twenty years after the signing of the Oslo Accords, much continues to be written about the structural and subsequent failings of the Accords to achieve justice to the Palestinian people. While conventional views still regard Oslo as a winning formula that only suffered from a lack of implementation, critical analysis of the Oslo process agrees that the Accords only accelerated the Zionist settler colonial project, allowing Israel to lay siege and further expand its grip on Palestinian land, while expelling and destroying the lives of more Palestinians.
The 9th Conference on “Self-Critique Two Decades After Oslo”, organised by SOAS Palestine Society and hosted by London Middle East Institute and Centre for Palestine Studies (SOAS) was held at Brunei Lecture Theatre, SOAS, on 5-6 October, 2013. This Two-Day conference aimed to move beyond this critical consensus and identify internal failures prior to, and at the moment of, the conception of Oslo Accords, as well as in its aftermath. In doing so, the conference attempted to understand how Oslo had transformed Palestinian life and struggle.
The conference situated itself within a long history of self-criticism after defeat – a self-criticism aimed at assessing the strategic failures of the movement, and formulating the necessary steps ahead. “This is a self-criticism premised on a commitment to the political rebuilding of the Palestinian liberation movement, and the struggle against settler colonialism,” the conference mentioned, adding that in its embrace of self-criticism, “the conference will focus on the ways Palestinian leadership and elites have become embedded in the logic of settler colonialism, embraced neoliberal capitalism, and reproduced social and political accommodation of the Oslo process.”
The conference also aimed, it said, “to widen our lens, and examine the growing socialisation and reproduction of Oslo logics in Palestinian political and social life, and the ways in which Palestinian resistance against Oslo and Israel, and international solidarity with that resistance, has reproduced the very conditions it seeks to overturn.”
Restoring Popular Sovereignty
Twenty years after the Oslo Accords were signed, we find ourselves much further from our common goals of liberation and return; not one liberty has been won, nor one inch of land liberated. Instead, we have faced the continuing loss of our land and of our sovereignty over it, living under a comprehensive colonial system including military rule in historic Palestine, whilst the majority of our people remain in enforced exile from their homeland, said Ms. Karma Nabulsi, who lectures at the University of Oxford, in her Keynote Address on “Overcoming Oslo, Restoring Popular Sovereignty” at the conference.
Ms. Nabulsi mentioned in her keynote address, “There is a long list of reasons for the nature of the problems we face as well as causes to blame for their persistence. Above all, what is apparent is that we are trapped; these challenges, both inside and outside of Palestine, and therefore of our representation – are too large to be solved by any single sector of our people on their own, or any party, institution or leader. The challenges are too vast. Only by returning to the people, where the strength of our cause can be carried, may we recover the capacity to face and confront the enemy. This is not a new analysis, for Palestinians have understood from the last century of our struggle and its lessons that it is only when there is a popular and united movement, driven by the people themselves, that we are able to advance our cause. Palestinian history is the history of such remarkable political practice.”
The Continuity of Colonial Control
Mechanisms in Palestine
Ms. Laleh Khalili, Professor of Middle East Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) University of London, in her presentation on “The Continuity of Colonial Control Mechanisms in Palestine” focussed on technologies of population control – including the use of walls, closures, collective punishment, and detention – that the British used extensively to maintain its control over the residents of Palestine especially during the Palestinian Revolt of the mid-1930s, and which were subsequently adopted and adapted by the Israeli state, first inside the Green Line, and later, in the territories occupied in 1967.
The Roots of Oslo: Beyond an Ideological Critique
Since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, a wide range of Palestinian voices have provided cogent critiques of Palestinian leadership’s increasing accommodation with Zionism and Israel’s settler-colonial project. Most of these critiques, however, have highlighted the contingent and ideological forms of Palestinian acquiescence – the pragmatist turn of Palestinian politics; demoralization in the wake of the 1990-91 Gulf War; and a changing international geopolitics, mentioned Adam Hanieh, Lecturer at the SOAS in his paper on “The Roots of Oslo: Beyond an Ideological Critique” and said that his paper aimed to set these trends within a wider political economy of the Middle East, examining how a diaspora Palestinian capital, closely integrated to the Gulf Arab states, has increasingly informed and determined the strategic orientation of the Palestinian national movement. This did not begin with the signing of Oslo, but is a long culmination of a changing (and inherently multi-scalar) Palestinian class structure, he said.
Marginalisation of Palestinian
Refugees Question After Oslo
The 1993 Oslo agreements signalled the beginning of a progressive marginalisation of the Palestinian refugee question, a marginalisation that appeared in its whole dramatic dimension with the release of the “Palestine Papers” in 2011. By disclosing the PA’s (Palestine Authority) secret negotiations with Israel on the return of a mere 1,000 refugees over a period of ten years, the Palestine papers confirmed the lack of any plan to achieve justice for four generations of displacement and statelessness. No less dramatically, they underscored a dull understanding of Palestinian refugees as pawns whose rights could be tacitly and arbitrarily exchanged with other minor concessions at the negotiating table with Israel, mentioned Ruba Salih, a social anthropologist and Reader at SOAS in her presentation on “After Oslo: Palestinian Refugees and the Emergence of a “Political Society””.
Professor Salih said, “The official dismissal of the Palestinian refugee question by its supposed national leadership has freed, among many refugees, narratives and criticism that were previously considered taboo. Instead, in this gloomy context, Palestinian refugees are urged to make new sense of their over sixty years of dispossession and exile, starting with a bitter disillusionment with the official narrative that their lack of rights and their general disenfranchisement (avoiding tawteen) was the pre-condition for return. Third or even fourth generations of Palestinians in exile still don’t enjoy basic rights and yet their return has never been as jeopardised and distant as it is today.”
In addition, social anthropologist Salih argued, “The perpetuation of the assumption that Palestinian refugees are eager to live temporary or suspended lives merely awaiting return to their national territory, where they will finally achieve rights and citizenship, does not give justice to the complexity of their aspirations and claims which comprise the right to have rights, alongside the right to return and compensation for their lost land and properties. Indeed, refugees are uttering a new political culture which reconciles two political projects and discourses, the “the right to return” (Haqq al-Awda), and the “right to have rights””.
International Law: The Palestinian Trump
card by Richard Falk
International Law is the Palestinian trump card in their struggle to achieve fundamental rights, above all the right of self-determination. Yet for decades those representing the Palestinian people have not used it effectively. International Law is at the same time, the Achilles Heel of the Israeli hard-power approach, said Richard Falk, Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law Emeritus at Princeton University in his presentation on “The Relevance of International Law to the Palestinian Struggle” and added, “ Israel has tried to supersede the distribution of rights on the basis of law by creating ever more non-negotiable, yet unlawful ‘facts on the ground.’ The Palestinian side has for many years accepted these unlawful factoids as the basis for a ‘realistic’ peace process. The Israeli government has consistently understood that it is in their interest to exclude international law from conflict-resolving diplomacy, a position benefitted by a large measure of Palestinian acquiescence.
Professor Falk said, “It can be argued in response that Israel has violated its obligations under international law by its defiant response to numerous UN resolutions, the 2004 Advisory Opinion of the World Court in the Separation Wall case or in relation to Goldstone Report on the Israeli attack on Gaza at the end of 2008 and the Mavi Marmara incident of 2010 without experiencing adverse consequences. It is clear that the UN has on many occasions taken initiatives that rely on international law, and these have always almost vindicated Palestinian claims. The behavioural impacts have been minimal as Israel, with U.S. and European support, has violated the rights of the Palestinian people, and has seemed to provide a rationale for the reluctance of governmental representatives of Palestine since the inception of the Oslo to invoke international law or to insist that Palestinian rights under international law be integral to the peace talks.”
Professor Falk emphasized, “Nonetheless, such an insistence remains, in my view, tactically and strategically important for the present pursuit of a sustainable and just peace. It is tactically useful as it would compel Israel to adopt an awkward diplomatic position by being compelled to contend that international law arguments are not relevant to negotiations. In the past Israel has declared in response to criticism about settlement-building during negotiations that such a legal challenge is disruptive as settlements will be dealt with in the ‘final status negotiations.’ Instead of deferring to such arguments, Palestinian diplomats should demand that Israeli good faith can only be established by respecting international law during the negotiating process, and that it is neither credible nor reasonable to defer Palestinian rights until the diplomatic end game.”
Professor Falk also mentioned, “International law is strategically relevant as the historical trends for the last seventy years show that the side that prevails in a political conflict is not the strongest side militarily or diplomatically, but the side that gains firm command over the moral and legal heights in the conflict. Israel has again shown its sensitivity to this normative agenda by describing what it calls ‘the delegitimation project’ of the growing Palestinian global solidarity movement a greater security threat than armed resistance. Palestine is winning this legitimacy war mainly because international law and morality are increasingly understood in global civil society as being on their side. In effect, international law matters, but not because it can enforce its claims. Rather because it mobilizes and sustains resistance that often overwhelms hard power structures of domination.”
Settler Colonialism and International Law
in the 21st Century
International law has provided one of the primary discourses for structuring Palestinian political claims, especially in recent decades. UN resolutions, human rights conventions, and the law of war (“international humanitarian law”) have provided a powerful source of legitimacy for the Palestinian national movement, said Darryl Li, an attorney and anthropologist, Columbia University, in his presentation on “Settler Colonialism and International Law in the 21st Century.
Anthropologist Li mentioned, “Palestinian legal strategies have treated Israel as a consolidated nation-state occupying a neighbouring as a consolidated set of territories. Such an approach, however, does not include a strategic assessment – let alone a challenge – to the Zionist project’s core commitment to the ongoing demographic transformation of the lands between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. In other words, the legal frameworks most often used by the movement and its allies – especially the paradigms of belligerent occupation and individual human rights – neglect the State of Israel’s anomalous status as a settler state born at the dawn of the era of decolonization. Moreover, it is coincided with an approach to lawyering that has become increasingly detached from popular concerns and limited to the domain of the Palestinian National Authority, western-funded NGOs, and foreign technocrats.”
By raising questions, Mr. Li said, “The Zionist movement has devised various legal strategies to cope with limitations imposed by a global legal order that abhors formal colonialism. A similar challenge presents itself to Palestinians and their allies: how does one confront a settler-colonial project in an ostensibly post-colonial era? What alternative legal frameworks and strategies would be better suited as support for partition (“the two-state solution”) becomes increasingly untenable as a political horizon? And what are the prospects for ensuring that international law work is integrated into and serves the goals of a revitalized anti-colonial movement rather than operating in technocratic detachment from it?”
Water as a tool to encourage or
Mr. Mark Zeitoun who teaches at the School of International Development, University of East Anglia, presented a paper on “Water as Political Tool to Encourage or Discourage Settlement, wherein he “employed hegemony, power and hydro-political theory to explore how water is used as a political tool for the settlement of Palestine/Israel. The paper argued first that the Oslo process has served to consolidate Israeli control over water resources that began with the earliest Zionist settlement; and second, that efforts at accommodating or resisting the arrangement have only served to perpetuate it.
Mr. Zeitoun said, “Water was central to pre-1948 Zionist settlement of British Mandate Palestine, with its efficient use promoted as one way to increase the ‘absorption capacity’ of the land. Israeli control over the majority of the surface water and groundwater flows later resulted from (though did not drive) the 1967 conquest of the Golan Heights and West Bank, and later the occupation of southern Lebanon.”
“The 1995 Oslo II agreement served to lock-in the asymmetric control that had been established. Palestinian consent to the Oslo process – and Israeli use of hard and soft power within it – can thus be read as having established a ‘hegemonic apparatus’ that has proven resilient to water conflict resolution.,” he said.
Breaking the Popular, Securing the Local Aid
The Oslo Accords introduced a number of changes to the structures governing Palestinians’ lives in the West Bank and Gaza. A quasi-autonomous authority was established to govern Palestinians within the context of Israel’s ‘security-first’ framework. Alongside it a foreign-funded non-governmental sector committed to the ‘peace process’ boomed, mentioned Lisa Bhungalia, a doctoral candidate at Syracuse University in her presentation “Breaking the Popular, Securing the Local: Aid and Its Fragmentary States” and added, “Meanwhile processes of territorial annexation continued unabated and Israel retained sovereignty over Palestinian life. While much had changed during Oslo, much too had remained the same.”
She said, “Some have argued that the bureaucratic infrastructure of the Oslo process itself sought to replace occupation with management. Others have looked more explicitly to the ways Israel’s occupation has been redeployed through multiple sites and through a diversity of means.”
“The aid regime that has evolved in recent decades,” she argued, “is part and parcel of the complex governance apparatus emergent in post-Oslo Palestine that has extended the reach of the Israeli occupation while serving to undermine anti-colonial resistance.”
Drawing on fieldwork conducted in Palestine Lisa’s paper examined “how practices of colonial subjugation and management are being mobilized through the channels of US Aid. Detailing the operation of the American security state in Palestine through a civilian regime of aid workers, NGOs, private contractors local entrepreneurs and foreign experts, she traced the ways in which counterinsurgency and pacification strategies are being mobilized through the networks of aid governance and the forms of fragmentation and division to which they are giving rise.”
Lastly, her paper also dealt with broader questions concerning the ways US Aid intervention in particular, and foreign aid more broadly, relate to larger questions of sovereignty, national struggle and ever-more sophisticated modes of colonial management.
The Two-Day Conference on “Self-Critique Two Decades After Oslo” hosted by London Middle East Institute and Centre for Palestine Studies (SOAS) at Brunei Lecture Theatre, SOAS, London, on 5-6 October, 2013 has four sessions, such as i) Situating Palestine, ii) Subjects of Self-Criticism, iii) Oslo and Fragmentation of the Body Politic and iv) International Law, the Human Rights Turn and the Struggle for Palestine, besides the opening words and the Keynote Address. There were three papers in the first two sessions and four papers in the last two sessions, third and fourth.