Twenty years ago – on 13 September 1993 – Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the “Declaration of Principles” on the White House lawn under the gaze of US President Bill Clinton.
It cemented a secret deal worked out over the previous months in the Norwegian capital, the first in a series of agreements that came to be known as the Oslo accords.
I have strong memories of that day. Fresh out of college, I was driving alone from the East coast to Chicago, listening to the live coverage on National Public Radio, as one college radio station after another faded in and out.
That night, I watched the ceremony again on CNN at a motel in Youngstown, Ohio.
Although I probably couldn’t have articulated why, I felt utter despair. I didn’t understand the celebratory mood, amid all the talk of an “historic breakthrough.”
It seemed to me that occupation, land theft and Israel’s brutality during the first intifada – which had not yet been fully snuffed out – were already being obscured with the soothing language of “both sides,” equating the oppressed with their oppressors.
More often, commentators cast Palestinians as the unruly villains who needed to be tamed, brought to heel and finally made to “renounce” this and “recognize” that.
But in the months and years ahead, the reasons for that despair came into much sharper focus for me, largely thanks to the columns of Edward Said, the Palestinian American scholar and globally-renowned public intellectual at Columbia University – many of which were gathered together in his 1995 book Peace and its Discontents.
For years I carried my well-thumbed copy everywhere and Said autographed it during a visit to Chicago in 1998.
This week I looked back at it. In its first pages Said declares the Oslo agreement a “Palestinian surrender” and a “Palestinian Versailles” – a reference to the humiliating and ultimately disastrous agreement Germany was forced to sign after the First World War.
While so many others got lost in the fog, Said’s clarity still leaps from the page. In “The Morning After” (October 1993), he writes:
Now that some of the euphoria has lifted, what emerges from the Israeli-PLO agreement is a deal that is more flawed and less favorable for the Palestinian people than many had first supposed. The vulgarities of the White House ceremony, the degrading spectacle of Yasir Arafat thanking everyone for what, in fact, was the suspension of most of his people’s rights, and the fatuous solemnity of Bill Clinton’s performance – like a twentieth-century Roman emperor shepherding two vassal kings through the rituals of obseisance – all these only temporarily obscure the truly astonishing proportions of the Palestinian capitulation.
It wasn’t only his inimitable style and deep analysis, but something else that Said gave us: he showed that you didn’t have to accept the capitulation.
You didn’t have to succumb to the deceptive language.
Even if we did not know exactly how to resist, the first step was at least to speak out. It is difficult to overstate how sustaining I found that message.
Was Said too optimistic?
Said saw all the inequality and lopsidedness built into the agreement. In “The PLO’s Bargain,” he writes:
Israel will allow “limited autonomy” and “early empowerment” for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and Jericho, a small West Bank town sixty miles away. Yasir Arafat is reported to be allowed a visit first and residence later; a few hundred members of the Palestinian Liberation Army, at present in Jordan, will be permitted to handle internal security, that is police work. Health, sanitation, education, the postal service and tourism will be handled by Palestinians. The Israeli Army will reposition itself away from population centers, but will not withdraw for a while. Israel will control the land, water, overall security, and foreign affairs in these “autonomous” areas.” For the undefined future, Israel will dominate the West Bank, including the corridor between Gaza and Jericho, the Allenby Bridge to Jordan, and almost all the water and land, a good percentage of which is already taken. The question still remains, how much land is Israel in fact going to cede for peace?
As Said himself discovered, his initial reaction might have been too generous. He knew that by the time he died, ten years ago this month.
Now, two decades later, the few hundred Palestinian fighters have turned into “security forces” of tens of thousands, trained under American and European supervision, with support from Arab regimes, to brutally repress Palestinian dissent and resistance in collaboration with the occupation army.
Rather than giving up land, Israel has continued to take it, almost tripling the number of settlers living illegally in the West Bank.
A fundamental principle of the Oslo accords was that the West Bank and Gaza Strip would be treated as one territorial unit with a “safe passage” between them. Instead they are totally separated, with Gaza cut off and besieged.
The “peace process” hailed as “historic” has become a macabre, recurring joke.
Making money off occupation
Columbia professor Joseph Massad, Said’s student, colleague and close friend, was also prescient when he wrote in 1994 that the “Palestine Liberation Organization will come down in history as the only Third World liberation movement who has sought liberation through selling the resources it expects to ‘liberate’ to international capital before it even ‘liberated’ them. Western countries and their global instruments of economic domination, the World Bank and the IMF (International Monetary Fund), are already devising different types of plans for investment in the Municipality of Gaza and Jericho once their projected mayor, Yasser Arafat, takes office.”
“In the long run nothing would have changed in the economic and political realities of the Palestinians,” Massad predicted. For many of us, the scale of the neoliberal transformation of Palestine is only now coming into focus.
Meanwhile, Palestinian and Israeli elites, including top generals, are doing fine, cheerfully making money together, as they have done from the start of the Oslo period.
There is no space here and no need to recount all the horrors and failures of the Oslo period – documenting them has been the work of The Electronic Intifada for almost thirteen of the past twenty years – but I just want to offer a few thoughts.
The reasons for despair – if we succumb to it – are still countless, and we can add to them new, dismal episodes in the tragedy as hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Syria have been displaced, along with millions of Syrians, in that country’s brutal civil war.
But twenty years later we can also say that Palestinians everywhere are still resisting capitulation.
True, capitulation was offered – and is still being offered – by the Oslo-era Palestinian leaders.
But it has not been offered by the people. There is no greater evidence of that than the unbreakable will of Palestinian hunger strikers in the face of Israel’s enormous power to imprison their bodies, but not their consciences.
One of Oslo’s legacies was the attempt to politically erase most of the Palestinian people. While all the focus was on the West Bank and Gaza, the refugees in exile, especially in the camps of Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, were reduced to a “humanitarian issue.”
Palestinians in present-day Israel were forgotten altogether, dismissed as an “internal Israeli matter.”
Recovering from Oslo
Today, Palestinians in the diaspora who were only born around the time of Oslo, are leading the struggle on campuses in North America and around the world, in the face of fierce attempts at repression by Zionist organizations.
As next month’s third annual National Students for Justice in Palestine conference will demonstrate, this movement is only getting bigger, broader and more powerful.
The BDS movement – boycott, divestment and sanctions – has emerged in recent years as the most successful movement to build solidarity and action for Palestinian rights the world has ever seen. And it too is growing.
Young people in every part of Palestine refuse to accept capitulation, and, as Linah Alsaafin and Budour Hassan do in their recent essay “Resist Israel’s unjust system, don’t operate within it,” they are setting out the terms of their own struggle.
In the Galilee in the north of historic Palestine, a new generation of young people are no longer waiting for their right of return to be granted – or more likely abrogated – in some Israeli-PLO agreement. They are taking it themselves.
Nadim Nashif, writing this week, calls this a “grassroots, youth-led movement unprecedented in the history of activism for the right to return.”
Above all, Palestinians are reclaiming the right to demand all their rights. Not just a bantustan-like “state” instead of their rights, but their rights in full – an end to Israel’s colonial racism against Palestinian citizens of Israel, an end to occupation, colonization and siege in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the right to return.
As Palestinians assert their legitimate claims, more people can see that there is no “Palestinian problem” just as there was no “black problem” in South Africa or the Jim Crow United States.
Rather, more people now understand that the problem is Zionism and the practices of racism, settler-colonialism and apartheid that are inextricably linked to it.
That reality was supposed to be buried by now, but it is more visible than ever. Oslo could not hide it. Oslo did not bury the Palestinian cause.