Twenty-five years ago this month, on the White House lawn, the lives of a generation of Palestinians changed forever when the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, shook hands with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. That handshake marked the start of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, with promises of a new era of peace, freedom and prosperity.
25 years later, Palestinians are no closer to freedom, as Israel has further entrenched, rather than lessened, its now 51-year military occupation.
Like countless others at the time, I was optimistic that the negotiations would finally lead to Palestinian liberty as promised and based on this, I decided to move to the West Bank to work as a legal advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team. During that period, I met with countless diplomats, worked on scores of proposals and even began a house-to-house campaign to speak to Israelis about ending Israel’s military rule.
But while I and others worked to end occupation others worked to entrench it, including the Israeli government and its settlers: within the first seven years after the negotiations began, Israel used incentives to nearly double its settler population. Today, the settler population is more than three times the size it was in 1993, with nearly 700,000 settlers living in the West Bank.
Back in 1993, settlements were, for the most part, confined to hilltops, with Israeli settlers considered to be fringe. Far from being ostracized, today, some Israel’s largest cities are settlements, settlers have taken over homes in the heart of Palestinian towns and settlers command positions on the Israeli cabinet and on the Supreme Court. In short, settlers are the norm, not the exception. Today, Israeli settlers speak openly about annexing the West Bank or expelling Palestinians.
I am often asked why the negotiations process failed. It is easy to point to the rise of right-wing Israeli governments, poor leadership or weak or uninterested U.S. presidents. But the real reason for failure lie beyond these factors.
It is because the parties should not have started negotiating in the first place.
To demand that Palestinians - living under Israeli military rule - negotiate with their occupier and oppressor is akin to demanding that a hostage negotiate with their hostage taker. It is repugnant that the world demands that Palestinians negotiate their freedom, while Israel continues to steal Palestinian land. Instead, Israel should have faced sanctions for continuing to deny Palestinians their freedom while building illegal settlements.
Twenty-five years later, rather than living the joys of freedom, we mark each day, by thinking about how to maneuver the maze of Israel’s more than 500 checkpoints, put in place to accommodate Israeli settlements, just to be able to get to work or to school. A 25 year-old in the West Bank has likely never been able to visit the sea - a few miles away - while a 25 year-old in Gaza has never been able to leave the Gaza Strip, to visit friends and family in the West Bank and Jerusalem or even abroad.
It isn’t just movement of people that is affected. Palestinians have not been able to take advantage of technological progress for "security reasons" for example, as cancer treatment advances throughout the world, Palestinian hospitals are barred from acquiring radiation equipment. Even our postal system remains hostage to Israel’s whims.
But, rather than recognize the mistake of negotiations, the world continues to demand that we continue the facade even though negotiations irrevocably broke down more than a decade ago. The negotiations process has, in effect, served as cover for the world to do nothing - while giving Israel the cover to build and expand settlements.
If peace is to be achieved, it must entail costs - and this time, not shouldered by the Palestinians. Rather, Israel must receive the strong message, the first in its history, that settlements will no longer be tolerated but rather reversed, and that Palestinians must be free.
I am under no illusions that the Trump Administration will put into place such sanctions. While previous administrations tried to maintain a semblance that they were helping "both sides," Trump has come decidedly in support of Israel’s right-wing pro-settler movement.
Whether by declaring Jerusalem as Israel’s capital or by attempting to extinguish the right of return, President Trump has shown that his "deal of the century" will undoubtedly accommodate Israeli settlements, take away Palestinian rights and reward Israeli wrongs. The closure of the PLO office in Washington D.C. this week is yet another check on Israel’s wish list.
For Israel and its supporters, the past 25 years have been a victory. With Trump at the helm, Israel’s settlers are at an all-time high, Palestinians are confined to bantustans and the U.S. is cracking down on Palestinians for demanding their freedom.
But this short-term fix has long-term implications. While Oslo changed the lives of a generation of Palestinians, this generation and the next have certainly learned its lessons: that negotiating is futile, and that our rights cannot be compromised. With this, it is only a matter of time before we begin struggling for equal rights in a single state, rather than press for statehood.
Diana Buttu is a Ramallah-based analyst and activist, and a former adviser to Mahmoud Abbas and the negotiating team of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Twitter: @dianabuttu