With Oslo, Israel’s Intention Was Never Peace or Palestinian Statehood

The transformation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip into separate Bantustans was all part of the plan

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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An Israeli soldier stands guard at the Gush Etzion junction in the West Bank in January, 2016.
An Israeli soldier stands guard at the Gush Etzion junction in the West Bank in January, 2016.Credit: Menahem Kahan/AFP
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

The reality of the Palestinian Bantustans, reservations or enclaves — is a fact on the ground. Their creation is the most outstanding geopolitical occurrence of the past quarter century. It is of course possible to say that its seeds were sown with the occupation in 1967 but the process accelerated, consolidated, matured and deepened paradoxically in parallel with the negotiation process between Israel and the Palestinians – first with the Madrid/Washington talks starting at the end of 1991 and then with the Oslo process

Those who give credence to lofty verbal declarations about peace and a new Middle East will continue to believe that only chance, regrettable human errors, bad luck and technical hitches led to the formation of the Palestinian reservations buried in a contiguous Israeli space between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River – contrary to any logic of a fair settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis and negating the former’s right to self-determination. Others will continue to argue that it all happened only as a reaction to the attacks carried out by Palestinian opponents of the Oslo agreements and Palestinian opponents of Yasser Arafat

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However, I wish to give, have given and am giving credit to the planning skills of the Israeli security and diplomatic establishment and the calculated sophistication behind the ability to speak softly in words the world wants to hear (“peace”) and in actual fact to do the opposite (continuing the occupation through outsourcing while dropping the burden of economic and legal responsibility for the population that is under occupation). 

The following were the warning signals that started flashing right at the moment of the signing of the Declaration of Principles and very early on taught me to cast doubt on Israel’s intentions vis a vis the negotiations: 

Oslo Accords - 25 years on

*While it was decided to take gradual steps toward the realization of the interim agreement, the aim of the negotiations was not explicitly stipulated. That is, it nowhere was it stated that the goal was the establishment of a Palestinian state in the territory occupied in 1967, contrary to what the Palestinians, many people in the Israeli peace camp at that time and the European countries had concluded. What logic is there in gradually moving forward towards a vague goal that only the Palestinians and the supporters of a fair in Europe understand as realization of the right to self-determination, while the strong side, Israel, reserves the right to impose its interpretations?

*The word “occupation” does not appear in the Declaration of Principles. In his letter to Yitzhak Rabin, however, Yasser Arafat explicitly promises that the Palestine Liberation Organization will relinquish terror. The avoidance of any mention of “the occupation” as a given situation and as the source of the violence was an expression of the diplomatic-propaganda inversion that Israel succeeded in pulling off: The real power relations — of occupier and occupied — were translated into relations of the persecuted (the Israeli) and the persecutor (the Palestinian). The burden of proof was imposed on the Palestinians (a fight against terror) and not on Israel (an end to the occupation). 

*Delegating the Civil Administration to conduct the negotiations regarding the transfer of civil responsibilities to the Palestinian Authority was another warning signal. In the less than 15 years of its existence, the Civil Administration had developed into a tool for implementing the colonization policy and military control of the Palestinians, in the guise of a civilian affairs institution. Contrary to the declarations about “changing the disk,” the bureaucrats/officers who conducted the civil negotiations had no alternative but to preserve the purpose of their organization and to perpetuate the imperious attitude toward the Palestinians. 

*The Declaration of Principles signed on September 13, 1993 stated: “The two sides view the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a single territorial unit, whose integrity will be preserved during the interim period.”This did not happen. Instead, Israel did everything it could to detach the population of Gaza from the West Bank by means of the regime of movement restrictions. Though the number of Palestinians who exited and entered Gaza in the 1990s was relatively large as compared to the minuscule number of those exiting and entering today, that number was small relative to the situation before January 15, 1991 when Israel first implemented the regime of sweeping prohibitions on Palestinians’ freedom of movement and the requirement that they apply for personal entry permits into Israel (and that, three years before the suicide attacks inside Israel). Thus, Israel controlled the economic, institutional, social and familial relations between the population of Gaza and the West Bank and restricted them however it pleased. In that way, Israel was able to interfere with the proper functioning and development of the PA institutions. 

The Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. In 1997, Israel prohibited inhabitants of the Gaza Strip from entering the West Bank from Jordan via the Allenby Bridge. Credit: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

*In accordance with Israel’s demand, it was stipulated in the negotiations that it would continue to control the Palestinian population registry, which meant that Israel alone had the power to decide whether to grant Palestinian residency, to whom, when and to how many. In the Interim Agreement there is a provision that empowers the Palestinian Authority to carry out a few changes in the population registry, such as changes of address and personal status but they are required to inform the Israeli side of the change. At the end of 1996 it became clear to the Palestinians that Israel was refusing to recognize changes of address as listed on identity cards from towns in Gaza to towns in the West Bank (mainly for thousands of people who were born in Gaza but had been residing in the West Bank for many years), while it was approving changes of address within the West Bank or within the Gaza Strip. This seemingly minor bureaucratic measure has tremendous significance: It proves that Israel continued to relate the Gaza Strip as an entity separate from the West Bank. For Israel — Gaza is a separate enclave.

*Also in 1997, Israel prohibited inhabitants of the Gaza Strip from entering the West Bank from Jordan via the Allenby Bridge border crossing. Since the regime of individual travel permits was imposed in January of 1991, Palestinians who did not receive a permit to transit through Israel on their way to the West Bank discovered that they could do a big detour: They left through the Rafah crossing point into Egypt and from there they traveled to Jordan and entered the West Bank via the Allenby crossing. These were mainly students enrolled at the universities in the West Bank, members of split families, businesspeople, PA officials and others whose applications for permits to transit through Israel and been denied. Ever since 1997, inhabitants of the Gaza Strip are also required to apply for a permit to enter via Allenby (and these permits are granted only in rare cases) — yet more proof that Israel relates to the two parts of Palestinian territory as separate entities, in contravention of the Declaration of Principles. 

*The provision concerning water in the Interim Agreement is an especially cynical reflection of Israel’s attitude towards Gaza as a separate enclave. Apart from a few million cubic meters of water that flowed into the Gaza Strip from Israel (as compensation for the high-quality sweet water pumped within its territory for the benefit of the Israeli settlements), the Gaza Strip was required then and is required now to make do with the aquifer within its boundaries. The same aquifer that supplied water to the approximately 80,000 original Palestinians who lived there before 1948, continued to supply water to the refugee population that was added (about 200,000 people) in 1949, and to the population that had grown to about 900,000 by 1994 and stands at about 2 million people today. Since the end of the 1980s Gaza has been suffering from seepage of sea water into its ground water because of over-pumping. Instead of the simple solution of piping in water from Israeli territory into Gaza (which would have compensated somewhat for the vast amounts of water Israel pumps from sources in the West Bank for the benefit of Israelis inside Israel and in the settlements)  — Israel has forced the Gaza Strip to maintain an autarkic water economy. Thus the Gaza Strip reached the catastrophic situation it is in today, with 97 percent of its water unfit for drinking. 

*The Goldstein massacre: Not only were the violent Hebron settlers not evacuated from the city, they were also given a reward. The Rabin government punished the Palestinians for the massacre that a Jewish-Israeli citizen committed there and were put under a prolonged curfew. Then a series of restrictions on movement were imposed on the Palestinians in order to implement the principle of separation between them and the settlers, while giving preference to the convenience and welfare of the few Jews at the expense of the Palestinian majority.

Israeli soldiers taking position during clashes with Palestinian protesters near Hebron in the West Bank, July 14, 2018.Credit: \ MUSSA QAWASMA/ REUTERS

 *Despite the impression of “reciprocity” and “symmetry” between the Palestinians and the Israelis that the Declaration of Principles tried to create, throughout the negotiation process the status of the Palestinian prisoners was not made equivalent to that of the Israeli soldiers, despite the fact that their commanders — who at the time were meeting and negotiating with the other side — had similarly sent them to fight and kill. The Palestinian prisoners were depicted as criminals whose names and places of residence were common knowledge and the Israelis — as heroes. Release of prisoners was not even mentioned in the Declaration of Principles. The partial releases later on were always accompanied by humiliations and procrastination and did not include Palestinians who had killed Israelis prior to the signing of the Oslo agreements. 

*In the 1990s Israel continued to demolish Palestinian structures in the West Bank, on the grounds of lack of a permit, when everyone knew that ever since the 1970s Israel had been very stingy about granting building permits to Palestinians and developing master plans for them.

 *In July of 1994, during the Oslo days and under a Labor-Meretz government, eviction orders were issued to Bedouin of the Jahalin tribe for the sake of the expansion of the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim. In May of 1995 the High Court of Justice rejected petitions against the eviction. Similar eviction orders were issued to other small communities of herders and farmers — people who traditionally and in order to earn a living spend a considerable portion of their time on lands that are outside their villages of origin, for example along what was to become Highway 443 (from Jerusalem to Modi’in) and in the Etzion Bloc. 

*The Interim Agreement established a blatantly unequal division of the water sources in the West Bank and determined a quota on the amount of water Palestinians are permitted to consume (no such quota was imposed on the settlers). The water drilling in the Jordan Valley supplied and continues to supply the approximately 6,000 settlers there with an amount of water equivalent to about one-quarter of the amount allotted to approximately 1.5 million to 2 million Palestinians. At meetings of the joint water committee, it very quickly became clear to the Palestinians that it was better for them to request approval of water pipes with a diameter smaller than the diameter they had initially planned — otherwise the Israeli side would not approve the proposed project. 

*Even though in the agreement there is a provision to the effect that the two sides will not carry out any changes that could affect the results of the permanent status agreement, at the end of 1995 the Interior Ministry headed by Haim Ramon began to revoke the residency status of thousands of Jerusalem Palestinians, on the grounds that their center of life was no longer in the city. This gave the signal for what has been called the silent transfer, expulsion of people from the city, the divestment of their legal status and identity papers and the development of a regime of surveillance and spying on tens of thousands of Palestinians by the Interior Ministry and the National Insurance Institute. The restrictions on building in Jerusalem also remained in force and the regime of travel permits cut off the natural connection Palestinians had with this economic, religious, social and cultural center.

A Bedouin of the Jahalin tribe walking in his encampment near Ma’aleh Adumim, seen in the background, June 2012.Credit: Reuters

*Another signal was the division of the West Bank into areas of control A, B, and C that would be adapted to the principle of the gradual redeployment of the Israel Defense Forces (which was mistakenly called a withdrawal) — first from the towns, then from the villages and finally from the less inhabited areas that are the future reserves of land and space for the Palestinian entity. Even if we ignore the fact that Israel determined the pace of the redeployment and when and where it would stop, the agreement does not establish the size of the area that Israel would ultimately leave. Each side interpreted this in accordance with its own wishes and the vagueness once again worked to the benefit of the stronger side, Israel. 

Twenty-five years later, Area C under full Israeli control covers more than 60 percent of the area of the West Bank. There was security logic to the gradual redeployment of the army but the retention by Israel of the civil and administrative responsibilities in Area C gave it time to grab  more land. Israel has kept and is keeping most of the West Bank for itself as an area where it is limiting Palestinian construction and development to a bare minimum, and as a reserve of land for the endless spread of the settlements. 

*The bypass roads were built so that the settlers would not have to travel to their homes via the Palestinian towns. They butchered the area of the West Bank with no consideration for the relationships between the Palestinian urban centers and their hinterlands of surrounding towns and villages, and cut off historic routes. The bypass roads were a tool for perpetuating an agreement that was supposed to have been temporary. The organization of the geographical space and construction were tailored to the needs of the settlers in the present, which are also the needs of the settlement project in the future: Thus for example, the “tunnels road,” paved the way to the Etzion Bloc practically becoming a prestigious southern suburb of Jerusalem. The guarantees given to the settlers in the Interim Agreement obviate the need for a permanent status agreement that would have necessitated their evacuation, and thus more Israelis have been lured into coming to live in the settlements and to demand that they remain in place. 

*Israel did not see fit to pursue “confidence building measures” related to issues of land and territory. The Israeli side could have compensated the Palestinians for confiscating land for bypass roads, for example, by means of returning hundreds of thousands of dunams of land that were declared “state lands” in the 1980s, in a sly process that contravened international law. That didn’t happen, because from the outset Israel did not give up its mantra of “as much territory as possible, with as few Arabs as possible.” 

Thus, the control of Area C, the retention of bans on building and access for the Palestinians, the construction of the settlements and the network of bypass roads – all of these have together led to the creation of numerous disconnected Palestinian enclaves that are swallowed up in the Israeli expanse, in a process that has replicated in the West Bank the same reality that characterizes the Gaza enclave. In the course of the Oslo process, much thought was invested – not toward advancing peace, but toward the establishment of Palestinian enclaves.

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