The Israeli occupation of Palestine has persisted for nearly seventy-five years. The ethnic cleansing operation has claimed an estimated 150,000 lives since 1987 and catapulted more than seven million Palestinians into refugee status, representing the world’s largest displaced population (American Friends Service Committee 2022). State and interpersonal violence have increased with the years, marked most prominently by Israeli bombings, military assaults, and the demolition of historical and cultural sites. The ethnonational identities of Palestinians and Israelis now exist largely in opposition to each other; for many, to be Israeli is to oppose a Palestinian state, and to be Palestinian is to oppose an Israeli state (Nasser 2004, 122).
Until the Oslo Accords, the political peace process in Palestine followed a long, arduous path of almost immediately failed negotiations. The international community, in fact, celebrated Oslo as the first transformative attempt to resolve the conflict politically and nonviolently (Gidron, Katz, and Hasenfeld 2002, 131). I will argue, however, that the Oslo Accords encouraged armed combat and rigidified Israeli and Palestinian ethnonational identities, ultimately exacerbating intractability.
The Israeli Occupation of Palestine and Intractability
Historians most often date the Israeli-Palestinian war from the 1948 establishment of the Zionist state in Palestine. The state’s foundations wrought havoc on the indigenous population: Israeli military forces expelled 80% of Palestinians from their homes or terrorized their communities into flight. From 1949 onward, Israel and the Kingdom of Jordan continually tattered Palestinian land through settlements and annexations, culminating in the 1967 war between Israel, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and Palestine. Throughout combat, the Israeli army illegally occupied the Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza (American Friends Service Committee 2022). After the war, periods of armed warfare ebbed and flowed, interspersed with various unofficial proposals for peace. However, guerilla wars and the occupation’s military assaults undermined negotiations and produced cyclical destruction. These intense waves of violence increased physical and mental divisions between Palestinians and Israelis; not only did Israel construct the apartheid wall, separating Palestinians and Israelis and expropriating indigenous territory, but perceived divides began to permeate all life (Kriesberg 2001, 375).
As violence persisted, external commentators subjectified religious belongings in the region as sites of warfare, referred to as “Clashes between Jews and Muslims”; Western support for Israel “as the sole democracy in the Middle East” promoted civilizational cleavages and construed Palestinians as “barbaric”; and Israeli military supremacy highlighted the material depletion of the Palestinian people and thus the necessity of their struggle. Together, these imposed divisions bred hardened boundaries. All corners of life across Israeli and Palestinian territories entertained the war; increasing populations, including Palestinian and Jewish communities abroad, grew to see those on the “other side” as existential enemies. Palestinians and Israelis harnessed their oppositional identities to lay ethnic claims to Palestinian lands; any loss of land on either side meant an assault on identity-based integrity. Rigid illustrations of the “other side” became central to maintaining political purchase. Israeli leaders proudly touted Zionism as the official “ethnonationalist” state ideology, supported by the perverse, ahistorical slogan “for a people without a land (the Jewish people), a land without a people (Palestine).” The Palestinian Liberatory Organization (PLO) called for a “Nationalist identity and ending the Zionist incursion” (Kriesberg 2001, 376).
A land-based conflict thus became almost strictly identity-based, with each group’s claim of belonging seen as denying the legitimacy of the other’s. Israelis infamously chanted, “Death to all Arabs,” and while Palestinians rightly characterized the conflict as “the Zionist destruction of our home” (Sen 2015, 163). Although both groups felt righteous in their sloganeering, they were not immune from violent retaliation. The conflict’s thus intractability only progressed with time; the struggle grew increasingly characterized by violence, polarized collective goals, and the persistence of warfare despite diverse peacebuilding and peacemaking efforts. Nonetheless, practitioners in the peace process persisted (Kriesberg 2005, 68-71). Eventually, Yasser Arafat, leader of the PLO, and Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister of Israel, convened in Washington, D.C., to sign the 1993 Oslo Accords. Their handshake was broadcast across international television as a “Historical turning point in making peace between Israelis and Palestinians” (Kriesberg 2000, 63).
The handshake, however, meant less for peace than it did for violence: Palestinians sat in in occupied territories and watched their supposed leader shake hands with the political embodiment of their destructed livelihoods (Oren and Bar-tal 2006, 10). Israelis watched their fearless chairman agree with a “terrorist” (Sprinzak 1993, 8). That fateful 1993 morning confirmed one thing: the Israeli occupation of Palestine was not truly a fight between states. Top leadership could not effectively transform it through high-level, official approaches (Chigas 2005, 129). It became clear that the occupation produced a war between two peoples whose identities became progressively antagonistic through that handshake.
The Oslo Accords, Official Politics, and the Peace Process
Circa 1993, violence was known, and peace was a mystery in the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The Oslo Accords represented a manifestation of what John Paul Lederach calls “The Willingness to Risk”: “To step into the unknown without any guarantee of success or safety” (2010, 39). Although micro-level dispute resolution previously occurred, joint, consensual decision-making was uncharted territory, seen as disrespectful to both sides’ ethnonationalism (Kriesberg 2001, 384). The Oslo Accords attempted to break that fearful logic; unfortunately, they engendered the peace process’ demise.
After a series of mediated back-channel negotiations, Yitzhak Rabin recognized the PLO as the official representative of the Palestinian People, and Yasser Arafat recognized the Israeli state. The Accords followed a gradual framework: the Israeli state would cede military control of the West Bank and Gaza over five years in exchange for Yasser Arafat disarming the PLO (Malik 2001, 136). While apparently in favor of “shared security,” these agreements failed to find popular credence.
Upon the Accords’ signing, Rabin and Arafat rejoiced. Rabin announced to a large public audience: “We the soldiers who have returned from the battle stained with blood … we who have fought against you, we say to you today in a loud and clear voice: ‘Enough of blood and tears! Enough!’” The word “stained” should have been telling. Yasser Arafat exclaimed, “Our two peoples are awaiting today this historic hope, and they want to give peace a real chance” (Sen 2015, 164). These state leaders seemingly glimpsed resolution. But it remained ignored that the war was not between two state figureheads. It could not be dismissed by farcical diplomacy. It was, and is, a war between two peoples.
Some Israelis supported the agreement, while others, especially members of religious fundamentalist groups, felt that Rabin acquiesced to the “terrorist Palestinians” (Sprinzak 1993, 10). Many Palestinians were left dissatisfied. The PLO did not consult other Palestinian liberatory organizations or representatives of civil society before the agreement. Militant Israeli nationalists were exclusively included, validating their efforts while marginalizing the Palestinians’. Diverse assemblages of Palestinians, therefore, felt that core elements of their struggle were abandoned: Arafat discarded the right of return for refugees by failing to raise it in negotiations and recognizing the Israeli state, founded on the principle of a Jewish majority; both the Israeli Likud and Labor parties refused discussion of military withdrawal from Jerusalem, the historic holy land and capital of Palestine; and Israel maintained control over borders, security, and water resources. Most of all, perhaps, Israel retained and extended its settlements illegally tattering the West Bank (Quigley 1998, 175-178).
Identity-based grievances only festered beneath these dissatisfactions. We can thus understand the Oslo Accords’ failure through the ensuing, mutual rejection of official politics, the increased rigidification of Palestinian and Israeli identities, and the rise of divisive symbolisms.
The Failure of the Oslo Accords
The Oslo Accords lacked meaningful political maneuvers conducive to conflict transformation (Kriesberg 2005, 91). After their general exclusion from initial negotiations, a television broadcast was the only measure employed to legitimize the Accords amongst Israeli and Palestinian populations. This media, distinctly disconnected from its viewers as a non-interactive form, failed to build confidence that the Accords faithfully represented the people.
The Accords also lacked a process for dealing with future disagreements or issues. Lederach suggests this is key to “generating nonviolent solutions to ongoing episodes of conflict and launching long-term visions of change” (2010, 46). Instead, leaders misguidedly viewed the “post-accord” phase as a confined period (Lederach 2010, 44), complete with a handshake and encouraging words. Furthermore, the Oslo Accords consolidated the institutional separation of Palestinians and Israelis; it proposed a voting apparatus for Palestinians via the Palestinian Authority (PA) but failed to “establish institutions with engagement from different sides in the conflict,” crucial for relationship building after periods of large-scale violence (Kriesberg 2005, 93).
In this vacuum of legitimacy and shared institutional space grew Hamas, a Palestinian resistance group founded on armed struggle. Where Arafat and Rabin failed to garner trust, the leaders of Hamas succeeded (Sen 2015, 165). Behind Oslo’s facade, the Palestinian people experienced the perpetual Israeli economic assault on their territories, the continued settlement movement, and the human rights abuses enshrined by the Israeli army. Hamas managed these exact dissatisfactions, presenting itself as the “only organization capable of inflicting rightful costs sufficient to destroy Israeli control of Gaza and the West Bank” (Sen 2015, 166-171). Simultaneously, voluntary conscription in the Israeli military skyrocketed. The Israeli population seemed to embrace this greater communalization of the already omnipresent military, with various grassroots organizations crowdfunding for the forces (Sen 2015, 172). The growing purchase of violent organizations communicated the peace process’ utter rejection.
Hamas built entrenched support amongst Palestinians in Gaza and encouraged their struggle against Israel. The liberation group institutionally provided for the people; it ensured food, clothing, and shelter for its members and offered year-round education to children (Sen 2015, 166). The group thus became a vital part of the community and, therefore, a key part of communal identity. It ensured that the spirit of violent resistance against Israel grew potent in the collective Palestinian consciousness (Sen 2015, 166). The voice of Abu-Basil from the Al-Baqa’a refugee camp aptly describes the consolidation of this identity: “We refugees remain ‘fatherless.’ The political negotiations don’t know us. They aim at resettling refugees outside of Palestine, leaving us orphans. The Oslo Agreement has forgotten us and will never make up for our land. We will win it with blood and vitalize our identity” (Farah 1999, 244). The Israeli government further militarized their population by releasing reuglar press warning the people about “the terrorist Palestinians” and building illegal homes in occupied Palestine (Sprinzak 1993, 9).
Thus, while the Accords aimed to ease the tensions between Israelis and Palestinians via mutual recognition, they increased violence and rigidified identity boundaries.. The spread of militant identity precipitated increased violence. Waves of protests in favor of an independent Palestinian followed the Accords, which the Israeli forces met with crushing aggression (Said 2007, 291). As Palestinians were protesting to protect their land and identity, constant repression naturally encouraged their resistance (Sen 2015, 170). Increased violence also communicated to both sides that their existence remained threatened by the other’s presence (Northrup 1989, 68).
Northrup explains the dynamics of ethnonational identity threats in conflict: “Each side perceives the fulfillment of the other’s national identity as equivalent to the destruction of its own identity” (Northrup 1989, 69). It is no surprise, then, that these protests culminated in the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by Yigal Amir, an Israeli extremist who concluded that Rabin endangered the Jewry by recognizing the Palestinians (Blau 2015, 12). The conflict thus grew increasingly self-perpetuating through these dehumanizing politics: Hamas launched an attack on Israeli territory, feeling threatened by Israeli extremism; Hamas’ action undermined Israeli support for the more “moderate” Labor party, pushing the constituency towards Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposed a Palestinian state and Israeli withdrawal; Palestinians resisted the continued Israeli denial of their sovereignty; Israeli citizens responded with military violence. Israeli violence reigned supreme, with their troops routinely assaulting civilians. Ultimately, the Oslo Accords laid the foundations for these eruptions and ensured the consolidation of oppositional identities, evidenced by mutual rejection of subsequent negotiations (Jones 1999, 105-128).
Oslo Accords thus failed to encourage “constructive change,” or the movement from relationships of fear to relationships of love. The former is notably defined by self-justification and violence (Lederach 2010, 176), evidently characterizing the years following Oslo; the latter is defined by openness, mutual respect, and dignity (Lederach 2010, 176), none of which were embraced after the Accords. The absence of constructive change also resulted from simply reaching an “agreement” rather than attending to damaged relationships (Lederach 2010, 118). In fact, the negotiators behind the Accords explicitly avoided “revisiting old grievances” (Rothman 1997, 122). Oslo thus failed to integrate Lederach’s “peripheral vision,” focusing on a definitive agreement and ignoring the obstacles presented by dangerous relationship patterns (Lederach 2010, 34, 120).
The Oslo Accords, therefore, stopped at official “recognition” and separation rather than encouraging the two populations to embrace interdependence, the “tap-root of non-violence” (Lederach 2010, 35). It is no surprise that the post-Oslo world brought an Israeli political and cultural scene inundated with the symbolism of Rabbi Meir Khane, a religious fundamentalist who denied the very existence of Palestinians and denounced negotiations (Sprinzak 1993, 7). Hamas leaders constructed a welcome gate to their summer camp, composed of a wooden replica of a gun, placed between a key and the Quran, meant to symbolize that “negotiations will never work” (Sen 2015, 165). Ethonationalist violence dominated by Israeli aggression persists nearly two decades later.
One need look no further than Hanan, a refugee internally displaced in Nablus, to understand the consequences of the Oslo Accords: “Return is still a possible dream, but the struggle for return will be very bloody because Oslo made everything difficult” (Farah 1999, 223). Rather than a vanguard of official, nonviolent politics, the Oslo Accords represent a regretful story of failed high-level negotiations. As neither Palestinians nor Israelis saw their ethnonational aspirations “fairly managed” through the Accords, violent resistance gained political purchase and strengthened identity boundaries.
As Kriesberg suggests, transparent communication with Israeli and Palestinian constituencies, accompanied by shared governance, might have garnered support for the Accords before their devolution. John Paul Lederach enters the conversation, asserting that the failure to address historical grievances and create a system of nonviolently managing new conflictual eruptions limited the possibilities of constructive change and interdependent relationship building. These pitfalls inhibited the reconciliatory process described by Liechty and Clegg, as evidenced by increasingly tense ethnic relations, separation, and the proliferation of divisive symbolism. As Yasser Arafat once artfully professed: “I come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand. I repeat: do not let the olive branch fall from my hand” (UN 1974). Perhaps through examining the strengths and weaknesses of the Oslo process, practitioners can grasp their olive branches, hand-in-hand with their constituencies, and set a hopeful precedent for the transformation of intractable conflicts.
(Chicago 17th Edition Style)
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