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MEMO in conversation with Jeremy Wildeman

Watch our interview with Jeremy Wildeman, a fellow at Ottawa University's Human Rights Research and Education Centre

December 16, 2020 at 12:00 pm

Dr Jeremy Wildeman is an expert on Middle East politics and has extensive knowledge and experience of state development. MEMO interviewed Dr Wildeman to discuss the issue of the “de-development” of Palestine. The conversation centred on aid; state development under the Oslo Peace Process; the failure of the 1993 Oslo Accords; and the future of aid to Palestinians living under occupation.

Tracing its origins, Wildeman said that Oslo was a neo-liberal approach adopted by the international community to help solve the Israel-Palestine conflict. Western donors stepped in with billions of dollars in aid over several years to help the Palestinians to build state institutions. The general attitude, reflecting Orientalist assumptions that underpinned the process, was that Palestinians had a poor, underdeveloped and less democratic society, and that by boosting the society and economy Israel would have a partner in the region for peace.

More practically in the case of Oslo, Western realists argued that for the 11 million stateless Palestinians to agree to the process — in which they were effectively surrendering their claim to historic Palestine and agreeing to establish a state on just 22 per-cent of the territory — they needed to have something in return for participating in the process. This is where aid came in.

The Oslo Peace Process was meant to lead to Palestinian statehood within five years of its implementation. During that period, the so-called final status issues — refugees, borders, illegal settlements, Jerusalem, water, security arrangements — were supposed to be resolved within the framework of international law. That did not happen, but despite Oslo’s failure as a political process, aid continued to flow with devastating implications.

Donor countries have given $40 billion dollars to the Palestinian Authority since the start of Oslo. Wildeman pointed out that such large sums would not have been given if there was never going to be anything to show for it. He argued that the success of the Oslo process should not be measured by whether it helped to end the Israeli occupation and deliver Palestinians to statehood. Instead, success in the eyes of major donors has been measured in Oslo’s ability to maintain the status quo which, he said, has been a “nightmare for Palestinians and hell for those living in Gaza”.

MEMO in conversation with Omar Salha

Despite Oslo’s obvious failing, there is genuine concern that if aid is withheld it would lead to a collapse of Palestinian society, Wildeman explained. There are also donors who were incapable of coming up with any other way to support peace building apart from making sure that funding continued, even though there did not appear to be any light at the end of the tunnel.

The discussion then turned to the Palestinian economy and whether it had suffered more harm than good due to its dependency on aid.

“At a macro-economic level, the Palestinian economy has been de-industrialised,” said Wildeman. “Its agricultural sector has collapsed.” Agriculture and the ability to feed yourself is fundamental for any society, he added, warning of the lack of investment in this sector and the very limited capacity of the Palestinian agricultural economy. This is because most Palestinian agricultural activity takes place on land in Area C, which is the 61 per cent of the occupied West Bank which, under the Oslo Accords, falls under full Israeli control.

The Palestinian economy has also become dependent on employment in illegal settlements in the occupied territory and with jobs becoming increasingly scarce, the Palestinians have had little choice but to seek work within Israel. “Their labour benefits the development of Israel much like any indentured or poor people around the world benefit richer societies,” observed Wildeman. This, he noted, allows Israel to free up its own labour force to invest in technology.

What of the future of aid to the Palestinians, given that foreign aid has been dwindling over recent years? While donor fatigue is an obvious cause of the contraction, as Wildeman pointed out, some governments have also reached the conclusion that Oslo is a failed process and a financial black hole that does nothing to advance peace for Palestinians and instead subsidises the Israeli occupation. While there is a growing realisation amongst some western donors that they are funding a status quo that harms the Palestinians, others still see benefits in backing the project. Security co-operation between Israel and Palestine, Wildeman argued, is seen as one area of success for which funding has continued despite the overall failure of the Oslo paradigm.

MEMO in conversation with Abir Tobji

Questions over why the Oslo process became an acceptable model arose with many seeing an obvious conceptual flaw within the Accords. The Oslo process is unique in the way it departed from the model of state building that one would usually see elsewhere. It was wishful thinking by those who drafted the accords in believing that successful state building is possible under a brutal military occupation before a political settlement has been reached. As a prime example of putting the proverbial cart before the horse in state development, the sequence adopted by Oslo has no parallel.

In the final segment of the conversation, Wildeman commented on the future of aid to Palestinians. Occupation, it was pointed out, was not going away; if anything, it is increasingly likely to become normalised. How should aid be structured in the short and long term to help ease the humanitarian pressure on Palestinians?

Under the administration of US President Donald Trump, the world was given a realistic view of what the future holds for the Palestinians, said Wildeman. In return for giving up their aspirations for statehood on all occupied territory, Palestinians would be bought off with goods and funding, he explained. In reality, the aid pledged under the so called “deal of the century” is not very different to what Palestinians were getting under Oslo. The new model, he argued, was to push Palestinians into a corner and install what he called a “negative peace”. In such a scenario, the Palestinians’ desire for self-determination would be continually suppressed, and their human rights denied through a combination of force and funding.