The Post-Oslo Malaise

Against the Current, No. 71, November/December 1997

John Dixon

The following report from John Dixon, a U.S. citizen living in Ramallah, Palestine, illuminates some underreported realities of the moribund “peace process.”  An understanding of these realities will put in perspective the daily unfolding of events: suicide bombings in Jerusalem, an Israeli hit squad captured in Amman, the further expansion of Israeli settlements.

Sometimes these realities leak through.  The water crisis for Palestinians has become so severe that the normally comatose National Public Radio has covered it in a recent series on the program “Living on Earth.”  For the most part, however, the major media choose to systematically miss the big story: The construction of an apartheid-type system in Palestine has proceeded to a stage where the creation of a genuinely independent Palestinian state may have become impossible.

Dixon’s report should help readers outside Israel and Palestine understand a stark truth, articulated most forcefully by the Israeli human rights campaigner Israel Shahak: Oslo is dead, and nothing should be done to attempt to revive it. It was our intention to accompany this article with excerpts from a talk by Noam Chomsky, which was published in the newsletter News From Within.  Space constraints have prevented us from doing so here.—The Editors

SINCE MY PALESTINIAN wife and I arrived in the West Bank on May 1, we have witnessed first hand that the occupation continues in every significant respect: Palestinians are still having their resources and land expropriated, their labor power exploited, their freedom of movement restricted, their human rights violated and their right of national self- determination denied.

Unfortunately, the outside world believes that the occupation is ending, that “peace” and “autonomy” are at hand. The PLO itself has been convincing supporters in India, South America, Europe and North America that the Oslo accords freeze settlement activity, return to Palestinians sovereignty over water, transportation and telecommunications, and guarantee land for peace and a return to the pre-June 1967 borders.

Indeed many leftists around the world are convinced that Oslo represents a significant concession on the part of Israel and that only the “hawkish” Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Likud party now stand in the way of a just and lasting peace.  As Noam Chomsky (in a June 7, 1997 lecture at Birzeit University) has pointed out, however, the actual text of Oslo contradicts the PLO’s claim to have won eventual Israeli withdrawal from all the occupied territories.(1)

According to the 1993 Declaration of Principles (Article I), the basic framework of negotiations is to be (U.N.  Security Council Resolution 242, which makes no mention of the Palestinian right to self-determination and has long been interpreted by the U.S. and Israel to imply only a partial withdrawal as the U.S. and Israel determine.  Moreover, no one who actually reads Oslo II (1995) can take the claim that it grants Palestinians “autonomy” to be anything but the most cynical Orwellism.

The details of Palestinian political and economic life are dictated chapter and verse by Israel, which retains complete control over water, transportation and telecommunications, not to mention security.  Arafat himself needs to get Israel’s permission every time he wants to lift off in his helicopter.

The Oslo accords are disastrous for Palestinians in at least two respects.  First, they imply an official Palestinian consent to the occupation.  In agreeing that each side should recognize the other’s “existing rights” (Article XXXI), the PLO has abandoned the position that Israel is occupying Palestinian territories in violation of international law and accepted the idea that the West Bank and Gaza are merely “disputed territories” over which each side has legitimate claims.

Second, in allowing Palestinians the trappings of a nation- state, like a flag and postage stamps, but no substantive control over their resources and economy, the document is a detailed prescription for the creation of Bantustans.(2)

Developments on the ground indicate that this process is well underway.  To take only one revealing fact, since Oslo II over 30,000 dunams of land have been confiscated for the construction of settler bypass roads.  A network of such roads now crisscrosses the territories.  Nothing in the Oslo accords prohibits this construction.

Moreover, despite the Palestinian Authority’s current attempt to blame settlement activity on Likud and to cast it as a violation of the accords, the agreements contained no clear-cut guarantee that Israel would stop expanding settlements.  It is likely that a Labor government would have proceeded with the same settlement activity being conducted by Likud.

During the Rabin-Peres administrations the number of settlers increased by almost fifty percent.(3)  The Har Homa settlement, now seen as the major impediment to a continuation of the peace process, was planned in February 1996 by the previous Labor government and is only going ahead on schedule.

Naturally the U.S. media have done their share to promote the official view that only Netanyahu stands in the way of a just settlement.  Lately they have also waxed indignant at the undemocratic ways of Arafat as if it were only the willfulness of leaders that was blocking peace.  This became clear in the coverage of the PA’s suspected involvement in the murder of Arab land dealers who may have sold land to Jewish settlers, and its arrest of the critical Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab for broadcasting sessions of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

To Thomas Friedman of the “New York Times”, the arrest of Kuttab demonstrated that Arafat “is at heart a typical Arab autocrat, for whom corruption, censorship and abuse of political opponents come naturally.”  In attacking democracy, he is “reverting to form.”  For Friedman the peace process is “bringing Palestinians land and prosperity,” but Arafat fears these benefits because they promote “democratization.”(4)

Palestinians would be surprised to hear from Friedman that they are the beneficiaries of “land and prosperity.”  While the Declaration of Principles stated that “the two sides view the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a single territorial unit, whose integrity will be preserved during the interim period” (Article IV), the everyday difficulties Palestinians experience traveling from place to place in this “single territorial unit” make a mockery of this claim.

Since 1993 Jerusalem has been off limits to West Bankers with Israeli ID’s and blue license plates, the majority of Palestinians.  While they often go anyway, they have to take detours around the checkpoints and always have to worry about sudden closures leaving them stranded in Israel illegally.  The hassle is enough to dissuade them from regular visits.

The restrictions have achieved their aim of isolating Jerusalem from the West Bank. Many businessmen and professionals have relocated to the West Bank. Experiencing a sharp decline in business, East Jerusalem merchants have been forced to close their shops early, leaving streets there deserted after seven at night.

Closures and checkpoints threaten the well-being of the most vulnerable part of the population.  By preventing teachers from reaching class, closures have delayed children’s schooling.  Children and the elderly in need of special medical treatment in Israel have found their access delayed or denied.  In worsening the economic situation, they have also caused increased rates of child labor and malnutrition.(5)

Since the main routes to Hebron and Bethlehem pass through Jerusalem, travel to the south also requires long detours to avoid the checkpoints.  My wife decided not to apply for teaching jobs in these cities because of the difficulty of driving there.  As for Gaza, West Bank and Jerusalem ID holders are not permitted to go there except for officials with special passes.

Similarly, Gazans are prohibited from the West Bank. A Gaza student we met at Birzeit University named Mahmoud told us how he first had to travel to Egypt and then fly to Jordan in order to make it into the West Bank undetected.  While he was here, he could not travel freely from Birzeit in Area B to Ramallah in Area A [the PA-controlled territory-ed.], just three kilometers down the road, because of the threat of Israeli checkpoints.

Although Gaza is only a two-hour drive away, Mahmoud did not see his family once during his two years of study, nor could they attend his recent graduation.  Yet he was one of the lucky ones. Many of his fellow Gaza students were caught and “deported.”

The cost of living is another source of daily anxiety and complaint.  Consumer goods, except for local fruits and vegetables, are comparable in price to U.S. and Israeli goods.  Even rents are high, with two bedroom apartments going for $500 a month.  Yet income is meager compared to the States.  Since 1992 the income of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza has fallen 40%.(6)  The average income is now seven dollars a day.

Local teachers went on strike recently because they are receiving only $350 a month.  Doctors in public hospitals receive $700 a month.  Unemployment for 1996 was 20%, but often rises above that during Israeli closures of the West Bank and Gaza.(7)  The fancy restaurants that have opened in town cater to Palestinians visiting from abroad, local elites, and those lucky enough to be working at places like the UN or NBC.

Not surprisingly, people are eager to find work abroad, especially in the United States.  Estimates are that remittances from overseas constitute up to a third of private disposable income in the occupied territories.(8)

The root cause of the bad economic situation has been the systematic underdevelopment of the Palestinian economy and infrastructure by Israel.  The signs of this are everywhere.  Landing in Tel Aviv airport, we viewed checkered expanses of green farmland out the airplane window.  On the way from the airport our taxi took us along a broad, smooth highway designed to speed settlers to their jobs in the city.

The minute you come to the checkpoint at the border of the “Area A” around Ramallah you turn off the highway onto a narrow dusty road, its cracking asphalt ravaged by potholes.  In the town itself the years of under-investment in public works and facilities are evident.  The sidewalks are in disrepair.

As a result of a speculative building boom after Oslo, construction sites proliferate.  But since the funds are not there to finish half the buildings, many streets are blanketed with white dust, and hollow, black windows stare at you all over town.(9)

On street corners, dented and rusting garbage bins overflow with trash.  Parks for children to play are scarce, and the ones that do exist are improperly maintained.  Everywhere you see lots strewn with soda cans, twisted pipes, burnt tires and rusting bed frames.

Palestinians get on with their lives here: They tend their gardens, decorate their homes, celebrate their traditions, enjoy their foods, and raise their children.  Community and political groups build playgrounds and sponsor cultural centers.  But invariably, when you talk to somebody just returned from a trip to West Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, they vent feelings of bitterness.

I was shocked at the contrast the first time I went to West Jerusalem, with its green parks and sprawling malls built where Arab villages once stood.  The parks and farm lands of Israel are irrigated with water, drawn from the West Bank aquifer, which is denied to Palestinians for use in developing their own agriculture.  In Gaza Israeli drainage of the aquifer has turned water in many areas brackish, contributing to high rates of infectious disease.

Israelis use four times as much water per capita as Palestinians.  Jerusalem is only twelve kilometers away as the crow flies; we can see Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean from the roof of our house.  Yet going there is like going to the other side of the world.  While Israelis take for granted their running water and their telephones, fifty-one percent of Palestinian villages comprising thirty percent of the population of the West Bank and Gaza are still without running water, and only 23% of Palestinian households have telephones.(10)

The Oslo agreements lock into place these inequities in wealth and resources, resulting from the Israeli occupation, and sentence the majority of Palestinians to a future of low-paid wage work in Israel, their only other function being to serve as a captive market for cheap Israeli and North American (or European) products.

In 1995 Israel imported only $300 million worth of Palestinian goods, but exported 1.8 billion to Palestine.(11)  Birzeit University recently sponsored an exhibit of spoiled Israeli goods, mostly junk food, being sold here with forged expiration dates.  Over the central square in Ramallah, in a society in which at least half the male population chain smokes, is an enormous Marlboro billboard that flashes scenes of the American West.

While all Israelis participate in a national health care system that guarantees them advanced medical care, in the West Bank no one who can afford private medical care goes to the public hospitals.  If all you have is public insurance, you wait for hours in overcrowded waiting rooms in hopes of seeing an overworked, underpaid doctor without adequate equipment or supplies.

One aspect of life here you cannot help noticing is the class polarization within Palestinian society itself.  A new Internet cafe just opened in town where you can get on-line for seven dollars an hour, the average daily income of most Palestinians.  If you have the money, you send your children to private schools; if not, to the government or UNRWA schools with student-teacher ratios of over 30-1 instead of 9-1.

The other day we drove down a stretch of road on a hillside in town with numerous mansions adorned with satellite antennas.  Built with money from abroad, they are hardly lived in. At the bottom of the hill stretches the Kadura refugee camp, there since 1948, with families crowding into single rooms.

Given that the situation since Oslo has seen few improvements and has deteriorated in many ways, why does support for the peace process still remain quite high?  Polls conducted in May by the Jerusalem Media & Communication Center indicate that over 69.1% of the Palestinian population still supports the peace process and 67.6% percent support the Oslo agreements.  The same poll, however, indicates that only 24.5% “strongly” supports the peace process, a drop of five percentage points since a similar poll they conducted in April.(12)

Clearly then, approval is not based on deep conviction.  If there remains fairly high support for the peace process, it is not because people here naively believe everything the PA tells them about it. It is more that in their eagerness to believe in something and in the absence of any conceivable alternative, they willingly put their suspicions on hold.

The PA’s propaganda offers such people the illusions they crave.  Leaders affirm that current arrangements are only a stepping stone to an independent nation-state with Jerusalem as its capital, and promise economic progress right around the corner.  One of their slogans has been “Gaza, a new Singapore.”

A friend of my wife’s family seems to have been convinced by this rhetoric.  He criticized the United States for not pressuring Netanyahu to put a stop to settlements.  At the same time, expressing disillusionment with socialism, he said Palestinians must embrace the American free enterprise system to achieve Western prosperity.  He pointed to an effort by a woman’s group here to sell embroidery in foreign markets as an example of how this system could take root in Palestine.  This was one person, at least, whose outlook mirrored what the PA would have Palestinians believe.

If nationalist propaganda is still effective, it is probably because even now it has a novelty for Palestinians, so long denied any outward expression of their national aspirations.  When we first arrived in Ramallah my wife, who grew up here under occupation, was struck by the absence of the Israeli soldiers.  Their jeeps no longer patrol the streets, and Palestinian flags now fly over their infamous prisons and military headquarters.

Inside the government building where Palestinians go to have their identity cards renewed, there are no more humiliating Israeli searches and long waits in line outside in the sun, and Palestinian clerks and photos of Arafat greet you inside (all the paperwork, however, still has to be approved by Israel).

There is an official Palestinian state TV station and Palestinian nightly news. The new channel sports a little Dome of the Rock logo, implying that Jerusalem is to be the capital of the new Palestinian state.  TV and radio broadcasts feature officials declaiming about an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

Nationalist machismo manifests itself on every street corner in Ramallah.  Police brandish AK-47s at pedestrian crossings, saunter about town in commando outfits, and stage parades at the local base.(13) Perhaps these displays still have some power to tap into Palestinian national pride.  But I suspect that few now view them without a nagging sense that “autonomy” means these symbols and nothing more.

The PA’s success in identifying itself with the nation, along with its command of state patronage and propaganda, has paralyzed left opposition.  After Oslo some groups split over whether to accept the agreement.  Others objected theoretically, but shied away from outright opposition out of fear they would be politically marginalized and lose all share in the money and offices that Fateh (Arafat’s faction) had the power to dispense.

Besides, no group could offer any viable alternative to the “peace process.”  With the Israeli crackdown in the wake of the intifada, the activist cadres were already being cut off from their grassroots supporters.  Since Oslo, this trend has accelerated.

Many members of the left opposition factions, once grassroots activists, have been turned by years of NGO (Non- Governmental Organization) work into professional aid workers.  While still loosely associated with their political organizations, their agendas are being shaped more by the demands of foreign aid organizations than by the needs of Palestinians.(14)  Indeed, we’ve encountered widespread cynicism about the work of NGO’s not least among NGO professionals themselves.

As to the Islamic movement, after the recent PA crackdown, they seem to have retreated to traditional community work, and the word on the street is that they are being careful to avoid direct confrontation with the PA. [This essay was written prior to the botched Israeli death-squad operation against a Hamas official in Jordan and the subsequent events, which greatly boosted the Islamists’ prestige-ed.]

The decline of the factions does not signal any lessening of strife among Palestinians.  It only means that the growing tensions within Palestinian society do not have their former political outlets.  Perhaps the most bitter division is between outsiders and insiders.

Many people who were on the inside during the intifada now feel betrayed as they see the good positions, salaries and state contracts going to the Palestinians returning from overseas with the PLO.

This resentment seems especially prevalent among educated professionals and business people, who worked and suffered through the intifada and now feel their sacrifices are going unrewarded.  Increasingly, the PA is viewed by them as a corrupt, quasi-collaborationist entity whose individual members are out to exploit their official positions for the maximum private gain. PA officials reportedly grant lucrative import monopolies to their favorites and channel funds from them into their own private accounts.  To contain public outrage, they have recently been forced to stage their own high-profile investigations into corruption.(15)

Palestinian society is also more divided by region now than it used to be, as a result of the Israeli division of the West Bank and Gaza into cantons.  In the old days the recent protests in Hebron would have sparked demonstrations throughout the West Bank. But here in Ramallah they have hardly created a ripple.  People remark on the news with relative indifference as if it were about some distant country.

Once politicized and keen to follow every turn of events, now people can barely bring themselves to discuss politics at all. They do not want to be reminded of their dashed hopes.  As they see it, their sacrifices on behalf of society were exploited by a leadership bent on preserving its power at any cost. Understandably, they feel justified in disregarding politics and looking out for themselves and their families.

The Oslo accords have also divided the Palestinians by postponing any consideration of the refugee question or the issue of the right of Palestinians in the Diaspora to return.  Indeed, under pressure from Israel, the PA now uses the term “Palestinians” to refer only to those living in the West Bank and Gaza.

In pursuing the narrow aim of establishing and maintaining its own local power on Israeli terms, the PA is ceasing to fight on behalf of all Palestinians and is abandoning its demands for a comprehensive and just solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on the basis of international law.

As Noam Chomsky suggested in his June 7 Birzeit lecture, if Palestinians are to renew these demands and convince the world of the injustice of the current solution, they will have to work for internal democratization of Palestinian society in order to reinvigorate the opposition and to open the PA’s rhetoric to criticism.

At the same time, they will need to reach out to potential supporters and work to establish international solidarity movements that can mobilize public opinion.  Leftists in the United States can play an important part. First, however, they must give up any illusions that the “peace process” is bringing justice to the Palestinians.


  1. My opening discussion of the PLO’s misrepresentation of Oslo to foreign audiences is based on Chomsky’s remarks.  For the documentary record, see “Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip,” Washington DC, 28 September 1995 (known as Oslo II) and the Declaration of Principles On Interim Self-Government Arrangements, Washington DC, 13 September 1993 (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Media & Communication Centre, 1996).
  2. For these two points about Oslo, see Edward Said, Peace and its Discontents: Essays on Palestine in the Middle East Peace Process (New York: Vintage, 1996) 147- 164; and Norman Finkelstein, “Whither the `Peace Process’?”  New Left Review 218 (1996): 138-150.
  3. My information about settlements and bypass roads is from Khader Abusway, Rose-Marie Barbeau, and Muhammed el- Hasan, Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Israeli Settlement and the Peace Process (Jerusalem Media & Communication Centre, 1997) 1-2 and 47-48.
  4. “Put Up, Shut Up, Hang Up,” New York Times 31 May 1997: op-ed page. [Editor’s Note: In this and other columns, in which he argues that the U.S. State Department should simply allow U.S.-Palestinian tensions to boil until both sides are ready to deal, Friedman is expressing the view, widespread within U.S. political elites, that the fate of the Palestinians is now a secondary matter, of no fundamental importance to U.S. strategic interests.  Nor is a settlement with the Palestinians the priority for the Israeli state, which is much more concerned with its relations with Arab states.]
  5. “Children’s Rights Raised at UN,” The Educational Network 24/25 (1997): 13.
  6. “$25 Million Plea for Palestinians,” New York Times, 27 May 1997.
  7. These facts have been gathered from recent issues of Palestine Report, published weekly in Jerusalem by the Jerusalem Media & Communication Centre.
  8. Geir Ovensen, Household Income and Wealth,” “Palestinian Society In Gaza, West Bank and Arab Jerusalem: A Survey of Living Conditions, FAFO Report 151 (Ramallah, 1994) 173.
  9. [These and other economic problems are even more catastrophic in Gaza than in the West Bank. They are further compounded by the fact-well-documented in the Israeli press though censored in the Palestinian media-that key Palestinian industries and import-export trade are monopolies, controlled by Arafat loyalists-ed.]
  10. On the water situation, see Anna Bellisari, “Public Health and the Water Crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territories,” Journal of Palestine Studies 23.2 (1994): 52- 63; Musa Rimawi, “45% of Northern Villages Jack Water Networks,” Jerusalem Times 17 March 1995; and Asya Abdul Hadi, “Gaza Water Crisis Worsening,” The Palestine Report 16 May 1997: 9.  For the lack of a proper phone system, see The Palestine Report 2 May 1997: 15.
  11. Signed, Sealed, Delivered, 51.
  12. The Palestine Report, 30 May 1997: 10-13.
  13. [In a recent incident, Palestinian cab drivers from East Jerusalem threatened to refuse to drive to Ramallah after brutal police assaults on them there-ed.]
  14. On the professionalization of political activists and the role of NGO’s in Palestinian society, see Reema Hammami, “NGOs: the Professionalization of Politics,” Race and Class 37.2 (1995): 51-63.
  15. Stephanie Nolen, PA Audit a Pre-emptive Strike, The Palestine Report, 30 May 1997: 1-3. 

ATC 71, November-December 1997