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Saturday, 1 October 2016

Peres, Oslo and Peace

Peres, Oslo and Peace

By Shabbir Lakha

The world woke up last Wednesday to the news that the former President and twice Prime Minister of Israel, Shimon Peres, has died at the age of 93. Tributes from around the world have been pouring in for the Nobel prize-winning ‘warrior for peace’ and dignitaries such as Pope Francis are already lining up to attend his funeral. Although his name barely goes a few sentences without mentioning the Oslo Accords, the first peace deal brokered between Israel and Palestine, the words “war criminal” are consistently absent.
Before political office, Shimon Peres was part of the Haganah, an armed militia in Mandatory Palestine, now euphemistically referred to as the “predecessor to the Israeli Defence Forces”. Peres later became the Director-General of the Ministry of Defence where he upgraded his role of sourcing weaponry and munitions for the Haganah to establishing the Israeli arms trade and playing a significant role in developing Israel’s (yet unacknowledged) nuclear weapons programme.
Contrary to the ‘dove’ he is widely remembered as, Peres was instrumental in the Suez War of 1956 and the 1996 bombing of Lebanon in which 106 Lebanese civilians were killed when a UN facility in Qana was shelled. The shelling was ruled as deliberate – and hence a war crime – by the United Nations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
And the violations of international law don’t end there. After the 1967 “Six-day War”, Peres was a prominent advocate for building Jewish settlements in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The building of these settlements is a direct violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
So why is Shimon Peres referred to as a ‘dove’ and not a ‘war criminal’? The short answer – that doesn’t go into detail on the history of impunity with which Israeli leaders have consistently violated international law – is the Oslo Accords. The Accords were seen both as a transformation in the political ideology of Peres and more importantly as a defining moment in Israeli-Palestinian relations.
So if history will judge Peres only on the Oslo Accords, what can be said of the Oslo Accords? In what Edward Said described as “an instrument of Palestinian surrender, a Palestinian Versailles”, the Oslo Accords negated almost a century of Palestinian struggle, institutionalised a process of bantustanization and legitimised Israel’s apartheid policies:
The West Bank was split into Areas A, B and C. Area C, which constituted 72% of the West Bank at the time (currently over 60%), remains under Israeli civil and military rule as per the Oslo Accords. Not only has this meant that Israel has continued to massively expand illegal settlements in Area C – there are now over 400,000 illegal settlers living in settlements which comprise over 40% of the West Bank – but the mapping of the areas has meant that Area C cuts through and encircles Areas A and B. This has cantonised Palestinian territories and created a network of checkpoints, roadblocks and Jewish-only roads which prohibit free movement of Palestinians within the West Bank.
The Paris Protocol was signed in 1994 as part of the amendments of the Oslo Accords, and was aimed at increasing economic cooperation between Israel and Palestine. In reality, they placed the entirety of Palestinian trade in Israeli control. The Protocol saw the creation of a de jure Custom Union which gave Israel the power to impose restrictions on what goods Palestine can import or export and collects all customs revenues and VAT. These measures have severely stunted the Palestinian export market and made it a de facto import led economy. Israel’s collecting of tax and custom revenues also means that i) they can define what revenue is passed on to the Palestinian Authority, allowing for tax leakagesand ii) they can freeze payments to the PA for political reasons, e.g. when Palestine made a bid for statehood at UNESCO.
The Oslo Accords made Palestinians into de facto labour reserves for Israel by allowing Israel to create a permit system for Palestinians to enter Israel and Israeli settlements in the West Bank and unilaterally close borders. Because the Palestinian economy is severely hampered by Israeli policy, it is not able to sustain a viable labour market, and as such is heavily dependent on the Israeli labour market. Therefore, the permit system and unilateral border closures has resulted only in impoverishing Palestinians further – such as the closure of March-April 1996 during which 66% of the Palestinian labour force was either unemployed or severely underemployed and a significant chunk of the Palestinian GNP was wiped out.
Natural resources such as arable land and water sources have been almost entirely usurped. An Israeli has access to 4-5 times more water than a Palestinian, and 90-95% of water in the Gaza strip has been declared “contaminated and unfit for human consumption”. Not only do Palestinians not have access to the WHO recommendations for basic water consumption, but the false scarcity creates artificial inflation as multitudes of Palestinians are forced to purchase water from mobile tankers at extortionate rates.
Palestinians require permits to build anything from houses to roads to mobile network towers – these permits are based on military (rather than humanitarian or economic) considerations and are rarely given, and any built structures are subject to demolition at any given time. Over 25,000 house demolitions since 1967 have left over 160,000 Palestinians displaced; a UNOCHA report in August revealed that over 680 homes have been destroyed in 2016 alone.
The premise of the Oslo Accords was that they were just the first step and the important issues were left to be dealt with by final stage negotiations – which never happened. As Norwegian historian, Hilde Henriksen Waage commented, “all the difficult questions: security, Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, borders, you name it. All of them were taken out”.
The result is that the framework of the Oslo Accords was liberalist policymaking that assumed a balance of power between the occupier and the occupied and an expectation that Israel would ‘do the right thing’. So what it has actually achieved is enshrining apartheid in the daily lives of Palestinians.
Shimon Peres, the war criminal and the ‘dove’, was a man of contradictions. As recent as three years ago, Peres still described Jewish settlements in the West Bank as “right and acceptable”, and at the same time ardently advocated for the two state solution – which many political commentators have described as unfeasible primarily because of the existence of illegal settlements.
But what we can reasonably conclude is that even if Shimon Peres is to be judged only on the Oslo Accords, he bears a hefty share of the responsibility of the ongoing suffering of the Palestinians and the apartheid policies under which they live.