Twenty-five years ago on Thursday, a portly Palestinian boy scout raised the Palestinian red, white, black and green flag from the balcony of Orient House in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem as solemn compatriots spilled from the courtyard into the street.
On the White House lawn in distant Washington, the Oslo Accord was signed in a ceremony seen on satellite channels around the world. US president Bill Clinton, standing between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli prime minister Yitzak Rabin, coaxed the old enemies to shake hands.
At Orient House, Palestinians sang their national anthem while small paper flags were handed around, deemed by Israel an illegal act until that moment. Youths carrying a vast flag walked down Salaheddin Street, the main thoroughfare of this sector of the city.
Lads paced prancing horses, symbols of Arab independence, to accompany the flag. Palestinians pushed red and white carnations into the rifle barrels of confused Israeli soldiers standing outside the post office. Bystanders cheered as the flag was draped over Damascus Gate to the Old City.
The next morning, the small Jordan Valley town of Jericho was festooned with bunting and flags. Israeli troops were to make initial withdrawals from Jericho and Gaza in preparation for Palestinian self-rule. People were optimistic the occupation would end and Palestinians would have a state in the 22 per cent of their homeland occupied by Israel in 1967.
In Gaza, a two-hour drive away, Palestinians who believed in Oslo had danced in the streets the previous night and continued to party while Hamas members scowled in shadowed doorways.
Best of times
For Palestinians this was the best of times. The accord had not only been signed by Arafat's deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, and Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres, but also US secretary of state Warren Christopher and his Russian counterpart, Andrei Kozyrev, committing the great powers to the accord's implementation. Arafat believed, wrongly, that momentum could not be broken and the launch towards self-determination could not be reversed.
The accord, negotiated in secret in Norway and initialled on August 20th, had remained under wraps until then.
In early September I had been asked to go to Tunis by The Irish Times to cover a visit to Arafat by TD Brian Lenihan snr and two colleagues. On the morning after I arrived, I met Hassan Asfour, who, along with Fatah's Ahmed Qurei, "Abu Alaa", and economist Mahr al-Kurd, negotiated the deal. All three were exiles rather than from the occupied territories.
Asfour showed me the document but allowed no notes and described how the Palestinians, with no experience of such negotiations, dealt with Yair Hirschfeld and Ron Pundak, Israeli academics in the peace camp – and, after some months, Uri Savir, Israeli foreign ministry director. Asfour said they would ring up colleagues to find out what key terms meant.
The Oslo Accord promised Palestinians limited self-government but not self-determination and left for direct negotiations over five years the most important issues: Jerusalem, Israeli settlements, refugees, borders and security. Years later Ron Pundak told The Irish Times the Israeli negotiators had expected a Palestinian state to emerge.
The two main problems with Oslo were the politico-military-economic disparity between Israelis and Palestinians and Israel’s refusal to halt settlement construction, which was ruled illegal under international law. If Rabin had done so at that time, Oslo might have succeeded.
Unrestrained settlement activity has constantly altered the situation. Writing on al-Monitor website on September 10th, 2018, one of Israel’s Oslo architects, Yossi Beilin, called settlements “the gravest Israeli provocation”.
In 1993 there were 111,600 settlers in the West Bank, 152,800 in East Jerusalem and 4,800 in Gaza; today there are some 400,000 in the West Bank and 200,000 in East Jerusalem. Gaza settlers and soldiers were evacuated in 2005.
The settlements and the West Bank wall-and-fence complex create territorial obstacles designed to prevent the emergence of a contiguous Palestinian state in accordance with the “two-state solution” adopted by the Palestinians, the UN and international community.
To accommodate settlement expansion Palestinians have been pushed off their land and squeezed out of West Bank villages into urban areas that have been turned into enclaves separated by Israeli-controlled territory, which is broken up by hundreds of checkpoints and closed military areas.
Palestinians are denied freedom of movement and must obtain Israeli passes to visit East Jerusalem, once the religious, social, economic and cultural capital of Palestine.
Instead of opening a route to resolution of the conflict, the Oslo Accord relieved Israel of responsibility for the inhabitants of the territories by establishing the Palestinian Authority without providing Palestinians with a political horizon.
A quarter of a century after the Oslo Accord was signed, Palestinians face the worst of times. Israel retains East Jerusalem and 61 per cent of the West Bank, which Palestinians demand for their state; Gaza is isolated, besieged and blockaded by Israel.