Nearly two decades have passed since the Oslo Accords first gave the world hope for Mideast peace and an end to Israeli rule over the Palestinian territories; in the West Bank, the failed framework for peace talks has become directly associated with the occupation itself. When hundreds of Palestinians took to the streets last week to protest a (subsequently canceled) visit to Ramallah by Israeli Vice Premier Shaul Mofaz, their chants targeted the former IDF chief, but the calls for an end to Oslo were even louder – an indirect attack on President Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority.
Eighteen years after the Palestinian Authority’s creation, some Palestinians are questioning whether the Oslo-designed Palestinian quasi-government, which was only ever meant to exist as a five-year interim body, has outlived its raison d'être of achieving Palestinian independence and ending the occupation through diplomatic channels.
As far as a growing number of people are concerned, the Oslo accords, and their byproduct, the Palestinian Authority, have done little more than act as a political and security buffer for maintaining Israel’s comfortable status quo in the territories. Palestinian-Israeli security cooperation serves to sustain quiet for Israel, the division of the West Bank into Areas A, B and C creates an illusion of semi-autonomous Palestinian rule, and the ever-present semblance of a peace process provides diplomatic cover for Israel to perpetuate the current situation without consequence. Meanwhile, the Palestinians are no closer to realizing their rights-based -- civil rights, return of refugees, freedom of movement -- and national aspirations (statehood).
Last Tuesday 500 Palestinians in a youth-inspired protest, marched on Ramallah’s Muqata presidential compound, chanting, "The people demand the fall of the Oslo Accords.”
"We are looking for the Palestinian leadership to adopt a position that represents the will of the people, which includes an unequivocal announcement to abandon negotiations with the Israeli apartheid regime," Palestinians for Dignity, one of the groups behind the protests wrote ahead of the march.
Abbas's invitation to host Mofaz in his Ramallah compound was seen as a betrayal. A decade after former IDF chief of staff Mofaz sent tanks to lay siege on the Muqata, which ended only with former PLO chairman Yasser Arafat’s death, Arafat’s successor invited him to return to the same building. Public pressure ultimately forced Abbas to cancel the meeting, but recognizing the threat posed to him by the outcry, he ordered his security forces to crush the protests.
Abbas has faced and survived challenges to his rule with varying levels of success. Less than a year after the 2005 PA elections, which Hamas won, Abbas's security forces and Fatah’s political echelon were violently forced out of the Gaza Strip. But in the more populous and larger West Bank, Abbas’s forces managed to crush Hamas and further cement his hold on power. Recently, discontent and minor challenges to PA power in cities like Jenin and Nablus have pushed the PA to carry out wide waves of arrests, many of which targeted members of his own Fatah party.
However, Abbas has never faced a popular challenge. The protests in Ramallah this past week were neither affiliated with, nor were they organized by any Palestinian political faction, something that may or may not ultimately work to their advantage. Unlike other challengers Abbas has faced, the protesters are not seeking power for themselves but are demanding accountability and new, genuine efforts to liberate Palestine.
In addition cutting diplomatic and security ties with Israel, the protesters called for the PA to "develop a strategy of resistance capable of achieving the aspirations of our people for freedom and independence," Palestinians for Dignity wrote. As was made clear at the protest, peace talks conducted within the imbalanced framework of the Oslo Accords are no longer an acceptable strategy.
But just as there is no clear alternative to the interim and less-than-democratic Palestinian Authority, there is no consensus on an alternative for realizing Palestinians' national goals other than Oslo. Conversations with several protesters in Ramallah – and their chants, however, did reveal another path: the non-violent resistance, protests, general strikes and civil disobedience that characterized much of the early stages of the 1989 First Intifada.
In recent years, Palestinians throughout the West Bank have staged weekly unarmed protests against the wall and creeping settlement expansion. Many of the youths and other activists deeply involved in those protests were also one of the driving forces behind the demonstrations in Ramallah last week. Their frustration with the PA's lack of support and non-embrace of their tactics was no doubt a factor in the building anger that played out in front of the Muqata Tuesday.
It’s not clear how much support last week’s Ramallah protesters enjoy in Palestine’s various cities, social strata and political factions. But recent events throughout the Arab world should teach us that small movements can quickly spread and grow powerful, without much warning.
A poll conducted last month found that a large majority of Palestinians believe their government’s primary aims should be ending the occupation, establishing an independent state and securing the return of refugees. The PA's failure to achieve any of those goals despite nearly two decades of close cooperation and negotiations with Israel is fermenting growing resentment against it. Ultimately, however, it is Israel and the occupation that are the target of the growing resentment and frustration bubbling to the surface.
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