Twenty years have passed since the Palestinian leadership committed its most grievous mistake by far: Signing the Oslo Accords. That fateful day, September 13, 1993, heralded in an era of unparalleled Palestinian division and the rampant expansion of illegal Jewish colonies. It was as if Palestinian political and business elites and the Israeli occupation found a formula for coexistence at the expense of the Palestinian people. Since then, Palestinian leaders fell squarely in the ‘American camp of moderates’ and the Palestinian national project was leased to donor countries.
In those years, large swathes of land were lost to Jewish colonies, some of which are now thriving towns with exclusive ‘Jewish only’ roads. Palestinian areas evacuated by the Israeli army were occupied by Palestinian security forces, mostly trained and funded by the US and their allies. The Oslo mission, thus far, has been a success, as Palestinian resistance has been quashed and those who violate the common goal of ensuring Israeli security languish in either Israeli or Palestinian jails.
Gaza is the exception. It always has been. That tiny stretch of coastal land has been legendary in its resistance, but it is paying a very heavy price for it, as it now subsists under multiple sieges by Israel and Egypt and it is also suffering isolation and neglect from the West Bank authority. The permanent state of siege imposed on Gaza is only interrupted by an Israeli war or an occasional aerial strike either targeting its haggard infrastructure or the system of tunnels that Gazans dug to smuggle food and other supplies through Egypt. The latter is also doing its share of destroying these tunnels, using explosives or flooding them with sewage water, among other means. Many Gazans died as they were drowned in the dirty water or were suffocated under the unbearable weight of sand and concrete.
It really is not an exaggeration to argue that Oslo invited a worse-case scenario onto the Palestinian cause by shattering its leadership, punishing and isolating its resistance, but equally important — threatening the very Palestinian identity.
In the past, even under the harshest circumstances — the Jordan civil war, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the first Iraq war, etc — the centrality of Palestine survived and quickly reclaimed its dominant position in the heart of Arab affairs. And despite its endemic corruption and questionable democratic credentials, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) has done more than unifying Palestinians around a set of political ideals and ‘constants’, but throughout the years, it helped knit a unique political discourse, laden with revolutionary references — global in its outreach and yet exclusively Palestinian in its attitude. There was indeed a time in which a Palestinian teacher in Kuwait held similar ideals to a refugee from Lebanon, to a student in Russia and to a labourer in Gaza.
Those times are long gone and many factors contributed to the demise of that communal discourse. Regional and international circumstances led to the fragmentation of the PLO and the rise of the Oslo era under the patronage of the US and other western governments. Not that the acquiescence of the Palestinian leadership in September 1993 was completely unexpected, but the speed and direction of that retreat was so excessive and punishing, representing an equal crisis comparable to previous Arab military defeats. A defeat in battle often results in overwhelming alternation to the landscape, but Oslo was a submission of defeat and the acceptance, if not embracing of all of their resultants. A psychological defeat can be worse than a battlefield conquest.
Sometimes overtly, and at other times subtly, the rapports that unified Palestinian society for generations began to dissolve. The PLO was quickly sidelined in favour of its localised copy, the atrociously factional Palestinian National Authority (PNA). Factions outside the PLO grew in their relevance and outreach in an attempt to fill the gap. Groups like Hamas, however, were not prepared for their sudden upsurge. While they embodied the resistance that countered the PNA’s surrender, they lacked a well-rounded political discourse and uniting language. They appealed to an Islamic world that did not exist in actuality as a political force and eventually settled for near-complete reliance on a few Arab states with confused, but surly, self-serving agendas.
When the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, signed the Oslo accord 20 years ago, the debate then was concerned with ideas and issues that are relevant even today: Negotiating peace amid growth of illegal colonies and under military occupation, Arafat’s lack of moral and political mandate to sign off historical rights of an entire nation, Israel’s sincerity and American predisposition to support Israel under any circumstance, etc. But for Palestinians, the debate should and must be extended to include the dangers that are unlikely to remain long after the Oslo conspirators are gone.
It is sound to argue that Oslo is dead. It was born dead, but only insofar as the claim that the US-Israeli styled ‘peace process’ was a harbinger of a just peace. But Oslo is not dead as a culture. That aspect of Oslo is very much alive. It continues to define Palestinian political bankruptcy and split Palestinian society. As disheartening as it may sound, the accord’s legacy has plenty of supporters who are benefiting, to various degrees, from its perks and privileges. It has polarised Palestinians around factional and geographical lines. And unlike other attempts by Israel to weaken Palestinian resolve, this particular gambit has had unparalleled success.
Twenty years later, Palestinians risk losing more than land and freedom, but their very common identity and common cause which has united them for generations. It is thus time for bold and very difficult questions which must be asked and addressed without frenzy and further division. How long can the Palestinian people sustain their sense of nationhood under political tribalism, geographic division, factionalism, relentlessly polarising media discourses, renting out of Palestinian political independence to donor countries, including Gulf countries, the marginalisation of Palestine in the wake of Arab turmoil and civil wars and much more? Should Palestinians be expected to sustain their sense of common identity purely based on their shared sense of injustice invited by the Israeli occupation, apartheid and discrimination?
The fragmentation of Palestinian identity will not cease, but will intensify, if a third way, born out of the collective will of Palestinians, is not introduced to Palestinian society and advocated with unwavering resolve. This third way cannot be elitist and must come from the streets of Gaza, Ramallah and refugee camps throughout the region — not academic papers or press conferences. Only then, Palestinians can unearth their historic rapport, once more.
Ramzy Baroud is a media-consultant, an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is: My Father was A Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press).