Puff Peace

How the Middle East peace process killed itself.

If the newspaper headlines of the past few days are anything to go by, I think it is fair to say that we are now looking at the total breakdown of the Oslo peace process. Since negotiations ended in deadlock 18 months ago, more than 1,000 Palestinians and 330 Israelis have died in fighting that shows no signs of ending: According to Reuters, this past week has been the bloodiest to date. Depending upon whom you want to believe, you can hear many explanations for the current wave of violence, alternately blaming Yasser Arafat or Ariel Sharon, Israel or the Palestinians, the United States or the Arab world. I would now like to propose another, at least partial explanation: The seeds of the current wave of terror were created by Oslo itself.

This is not my theory, but one propounded by the Israeli journalist Amira Hass, a woman who is hated by some Israelis as much as she is admired by others. She writes for Ha’aretz and has won awards for doing so. On the other hand, whole Web sites—too nasty to give you the links—are dedicated to insulting her. But you don’t have to agree with everything she says in order to see why her viewpoint is important and unique: Although Jewish, she lived among the Palestinians in Gaza for most of the 1990s and now lives in Ramallah on the West Bank. It is from that vantage point that she draws her conclusions, which appear in her book Drinking the Sea at Gaza, in her journalism, and in recent interviews she has given, including one I happened to see over the weekend in the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.

To begin with, Hass (and others) point out, Oslo’s main practical impact was to reduce the mobility of ordinary Palestinians. According to the terms of the accords, the Palestinian Authority was given two zones of territory to rule in Gaza and the West Bank. Almost immediately, permits to cross the border from the PA zones into Israel—even to travel from one slice of Palestine to the other—became more difficult to get. This demographic separation was initially applauded by both sides, who saw it as a harbinger of political and territorial separation. The Israelis believed it would help them control terrorism. The Palestinians expected it would lead to national consolidation and ultimately to independence. With hindsight, wrote Hass, “this was clearly wishful thinking.”

For one thing, the new barriers between the two nations created terrible economic hardship. In the wake of the agreement, the GNP of Gaza sank like a stone. Unemployment grew to nearly 40 percent. While these figures improved somewhat at the end of the 1990s, growth dropped again following new restrictions imposed at the start of the new intifada 18 months ago. While it is hard to deny that the tighter border controls are logical from the Israeli point of view, it’s easy to see how they might have helped radicalize young Palestinian men. Poverty alone does not create suicide bombers—but unemployment clearly helps. A man with absolutely nothing to do all day might see the appeal of a suicide mission more than one who is busy and productive.

Paradoxically, the separation between Israel and Palestine also may have led to a separation between the Palestinians and their leadership as well. For if ordinary people suffered under the new border regimes, the Palestinian leadership did not. No longer under constant threat of arrest, they had more mobility than they had enjoyed previously. They were able to move back and forth between Gaza and the West Bank—and to do business deals for their own benefit. Some became rich. That difference in status helped compound another strange side effect of the Oslo accords, which gave the Palestinian leadership the responsibility for keeping order in the PA zones but didn’t give them the means to stop Israel from building settlements—or even to insure that students from Gaza could attend their universities on the West Bank. The PA were in charge, they were making money—but they were weak and ineffective at the same time. Hardly surprising, then, that they fell into disrepute or that young people turned to other, more radical leaders.

But Oslo also changed the nature of the Israeli occupation itself. Although not truly independent, the Palestinians were nevertheless deprived of any contact with the “real” authority, and thus—according to Hass—deprived of any nonviolent means to protest against their situation. “How to protest? Close the schools? They’re yours. Go on strike? You can’t strike against yourself.” There is no place where Palestinians can go to peacefully demonstrate, even if they wanted to—although Hass also points out that the Palestinian leadership has never been particularly interested in peaceful protest, preferring the terrorist methods they know best.

Finally, Oslo has created more personal barriers between Israel and Palestine than existed before. In practice, the strict border controls and physical separation that have been set up between the two communities has created a young generation of Palestinians who do not know Israelis or Israeli society at all. Older Palestinians, of the generation of the late Faisal Husseini, who ran East Jerusalem for the PA, at least knew Israel not as a myth, but as a state. By contrast, the blockades have made certain that young people—and the Palestinians are a very young society—see Jewish settlers living behind barbed wire, and Jewish soldiers, and nobody else. Few Israelis have much inclination to cross the border either, even when they are allowed to do so. Israelis are not neighbors, to Palestinians they are targets.

Not having spent the last decade living among the Gazans, I am not in a position to confirm or deny Hass’ conclusions. Nevertheless, even if only half of what she writes is true, it is worth hearing, particularly as the Bush administration reluctantly embarks upon a new round of peace negotiations in the Middle East. Before beginning, everyone involved should look hard at the past decade and ask a few tough questions. How wise was it, for example, to begin a peace process that had no clear outcome? How successful can such negotiations ever be if the partners involved have not yet agreed on what the endgame will look like—and have not yet renounced violence? How successful can they be if the interim arrangements simply create more frustration?

If Oslo did make the situation worse, then we all have some rethinking to do. By accepting long, drawn out, halfway solutions, the promoters of peace appear to have undermined the notion of “peace” itself. I hope it is not too late to restore it.