Explainer: The Oslo Accords
PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat (right) shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as President Bill Clinton looks on after signing the first of the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn, September 13, 1993. (Photo: Reuters/Gary Hershorn)
What Are the Oslo Accords?
- The Oslo Accords are a series of agreements signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) between 1993 and 1999 that were supposed to result in a so-called “final status agreement” by 1999 that would “achieve a just, lasting and comprehensive peace” between Israelis and Palestinians, according to the Declaration of Principles.
- The Oslo Accords established the Palestinian Authority (PA) to govern Palestinians in pockets of the occupied West Bank and Gaza under the control of Israel’s occupying army. The PA was supposed to be an “Interim Self-Government'' and only last “for a transitional period not exceeding five years.” The final status agreement was supposed to be based on United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which called for Israel to withdraw from the territories it occupied during the June 1967 war, including the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza. As a result, most Palestinians believed that the Oslo Accords would create an independent Palestinian state in the occupied territories alongside Israel, as part of the so-called “two-state solution” in Palestine/Israel advocated by the international community.
Why Do the Oslo Accords Matter Today?
- The Oslo Accords were a major turning point in relations between Israelis and Palestinians and transformed the Palestinian struggle for freedom and self-determination. They were supposed to lead to peace after decades of violence caused by the establishment of Israel’s apartheid system in Palestine and mass expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland in 1948, and Israel’s military occupation and colonization of remaining Palestinian land that began in 1967.
- However, instead of peace, the Oslo Accords established a new system of Israeli oppression that Palestinians in the occupied territories continue to live under today and divided the Palestinian national movement. The PLO, an umbrella organization that led the movement since the late 1960s, was sidelined as the Fatah party, which has dominated the PLO since its earliest days, established the PA with Israel. This led to a split and at times open conflict between the PA/Fatah and Palestinian political factions opposed to the Oslo Accords, with Israel encouraging divisions as part of a strategy of divide and conquer.
- The Oslo Accords marked the beginning of a bilateral negotiations process, overseen by Israel’s biggest backer, the U.S. government, that would be the template for all subsequent negotiations between Israel and the PLO/PA for decades.
Why Did the Oslo Accords Fail to Achieve Peace?
- Israeli leaders never accepted the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel or a single state in all of Palestine/Israel with equality for both peoples. Instead, Israel exploited the Oslo negotiations process to cement its control over the occupied territories, while shifting responsibility for the occupied Palestinian population from the Israeli army to the PA. As noted by Amnesty International in a 2003 report: “while Israel retained direct control over most of the land, it no longer had to provide the services which an occupying power is required to provide for the occupied population.” Consequently, while the Oslo Accords were being negotiated between 1993 and 1999:
- Israel accelerated the expansion of illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land “to an unprecedented level,” according to Amnesty, on territory that was supposed to form the heart of a Palestinian state. As Amnesty noted: “The settlements’ position has ensured that there is no territorial contiguity between Palestinian communities in different areas of the Occupied Territories.”
- Israel began to impose increasingly severe restrictions on the movement of Palestinians, both within the occupied territories and between the territories and the outside world.
- Israel accelerated its destruction of Palestinian homes and communitiies, mostly under the pretense they were build without approval from Israel, which was and remains nearly impossible for Palestinians to obtain.
- The bilateral negotiations framework of Oslo exacerbated the huge power imbalance between Israel, a nuclear-armed regional superpower backed by the U.S., and stateless, dispossessed Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation. This imbalance was further reinforced by the failure of the U.S. to act as a fair mediator. In the words of longtime senior State Department official Aaron David Miller, who was heavily involved in the Oslo process, the U.S. acted as "Israel's attorney, catering and coordinating with the Israelis at the expense of successful peace negotiations.” Israel used these advantages to drag out negotiations to buy time to expand settlements and create “facts on the ground.”
- Violent, right-wing Israeli extremists further undermined any possibility of the Oslo Accords leading to a lasting peace. In particular, the February 1994 massacre of 29 Palestinians as they prayed in occupied Hebron by a U.S.-born settler, which began a wave of violence that undermined support for negotiations on both sides, and the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995 by a Jewish extremist opposed to any negotiations with the Palestinians or withdrawal from occupied Palestinian land.
Major Impacts of the Oslo Accords on the Ground
- Most Palestinians experienced a deepening of Israel's control over their lives and land, with the PA acting as a subcontractor for Israel’s occupying army. The PA’s paramilitary police, which are armed and trained by the U.S., continue to work closely with the Israeli army to suppress political dissent and resistance to Israel’s occupation and apartheid system, with the PA leadership becoming increasingly authoritarian over time. (See here for more on the Palestinian Authority)
- Under the terms of the Oslo Accords, the West Bank was divided into three separate areas: Area A, comprising 17% of the West Bank where most Palestinians live, is supposed to be under PA civilian and security control (under the overall control of the Israeli army); Area B, comprising 23% of the West Bank, is under PA civilian control and full Israeli military control; and Area C, comprising 60% of the West Bank where most settlements are located, is under full Israeli military and civilian control. (See here for map of Areas A, B, and C)
- Between 1992 and 2000, Israel nearly doubled the number of Jewish settlers living illegally on occupied Palestinian land in the West Bank, from 100,500 to 190,206. During the same period, the number of settlers living in occupied East Jerusalem, the putative capital of a Palestinian state, increased from 141,000 to 167,230. As of 2023, there are upwards of 500,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and 200,000 in East Jerusalem, in more than 200 official and unofficial settlements.
- Israel began increasing restrictions on Palestinian movement within the occupied territories and between the occupied territories and the outside world, including a new permit system. At any given time, there are more than 500 physical barriers to Palestinian movement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including military checkpoints where Israeli soldiers routinely humiliate and harass Palestinians trying to cross. These restrictions - which Israeli settlers living illegally in the same territory are not subject to - cause great hardships for Palestinians, preventing the sick from accessing medical care, students from going to school, farmers from reaching their land, obstructing commerce and business, and separating families and friends.
- Israel built a ring of settlements and a wall around the expanded boundaries of occupied East Jerusalem, severing it from the West Bank, cementing Israeli control over the city and preventing most Palestinians on the outside from entering to worship, visit family and friends, do business, or study. Once a center of religious, cultural and economic life for Palestinians in the West Bank, now most aren’t allowed to enter Jerusalem. (See here for a map of settlements around East Jerusalem.)
- Israel separated Gaza from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, even though Oslo’s Declaration of Principles states “the two sides view the West Bank and Gaza as a single territorial unit,” and built an electrified fence around Gaza to keep people in. Since 2007, Israel has imposed a crippling siege and naval blockade on Palestinians in Gaza, which has been condemned as illegal by the UN and human rights organizations.
- The downtown core of Hebron, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, was divided into two sections, one controlled by the PA (H1), and the other, where a few hundred radical Jewish settlers have implanted themselves, by the Israeli army (H2). As a result, the once bustling downtown core has become a ghost town, with Palestinian storefronts welded shut by the Israeli army. The main thoroughfare, Shuhada Street, has been dubbed “apartheid street” because Palestinians are forbidden from walking on it while Israeli settlers can use it freely. (See here for map of areas H1 and H2)
- Between 1993 and 2000, Israel destroyed almost 1,700 Palestinian homes in the occupied territories, according to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, mostly for being built without permission from Israel’s occupying army, which is nearly impossible for Palestinians to obtain. In the ensuing decades, Israel has destroyed thousands more Palestinian homes, farms, and businesses.
- The economic arrangements set out under the Oslo Accords, particularly the Paris Protocol, and Israel’s restrictions on Palestinian movement and development first imposed under Oslo, have devastated the Palestinian economy, which has become largely dependent on international aid and the transfer of Palestinian tax money collected by Israel.