The Oslo Accords: A legacy of broken promises, was the subject of discussion at a London conference yesterday hosted by Middle East Monitor (MEMO). Leading experts cited Israel’s extreme desire for racial and ethnic segregation from the Palestinians as the primary reason why the agreement signed 25 years ago has failed miserably in ending Israeli occupation and secure Palestinians their basic human rights.
Historians and legal experts gave a damning verdict of the Accords exposing the colonial logic that underpinned the arrangement; the devastating impact it had on the Palestinians; and it’s role in shaping the apartheid system that has become the main feature of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
Dismissing the claim that the goal of Oslo was to serve peace and reconciliation, Israeli historian Professor Illan Pappe, said that the agreement was actually a product of the logic of settler-colonialism. Israel’s brutal occupation, according to Pappe, created new demographic realities that challenged its grip on Palestine.
“The Oslo process should be seen from the Israeli point of view as part of the methodology to solve this problem of the settler state … Oslo is not, from an Israeli point of view, an idea that emanates from peace-making, a wish to reconcile, an attempt to bring an end to bloodshed” insisted Pappe.
He emphasised that the issue of policing Palestinians is the fundamental Israeli problem, referring to how in 1948, mass expulsions were possible, but in later generations agreements were needed in order to continue its policies.
Sir Richard Dalton, a retired senior British diplomat, described the favourable alignments that had enabled Oslo to take shape. He spoke about the hope that Oslo had initially ignited, but were later crushed following “the hesitancy for implementation, the lack of stipulated dates and Israel’s continued settlement expansion.”
The reality now is that “Israel is on a fast-track to becoming an apartheid state,” said Clayton Swisher, a Doha-based investigative journalist. Giving his verdict on why Oslo had failed Swisher mentioned “biased mediation,” referring to the role of the US.
In the second session, devoted to exposing what it was like for Palestinians living with the occupation, Dr Alaa Tartir, said that the Oslo framework had entrenched Israeli occupation and criminalised Palestinian resistance. Oslo, according to the research associate at the Swiss Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding “has securitised the society, politics and economy of the Palestinians, impeding the most basic progression of Palestinian public life”.
A second member of the panel, Dr Nadia Naser-Najjab, a Research Fellow at the University of Exeter’s European Centre for Palestine Studies, admitted that she was once a supporter of the Accords but quickly lost faith in it’s ability to fulfil the goals of Palestinian freedom and self-determination.
Describing the security apparatus that was constructed around the Palestinians, Dr Stéphanie Latte Abdallah, a historian and political scientist, discussed some of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinian people and shared some statistics. She cited data that shows 40 per cent of the male Palestinian population has been jailed, explaining how systematic mass arrests are used to further political objectives and reinforce Israeli dominance. She also stated that the justice and the prison system function as key regulators of the border.
A member of an Indonesian delegation also addressed the packed auditorium. Dr Agus Sudarmaji, a lecturer at the University of Jakarta, described the Palestine experience in relation to Indonesia’s own colonial experience with the Dutch. He recalled that the development of a national identity, aided their struggle against colonialism, and stressed that international support for a faction-less Palestinian identity is needed to progress the cause.
Oslo and the negation of international law was the subject of discussion in the afternoon session. Karen AbuZayd former Commissioner-General of UNRWA, who now serves as a commissioner of the UN investigation on Syria, dedicated her talk to the plight of Palestinian refugees.
AbuZayd explained that in the accords there is no mention of the right of refugees to return and the approach to permanent status issues, including any borders of the future Palestinian state, Jerusalem and security issues. The language used in these permanent status issues is overwhelmingly in favour of Israel, the stronger party in this situation.
Citing Avi Shlaim, an Oxford professor emeritus, AbuZayd explained that Palestinians are living under an apartheid regime. She also spoke about the disregard for international humanitarian law, as well as the prejudices inherent in the Accords.
Professor of Law at the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law, Omar Dajani, spoke of about the “question of separation”, which he believes is the central logic of Oslo. “Division or Apartheid, depending on your point of view”, he said “has occupied people on both sides”. He quotes Ehud Barak, who he said had long advocated for separation and a border, which keeps Palestinians out of the Israeli state. Dajani believes that it is this desire for separation that drove Israel to participate in the Oslo negotiations and support a two state solution more broadly.
The experience of living under the occupation that was detached from any reference to International Humanitarian Law came up once again in a presentation by Professor Michelle Pace. In her responsibilities in EU-MENA relations at Roskilde University in Denmark, Pace said she had carried out fieldwork to highlight the experience of young Palestinians. She stressed that Palestinians were pushed into “an existential mode of being” under the Oslo Accords and the fact that Palestinians had to “fight for the right to fight for their basic human rights;” a term she coined to explain the sub-human condition Palestinians found themselves under Oslo.
Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi addressed the conference to speak of the Saudi Arabia’s role in the Israel-Palestine conflict. He explained that although Saudi Arabia had been moving closer to Israel, the Kingdom has more recently backtracked on some of the more pro-Israeli positions it had taken. Khashoggi argues that these events prove an essential point: that it is only the Palestinians who decide, not Egypt or Saudi Arabia or any other players, no matter how powerful these actors are.
“Peace or Apartheid” was the subject of the final session. Professor Virginia Tilley, who specialises in the politics of ethnic and racial conflict and has research experience in Israel-Palestine, was in no doubt that Israel was an apartheid state explaining that the designation of apartheid was not a matter of opinion but that it was a legal definition.
Tilley noted that there has been a lot of discussion of apartheid when discussing Israel, “but if we’re going to be serious about charging Israel with this crime” she said “we must be specific about the terms used and its place in international law.” Explaining that apartheid was a crime against humanity, Tilly offered a detailed presentation in making the case that Israel is an apartheid state.
Exploring the discrimination against Palestinians further, Dr Jeremy Wildeman, focused on the most basic of freedoms – the freedom of movement. He explained some of the problems inherent in a key agreement known as the Paris Protocol. Wildeman said that the arrangement was never designed to be equal and was always intended to be asymmetrical. He adds that security is often used as an excuse for Israel’s policies that use the Paris Protocol for its own ends. He cited numerous occasions in which taxes were withheld after any actions by Palestinians to gain recognition from international bodies such as the UN, UNESCO and ICC.
The conference came to a conclusion following a rousing presentation by Wadah Khanfar, former Director-General of the Al Jazeera Networks. After listing many of the painful concessions Palestinians had made in the lead up to Oslo without any positive outcomes, Khanfar spoke of the need to develop a new grand narrative to end the current dead-lock.
Citing his experience of living in South Africa, he explained that the anti-apartheid activists did not make concessions on their main objectives, and contrasted their stance with Palestinians who he said had been made to grant concession after concession. He explained that the Palestinians gave up many of their aims for the sake of being accepted by the international community.
Khanfar believes that Palestinians must present a united front that is based not on values that change with the times, but on one that is based on justice, equality, human rights and international law. He believes that only then will Palestinians be able to move towards peace. He asks how long Israel can morally sustain its current approach and for how long the international community will continue to ignore the apartheid regime that it sustains. He believes that Israel must realise it belongs to the Middle East region and must cooperate with its regional neighbours instead of putting up walls and barriers that isolates it from the wider region.