For Israel, the Oslo Accords Were a Resounding Success

The creation of Palestinian enclaves is an internal Israeli compromise: making the Palestinians disappear without expelling them. In the meantime, Israel reaps great profits, in part by turning the West….

The creation of Palestinian enclaves is an internal Israeli compromise: making the Palestinians disappear without expelling them. In the meantime, Israel reaps great profits, in part by turning the West Bank and Gaza into a human laboratory

A settler hands out candy to an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint near the former West Bank outpost of Homesh in May.Credit: Menahem Kahana/AFP

In the Oslo Accords signed 30 years ago, Israel agreed to gradually shrink the occupation, while the Palestinians were forced to instantly cease all resistance. Each side interpreted the shrinking as it saw fit.

The Palestinian representatives understood or hoped that in exchange for giving up 78 percent of historical Palestine by the end of 1999 (without forgoing their people’s personal-familial, cultural, emotional or historical bond to it), Israeli military control over the territories occupied in 1967 would end and the Palestinians would establish a state there.

The Israelis concluded that they had gained a subcontractor to make arrests and hunt down opponents (without Israel’s Supreme Court and the B’Tselem rights group, as then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin put it). The Israeli negotiators made sure that the written agreement would detail the stages of the process without mentioning any concrete goals (a state, territory and fixed borders).

As Israel is the stronger party, its interpretation won the day and it determined the eternal nature and morphology of the “shrinking”: Israelization of as much territory as possible and within it pockets of Palestinian self-rule – which are separated, weakened and controlled remotely, with Israel able to cut them off from each other. The roots of the 2020 Abraham Accords can be traced back to 1993.

Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton and Yasir Arafat at the signing of the Oslo Accords at the White House in September 1993.Credit: AP

Thanks to Oslo, Israel absolved itself of the occupier’s responsibility for the people and their welfare. And it kept the cream: control over land, water, the cellphone wavelengths, the maritime and air space, freedom of movement, the economy and borders (both external and of every pocket of territory).

Israel rakes in enormous profits from these levers of control, as it oversees a large human laboratory where it develops and tests its most profitable exports: arms, munitions and control-and surveillance technology. The Palestinians in this lab – deprived of authority and whose resources are shrinking – have been left with the responsibility of managing their problems and civilian affairs.

The Palestinians remain a reserve of cheap labor for the Israelis. Many of the costs of the occupation are passed on to the Palestinians in the form of goods and services they’re forced to buy but can’t develop because Israel controls most of the territory, the borders and the overall economy.

Then there are the high fees on financial transactions (such as the transfer of customs money to the Palestinian treasury); levies and fines whose proceeds go to the Israeli police, ports, Civil Administration and military; fees at the border crossing with Jordan; transaction and real estate registration fees in Area C of the West Bank; the black market in work permits; the withholding of customs money under various pretexts; the employment of Shin Bet security service and army veterans as consultants who open doors in the occupation’s bureaucracy; and the interest that accumulates on all delayed payments. This may be small change in comparison with Israel’s gross domestic product, but it’s a fortune for the Palestinians, especially when you consider their GDP and salaries.

Western countries have absolved Israel of its financial duties as the occupying power and have financed much of the management, maintenance and limited development expenses of the Palestinian enclaves. The explanation is that this is necessary to establish a Palestinian state. But for years now, the Western countries have had enough of subsidizing the occupation and its problems, so they punish the Palestinians with tight-fistedness and warn of humanitarian disasters, while they sign generous economic, scientific and military agreements with Israel.

Is it possible to see the Palestinian pockets as an accident deriving from the Palestinians’ failure to meet their part of the agreements? Or were these pockets secretly planned during the negotiations, camouflaged by saccharine-sweet words such as peace, prosperity and the next Singapore?

Were they designed after Rabin’s assassination in 1995 during the premierships of Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak that lasted into 2001? And if so, at what level? At the Prime Minister’s Office? Or was it the deep state of the army, Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories and the Yesha Council of settlements?

Historians would say that the full answers will only be provided when all the relevant documents are released. For me it’s less important whether explicit written orders were given and who gave them. We know very well that policies are carried out even without them.

My documents aren’t declarations and smiles but facts on the ground, some of which I reported on as they happened. Thus, from the first months of the process, back during the Rabin government, I concluded that Israel didn’t seek peace but a decisive victory over the Palestinians.

Today I would put it as follows: The Palestinian enclaves stem from the Israelis’ intentional planning whose ideas, instruments and institutions were already rooted in the pre-state era. The Palestinian enclaves are an internal Israeli compromise between the desire to see the Palestinians disappear from the map and the realization that for geopolitical reasons we can’t return to 1948; that is, we can’t expel the Palestinians again. The solution is to swallow them up in enclaves. The disagreements between the various Zionist camps are merely about the number of enclaves and their size, not about essence.

Below, I present a few facts that became clear between 1994 and 1997 and that point to early planning of the Palestinian enclaves.

Severing Gaza from the West Bank

This was the first step in the fragmentation of the entire territory occupied in 1967 and its population, starkly contradicting the accords, which state that both parties view the Gaza Strip and West Bank as one territorial unit. The severance is composed of four elements:

1. Limiting freedom of movement. In January 1991, the government implemented a regime of movement permits (passes). Until then, all Palestinians were allowed to travel freely throughout Israel and the territory occupied in 1967, except for a few categories of people who were restricted. Since then, freedom of movement has been denied to all Palestinians except for a few categories, some of whose members receive permits.

2. Banning address changes from Gaza to the West Bank. The Oslo Accords stipulated that the PA was authorized to update the address registered in a person’s ID if it notified Israel’s Civil Administration, which still holds and controls the population registry.

In 1996, PA officials discovered that the Civil Administration did not allow them to update the address from, for example, Gaza City to Ramallah, (as opposed to, say, from Nablus to Ramallah, both in the West Bank). This affected thousands of Gazans who had lived and worked in the West Bank for years.

3. Gazans denied entry to the West Bank. I remember well a worker from the Jabalya refugee camp I met in 1995 who had a day permit to work in Jerusalem. Instead of returning to Gaza every evening, he asked to stay the night in Jericho in the West Bank under PA jurisdiction. He was refused on the disingenuous grounds that this would be a journey between 1967-occupied territories through Israeli land, so it was subject to Israel’s discretion.

Students from Gaza who studied at West Bank universities found a way around this policy: They flew from Egypt to Jordan and entered the West Bank via the Allenby Bridge. Gaza businessmen flew from Egypt to Cyprus, then on to Ben-Gurion Airport, before driving into the West Bank. At the border crossings, these people still had the status of “residents,” no matter which part of the 1967-occupied territory they came from.

But the diligent bureaucracy discovered the loopholes and closed them. Around 1996 or 1997, Gazans were denied entry to the West Bank through the Allenby Bridge, and gradually their entry via Ben-Gurion Airport was also forbidden (a fate that came a little later to West Bank residents as well). Since 2000 Israel has not allowed Gazans to study at West Bank universities (a ban that was approved by the High Court the Justice).

The above moves conspired to create a de facto ban on Gazans in the West Bank. The logical next step was an official Israeli prohibition on Gazans relocating to the West Bank.

The settlements

The roads were planned with the settlers’ needs in mind, with no consideration of the geographic and demographic logic of the Palestinian towns and villages and their needs. The tunnel bypass road, constructed during Rabin’s premiership, allowed easy access between the Gush Etzion settlement bloc and Jerusalem. Under Rabin, too, the members of the Jahalin clan were expelled from their homes to make room for the expansion of the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim.

After Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Muslim worshippers at Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque in 1994, the army punished the Palestinians in Hebron by imposing a curfew on them while designing security arrangements for the settlers that triggered the process of emptying the city center of its Palestinian residents. All these were not one-time slips but decisions entrenched in the viewing of Palestinians as inferior if not superfluous people.

In a Knesset speech just a month before his assassination, Rabin promised that there would be no return to the borders of June 4, 1967, that the Palestinian entity would be less than a state, and that a “united Jerusalem” would stretch from Ma’aleh Adumim to the east and Givat Ze’ev to the west – effectively bifurcating the West Bank. He said the State of Israel would include Gush Etzion, Efrat, Betar and “other settlements east of the Green line,” while the Gush Katif settlement bloc in Gaza would have sister blocs in the West Bank.

Area C, or Israelizing the space

During the negotiations before the signing of the Oslo II agreements in 1995, an artificial and temporary division of the West Bank into areas A, B, and C was understood as a necessary working plan for the army’s gradual redeployment and the correlated expansion of PA jurisdiction and policing authority. This would happen first in the cities, then in the villages, and finally in the rest of the territory except for Israeli army bases and settlements. The security logic of gradual military redeployment might be understandable (no sacred dates, Rabin said), as is the temporary halt of the process when the Palestinian arrest subcontractor failed to deliver.

But what do security and redeployment have to do with banning Palestinian planning and construction, preventing Palestinian communities from being connected to the power and water grids, and stopping the Palestinians from developing their land.

Had the Palestinians’ needs – not to mention their rights as the indigenous population – been taken into account and not only the settlers’ security, the Israeli negotiators wouldn’t have created such a tight link between “security” and the banning of Palestinian development and construction. These bans drew the boundaries of the Palestinian enclaves at a very early stage and prove that, as always, security was a convenient foil for taking over Palestinian territory.

Also, Palestinian bus companies that were licensed since the time of the British Mandate and Jordanian rule discovered that their permits to drive through (East) Jerusalem had been canceled. The increasing number of checkpoints made it difficult for Palestinians to reach health, religious and educational institutions in the capital. Construction for Jewish Israelis continued, while construction bans against the Palestinians remained intact.

Control over the population registry

The Oslo Accords contained one significant Palestinian achievement: Israel no longer had the power to revoke Gaza or West Bank residency status (excluding that of East Jerusalem) of Palestinians because of an extended residency abroad. This power was (and is) tantamount to forced population transfer.

And yet, as Oslo II was being negotiated – between January and October 1994 – Civil Administration and Interior Ministry clerks felt the urgency to revoke the residency of 25,645 Palestinians born in the West Bank (almost a fifth of the number revoked since 1967, with a similar number of Gaza-born Palestinians expelled too). Israel also retained the right to determine how many new residents would be added to the Palestinian population registry (apart from the newborn and minor children of registered residents). In other words, Israel determines (as it did before 1994) whether, when and which nonresident spouses of Palestinians will receive residency status.

The Oslo Accords promised that the parties would discuss the process of restoring residency status to native Palestinians deprived of that status between 1967 and 1994. The Palestinian negotiators understood it as a technical issue. But Israel’s stalling, and the humiliating negotiations with which it dragged out the matter until it was shelved, proved that controlling Palestinian demographics was never technical. It was instrumental for the Israeli negotiators, who knew that the territory they were allocating to the Palestinians was limited to begin with. “Israel wants to win the peace as it won the wars,” Palestinian negotiators noted pretty early on.

For these reasons, I conclude that the Oslo Accords, rather than failing, succeeded beyond measure.