Five years after Oslo: is there still hope for Palestine?

June 17, 1998

By Michael Karadjis

May 1998 marked 50 years since the founding of the state of Israel and what the Palestinians call "Nakhba" — the Catastrophe. The Nazi holocaust pushed large numbers of Jews towards Zionism, in particular because wealthy western countries refused to accept anything but a trickle of refugees fleeing Nazi terror. Nevertheless, even after the holocaust, the Jewish population in Palestine was still only a third of the population of Palestine — 608,000 out of 1,900,000.

The UN decided in 1947 to partition Palestine into a 55% Jewish state and a 45% Arab state. This was rejected by the Palestinians, not only because of the unfair percentages, but because partition would result in massive ethnic cleansing.

The Catastrophe began soon after. Zionist militias launched hundreds of brutal attacks on Palestinian towns and villages, blowing up buses and trains, marketplaces and houses. Between December 1947 and May 1948, 2500 people were killed.

The state of Israel was declared on May 15. The neighbouring Arab states moved 20,000 uncoordinated and poorly armed troops into the UN's "Arab state", but were attacked by 45,000 Zionist troops and 65,000 reservists, highly trained and well equipped.

By the end of this phoney war, the state of Israel controlled 78% of Palestine. Four hundred and eighteen Arab towns and villages had been wiped off the map.

This left three disparate groups of Palestinians:

  • 800,000 expelled, now numbering 3 million — countless UN resolutions have called for the right of these refugees to return, all ignored by Israel;

  • those who remained under Israeli rule, who now number about 800,000;

  • those living in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. In 1967, Israel occupied these territories as well.

Separate state?

Whereas the world recognises Israel, it does not recognise its occupation of these territories. Therefore, the idea that the Palestinians could set up their own state in these areas became dominant within the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

It was believed that recognition of the Palestinians as an independent people would be a big step towards the ultimate goal of a democratic, secular state in all of Palestine.

This was fiercely resisted by Israel and the US, but the mass uprising of the Palestinians, the intifada, after 1987, forced Israel to adjust its policy.

The Oslo Accord of August 1993 established a "Palestinian Authority" in the monstrously overcrowded Gaza Strip and the tiny West Bank town of Jericho, with limited authority and various trappings of "state" (e.g., the Palestinian flag), while overall control remained firmly in Israeli hands.

This was to be followed by Israeli withdrawal from the other main Palestinian population centres, which was carried out; then, a phased Israeli withdrawal from most land in the West Bank, which has not been.

This was supposed to be completed within five years, after which "final status" negotiations were to decide outstanding issues: the right to return of the refugees, the future of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, the future of Palestinian East Jerusalem and the status of the Palestinian Authority.

The record suggests that the Palestinians are further than ever from even their most limited goals.

Certainly it is a step forward that the occupation troops are out of most of the main Palestinian cities. Palestinians in these centres do not have to face the constant prospect of being detained, beaten, tortured or killed by the occupation forces. It gives the Palestinians some space in which to organise.

However, beyond these cities — 3% of the West Bank — the only real card the Palestinians had to force further progress was continuation of the intifada. The fact that the Palestinian leadership turned this off has proven fatal, because all other cards are in the hands of Israel.

The phased nature of the proposed withdrawals, combined with the absence of any commitment on "final status" issues, has allowed Israel to put "facts on the ground" throughout this period.

Three tactics

The Israelis have demolished 520 homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since the Netanyahu government was elected, and there are 1000 more on the list currently.

This is combined, particularly in East Jerusalem, with confiscation of ID cards, using any excuse. In the first five months of 1997, 787 ID cards were confiscated. The aim is the ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem.

A second tactic has been a huge increase in the building of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. While only a fraction of the population of the West Bank, Jewish settlers control 60% of the land.

In Gaza a mere 6000 Jewish settlers, as against a million Palestinians, own 42% of the land, including half the coastline, where beaches are marked "Settlers only".

Settlements are built on strategic sites, usually hilltops overlooking and surrounding Palestinian towns and villages.

In the Jordan Valley, the aim is to completely cut off the West Bank Palestinians from Jordan, so that Israel will always control the border — and the water of the Jordan River.

Construction of a huge new settlement on Har Homa in East Jerusalem has provoked massive protests. This settlement completes the ring around Jerusalem, cutting its Palestinian population off from the main Palestinian towns to its south, Bethlehem and Hebron.

"Settler bypass roads" are new, major, well-maintained roads linking all the settlements, which Palestinians are forbidden to use. Large numbers of homes and olive groves are destroyed to make way for them.

Palestinians travelling from one town to another have to cross these bypass roads, and at every crossing there is an Israeli checkpoint, where troops can hold up cars for kilometres with no other purpose than to exhaust and erode the morale of the Palestinians.

These roads head straight into neighbouring Arab countries. The aim is to allow direct Israeli economic expansion into the Arab states while completely bypassing the Palestinians, who will live in isolated cantons cut off from each other, from Israel and from the Arab world.

The third Israeli tactic is the permanent blockade of the West Bank and Gaza. While Israel has used "closure" before in response to Hamas operations, this closure has been permanent since the Oslo Accord.

Most of the 90,000 Palestinians who previously worked in Israel lost their jobs, resulting in massive unemployment in the Palestinian bantustans, which have no economy.

Closure also means that, since East Jerusalem has been officially annexed, Palestinians in the West Bank cannot go to Jerusalem to work, visit relatives, shop or for any other reason.

This has further destroyed the Palestinian economy and unity, since East Jerusalem is their natural geographic and economic centre. Gaza residents cannot visit the West Bank or Jerusalem because they would have to cross Israel.


Palestinians who do work in Israel have no rights as workers and are hence a source of super-cheap labour. Nevertheless, Israel is importing workers from eastern Europe, south Asia and elsewhere.

Zionism had traditionally been based on total ethnic separation. However, the conquest of West Bank and Gaza in 1967 brought these regions into the Israeli economy, and hence a super-exploited Palestinian work force.

In the period when apartheid is being demolished in South Africa, it is being formalised in Palestine. The current process bears striking resemblance to the setting up of the "black homelands" in South Africa in the 1960s, where the black population centres were controlled by black stooges of the white regime.

The Palestinian situation is worse because it goes hand in hand with the relative exclusion of Palestinians from the working class, giving them far less power to struggle. The aim is to so demoralise the impoverished Palestinians that large numbers will be pushed to emigrate, and those who remain will be less threatening as they gradually are reintroduced into the Israeli work force.

The situation as the "final status" talks approach looks like this: about 40% of the West Bank and Gaza may become a Palestinian "entity" with limited powers — a hotchpotch of disconnected cantons without land, water or an economy. Sixty per cent will be directly annexed to Israel, including the entire Jordan Valley; East Jerusalem will remain entirely within Israel. No settlements will be dismantled.

PLO leadership

Unfortunately, the Arafat leadership of the old PLO has become part of the problem. The deal was carried out by the leadership undemocratically, without involvement of its popular base.

Granting the PLO leaders in exile their own "state" within such limited confines ensured that it could survive only by being totally reliant on Israel. Palestine Liberation Army troops were brought back as a police force; as a former liberation army with nothing to liberate, the overblown apparatus has turned to "security" with a vengeance.

The Palestinian Authority plays two important roles for Israel: a cop and a subcontractor. It polices the entity to ensure that any struggle by leftist or Islamist forces is put down. The companies set up by the Authority subcontract for Israeli companies.

Most are owned by Arafat himself or close aides, such as Arafat's al-Bahr, which controls virtually all business in Gaza and even uses the Authority's letterhead. A quarter of its profits go to Arafat's personal account in Tel Aviv.

The Authority's minister of civil affairs, Jamil Tarifi, is a contractor who builds Israeli settlements!

The beachside mansions of Arafat and other leaders stand provocatively, permanently guarded and sealed off, next to the immense human catastrophe of the slums and refugee camps of Gaza city. A recent UN study reported an alarming increase in child labour and a 39% drop in per capita income in Gaza since the Oslo Accord was signed.


This corruption has met opposition from within Fatah, Arafat's former organisation within the PLO. In the West Bank, Fatah has declared itself separate from the Authority, and has collaborated with the remains of the Popular and Democratic Fronts.

There have even been some victories, such as last year when the Authority responded to a teachers' strike by jailing its leaders. Mass protests, led largely by local Fatah activists, got them released. However, the left has not been able to come up with an alternative strategy.

The main opposition has come from the Islamist movement, chiefly Hamas. As Hamas has resisted militarily, it has gained a level of respect among Palestinians because it is "doing something", even if people see the futility of the suicide bombings, which greatly increase Israeli repression.

However, the Authority has largely destroyed most of Hamas' military structure. Hamas' strength now lies in the network of social support the mosque provides.

The 3 million refugees have been completely bypassed by the peace process. It is virtually impossible to find supporters of Arafat in the Lebanese camps any more; they have been betrayed. Refugees in the camps tell you, "Everyone here supports Hamas and Hezbollah, because they fight Israel". Posters on the walls call for "a new intifada".

Conferences of refugees have insisted on their right to return and rejected all plans for their "assimilation" into neighbouring Arab countries.

At present their ability to fight and organise is severely restricted. Their economic situation has become far worse since Oslo, as UN aid has been concentrated in the occupied territories.

Inside Israel

While Israeli peace activists carry out some important campaigns, this movement is at a low ebb. "If the Palestinian leadership accepts the situation, why should we struggle against it?", is the attitude of the liberal middle class layer who traditionally led the peace movement.

The two major sections of Israeli society that form the bulk of the working class are the Palestinians who have remained in Israel since 1948, about 15% of the population, and the Mizrahi Jews, who originated in Arab countries, over 50% of the population.

The Israeli Palestinians are in theory Israeli citizens, but they can never have the same rights as other citizens in a state which is by definition Jewish.

Recently, a new formation has emerged, the National Democratic Alliance, led by Azmi Bishara. It already has members in the Knesset, indicating strong support.

This group struggles around two main axes: for some kind of autonomy for the Palestinians in Israel; and for Israel to be a state of its citizens, which is in absolute contradiction to the essence of Zionism, that Israel is a state for only the Jews.

The Mizrahi Jews came from Arabic countries and speak Arabic; they work next to Palestinians on the factory floor and share much of their culture.

Zionism taught them to hate the Palestinians as their competitors at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale. However, when they arrived in Israel, they were sprayed with DDT, forced to change their names and clothes and renounce their culture — they even had their babies abducted in some cases — and sent to work 10-12 hours a day in dreadful development towns to make profits for the Ashkenazi (European Jewish) bourgeoisie.

The recent emergence of the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow is the first recent sign of a break with Zionism. Meetings have taken place with Palestinians, and it has been articulated that the roots of their own oppression are tied to the oppression of the Palestinians.

While many Mizrahi traditionally voted for right-wing parties (mostly to protest against Ashkenazi domination through the Labour Party), the current right-wing government is carrying through an economic program of privatisation and austerity. Its chief victims are the poor, i.e., the Mizrahi.

While most land stolen from the Palestinians after 1948 became "public" land, it largely went to Ashkenazi on kibbutzim and moshavim. The Mizrahi proletariat largely got cheap public housing in development towns and regions.

Privatisation of the kibbutzim and moshavim is enriching these Ashkenazi — as they are sold, most of the money goes back into their pockets, and they are guaranteed free apartments there, in recognition of being "pioneers".

The privatisation of public housing is having the opposite effect on the Mizrahi, who, if they want to stay, have to pay full market rates for their flats. This has led to mobilisations led by grassroots organisations, a struggle that is being expanded to Palestinian towns and villages as well.

There are also growing struggles by Mizrahi students, often together with Palestinian students, against the racist assumptions in Israeli textbooks. For example, the group Social Justice on the universities is composed of Mizrahi, Ethiopian and Palestinian students; it fights against racism on campus and in the wider society.

These developments point to the need for a strategy that can unite the Palestinians and Mizrahi (and of course anti-racist Ashkenazi) inside Israel with the Palestinians in the occupied territories and in exile.

While fighting for a Palestinian state in the occupied territories was a legitimate struggle against occupation, this has been superseded by events. The only Palestinian state that can now emerge is a collection of disconnected bantustans.

This may have the effect of eventually re-linking the region as a whole. If the struggle begins to cross over boundaries, the PLO's former slogan — for a democratic, secular Palestine for all its inhabitants — will need to be back on the agenda as a perspective of joining up the struggles.

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