The period 1993–99 was of historic importance for the Palestinian people. The 1993 Oslo accords and the subsequent establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in part of the West Bank and Gaza marked the first time that Palestinians had exercised a measure of autonomous national rule anywhere in Palestine. However, Israeli violence, settlement expansion, and a lack of progress in negotiations on key “final status” issues seriously hindered a process that was supposed to lead to a final peace settlement.
After the Madrid Conference ended, official Israeli-Palestinian talks that had begun in December 1991 dragged on inconclusively in Washington. Israel, under Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, repealed the law banning contact with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) on 19 January 1993. The following day, academics, authorized by the Israeli foreign ministry, began informal secret talks in Oslo, Norway with Ahmad Qurai‘ (Abu Ala’), director-general of the PLO Economic and Planning Department and coordinator of the Palestinian delegations to the Multilateral Talks (that were launched in Moscow in January 1992). Talks became official later in May, with the participation of Uri Savir from the Israeli foreign ministry. In accordance with the Madrid terms of reference, the talks focused on establishing interim self-government arrangements in the West Bank and Gaza, but in comparison with the Washington negotiations, they quickly involved pragmatic give-and-take and the drafting of a mutually acceptable text. In addition to a Declaration of Principles, the two sides agreed that the first step will be an Israeli redeployment from most of Gaza and the area around Jericho, to be followed by the establishment of an elected council and the broadening of its jurisdiction in the West Bank, except for Jerusalem, settlements, and military locations. Israel and the PLO would recognize one another formally and then continue with talks leading to a final peace treaty within five years.
The agreement was finalized on 20 August 1993 and signed in Washington on 13 September 1993 at the White House. On the eve of the signing, Yasir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin exchanged letters of mutual recognition: the PLO recognized “the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security,” and the Israeli government recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people. In May 1994, the two sides signed the Cairo agreement that opened the way for the redeployment of the Israeli army from the Gaza Strip and Jericho, the entry of PLO forces as the basis of the new police force, Arafat’s entry in Gaza, and the establishment of the PA. Less than five months later, Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty that contained Israel’s acknowledgement of Jordan’s special role in Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem.
In September 1995, the PLO and the Israeli government signed the Taba or Oslo II agreement that included the following provisions: election of the council; division of the West Bank into three areas (Area A to be under PA civil and security control; Area B where the PA would share security control with the Israelis; and Area C consisting of land not transferred to the PA and remaining under Israeli control); a first phase of Israeli redeployment from land to be transferred to Area A (main towns) or Area B (surrounding villages); and Israel’s commitment to further redeployment to “specified military locations” to be implemented in three phases within eighteen months of the inauguration of the elected Council.
Violence accompanied the Oslo process almost from its start. In February 1994, an Israeli settler shot and killed twenty-nine worshippers in Hebron’s al-Ibrahimi Mosque. Forty days later, Hamas (which opposed the negotiations) carried out its first suicide bombing inside Israeli territory in reprisal. On 4 November 1995, an Israeli Jew assassinated Rabin. Shimon Peres of the Labor Party assumed the position of prime minister, but in June 1996, he was replaced by the Likud Party’s Benjamin Netanyahu, an opponent of Oslo. In January 1996, while in office, Peres ordered the assassination of Yahya Ayyash, which provoked more Hamas bombings in Israel in February and March. Peres also ordered in April the Operation Grapes of Wrath in South Lebanon, which in particular led to the killing of more than a hundred Lebanese civilians in the village of Qana at a UN compound.
If the Oslo accords had had any chance of leading eventually to a final Palestinian-Israeli agreement, Netanyahu’s victory destroyed it from the start. All attempts were made toward this objective: intensifying construction of settlements (for instance, at Har Homa/Jabal Abu Ghunaym), opening a tunnel in the old city of Jerusalem (and provoking armed clashes between the Palestinian police and Israeli army), closing Palestinian institutions in the city, making new political demands (such as requesting that the Palestine National Council meet again to remove from the National Charter provisions contrary to mutual recognition), making security demands, renegotiating Oslo II terms, and delaying their implementation. Netanyahu, with the active participation of President Clinton, signed two agreements with Arafat (Protocol Concerning the Redeployment in Hebron, 16 January 1997; Wye River Memorandum, 23 October 1998), but he only partially implemented the latter. Labor’s Ehud Barak replaced Netanyahu in July 1999 and signed with Arafat the Sharm al-Shaykh Memorandum on 4 September 1999; the Palestinians ended up controlling only 17 percent of the West Bank as Area A and 25 percent as Area B, leaving under direct Israeli control 58 percent of the land, i.e. several times more than the surface area allowed by Oslo I and Oslo II interim agreements for settlements and military locations.
As for the final status talks, which were supposed to start not later than 5 May 1996, they were postponed time and again, and no final peace deal was concluded by 4 May 1999, as stated in the original agreements. In any case, with the PA controlling only fragmented parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and Israel keeping overall control and access of people and goods to the PA territories, with settlement construction continuing unabated, and with sustained U.S. support of Israel, the Palestinians did not have the assets that would permit fruitful negotiations. By 2000, such imbalance in the permanent status talks led both to their failure and to the outbreak of the second intifada.
Meanwhile, the PA had been creating its self-government institutions. Public administration departments were established, drawing from civil servants who had worked under the Israeli military government, and from PLO Tunis bureaucrats. In January 1996, elections were held for the PA Presidency and a Legislative Council (PLC). Though the PLC was very active in drafting laws and a Basic Law and in debating issues of public interest, such as human rights and corruption, the PA also became increasingly authoritarian. It cracked down on opponents, especially from Hamas, and often ignored court rulings or resorted to special military courts. In addition, with Arafat and Fatah focused on running the PA and continuing the process of negotiations with Israel, and with the Damascus-based groups seemingly permanently alienated, the PLO as representing also the diaspora Palestinians virtually ceased functioning. Many Palestinians, even refugees in Syria and Lebanon, who had initially supported the Oslo accords and welcomed the establishment of the PA as a step toward Palestinian independence saw little hope in the whole Oslo process.
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