“Oslo Peace” twenty years on

Are there any Israelis and Palestinians who still believe in peace between them?  Yes, there are, but they are implementing a different “process”.  The following stories are of coexistence.

The atmosphere was hectic and festive, like a bazaar full of colours and scents when Israel and the PLO signed the Oslo Accords, in September 1993. These agreements were hailed almost as a revolution by negotiators on both sides, while critics dismissed them as, “a Palestinian surrender”. 

I was there, at that time, in the land that some people venerate as holy and others fear as a hell on earth. One of the most memorable scenes was of schoolchildren, their backpacks decorated with a national (and illegal) flag, offering flowers to bewildered Israeli soldiers.

Twenty years later I went back to evaluate the so-called “peace process”. Is it alive or dead? Still capable of being reanimated? Or is it buried along with a “two-state solution”? Oslo was a deal between a strong Israel, and a very weak PLO. It was a pact bonding a general, Yitzhak Rabin, who had conquered the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 war, and a guerrilla leader, Yasser Arafat, who had lost Arab support after siding with Saddam Hussein when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.

Going back, one of the immediately striking features is the large concentration of Jewish settlements (about 40% of the West Bank where the number of settlers has increased from 105,000 to more than 550,000, including those in East Jerusalem) – Rabin did not freeze construction, and his successors are still expanding them. There are also increasing numbers of military checkpoints as well as a 441 miles “separation fence” also vilified as the “Apartheid wall”. This is a barrier which is taking over agricultural land and dividing villages. However I got the feeling that the majority of Israelis don’t even notice the occupation.

Udi Goren. All rights reserved.

So, with this gloomy picture, 20 years after Oslo, are there any Israelis and Palestinians who still believe in peace?  Yes, there are, but they are implementing a different “process”.  The following stories are of coexistence – an idea and a practice repudiated by those who defend “co-resistance” against “normalization”, a concept adopted in 2007 by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, as “colonization of the mind whereby the oppressed subject comes to believe that the oppressor’s reality is the only ‘normal’ reality that must be subscribed to, and that the oppression is a fact of life that must be coped with.”   

1. Uri Savir: from Norway to YaLa

If there is one organization that the BDS movement disqualifies as a “normalizer” it must be the Peres Center for Peace, led since its creation, in 1986, by ambassador Uri Savir. The Israeli chief negotiator of the Oslo Agreements is also the founder of YaLa Young Leaders, a Facebook movement that in just two years (from May 2011) managed to connect 400,000 people, from Algeria to Yemen.

“I don't see my peace as a job; I pursue my passion”, Savir said, indifferent to criticism, as he sat at Cafe Michal’s reserved table, on a corner of Dizengoff Street, in Tel Aviv. Constantly consulting the message boxes of a laptop and a mobile phone, collectively defined as his “office”, the diplomat that Rabin and Shimon Peres sent to Norway in 1993, adds: “Oslo was a peace framework. Until then, the Palestinians had never recognized the legitimacy of Israel's existence, and Israel had never recognized the legitimacy of Palestinian national identity. This changed forever. The conflict is no longer existential. A political relationship was established, for better or for worse. It was a point of no return.”

Self-proclaimed “obsessive optimist”, 60-year old Savir is also realistic: “It is taking a long time, maybe another decade or two, but this is normal in such a deep conflict. I am sure that what began in Oslo will succeed during my lifetime. Oslo was a tremendous historical breakthrough with serious disappointments, but it is not dead. In every transition from war to peace, the problem is in the middle. Because in the middle you don't get anything in return; the return comes later. The most important thing is courage, and today courage is lacking in Israel and in Palestine.”

“People are hypnotized by the past, yet it is impossible to agree about the narrative of the past”, Savir contended. “We need to create a narrative of the future.” What could have been done differently if Oslo were to be negotiated today? “I would make it more democratic and inclusive”, he replied. “In 1993 we had a process of elites. Now, I would attract young people – the ones who can make the change.”

And so he did, with the creation of YaLa Young Leaders, “the biggest online peace movement”, which is supported by politicians like Hillary Clinton and celebrities like David Fischer and Dan’L Lewin, vice-presidents of Facebook and Microsoft, actress Sharon Stone and Catalan football coach Pepe Guardiola.  

Udi Goren. All rights reserved.

The numbers popping from his computer screen make Uri Savir rejoice: “We have 400 thousand people talking to each other every day, including in countries like Saudi Arabia and Sudan. The biggest number is from Egypt, more than 105,000, followed by Algeria, Iraq, Morocco and Tunisia. Palestinians are over 23,000; Israelis close to 15,000.” 

“This is the hope”, he underlines. “Their main demands are freedom, education, gender equality and jobs. There is a new generation out there that is much less ideological than the old ones. And their entry ticket into the world is the Internet and English. YaLa is a rebellion for peace.”

2. Gershon Baskin and IPCRI 

To Gershon Baskin, probably the most famous peacemaker in Israel, who became even more famous after he negotiated the release of soldier Gilad Shalit, kidnapped by Hamas, “Oslo was an historical agreement, but not in terms of how to make peace; the process was well intentioned - but very naive.” 

Why? “Because Oslo assumed that in order to resolve the conflict, we had to develop trust beforehand”, clarified the founder of IPCRI (Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information), of which he was co-Director  from 1988 until December 2011. Now he is co-chairman of the board. “That was a nice assumption, but no one ever bothered to stop and think what happens if the trust is not created. What we ended up with was an interim agreement with no final resolution. And that interim agreement only increased opposition to the deal, because it did not confront, at any point, the real issues that bring conflict. “ 

“That's essentially what happened to Oslo: cooperation failed, trust wasn't built and violence increased”, Baskin summed up, as he received me in his house, in Jerusalem, full of African wood sculptures, musical instruments, books and papers dispersed from the living room to the basement (and bunker). Here, he exhibits on a wall a framed letter that he believes was “reluctantly sent” by Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, thanking him for freeing Shalit.

“The demand for Palestinians to fight against terrorism gave way to a sense that they were protecting the continuation of the occupation, while Israel was building more settlements”, Baskin analyzed. “Rabin was assassinated [in 1995] and the new elected Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, was not committed to the process. In fact, he was opposed to it. And the conflict exploded out of control.”

Baskin looks, nowadays, relatively more confident: “As one of the last founding leaders of the Palestinian National Movement, Mahmoud Abbas is perhaps one of the last leaders who can sign an agreement. On the Israeli side, Benyamin Netanyahu is the person we need to make the agreement, because only his right wing camp can make the necessary compromises and not divide the Israeli public in half. “ 

To overcome the lack of mutual trust, Baskin advises: “The only way is secret back-channel talks. Netanyahu cannot go into a real negotiation with the Palestinians and keep his government. Abbas can't go into a serious negotiation with Israelis and keep stability on his own side. We need the Americans - not at the beginning of the process but only at the end; to close the deal, bridge the gaps, give guarantees and put the final touches on an agreement.” 

3. The Mejdi Tours of Aziz and Kobi

Outside the realm of institutions, there are others who engage publicly and openly in the politics of peace. One of the most outstanding examples is 33-years old Aziz Abu Sarah, National Geographical Explorer Leader and co-founder of Mejdi Tours. 

This is a unique travel agency that offers tourists a dual narrative (Jewish and Arab) of disputed sites, and also promotes the sustainable development of local communities: instead of checking into a hotel, for instance, one can choose to stay at family homes. I joined Aziz for one day, travelling from Jerusalem to Sderot, a city in the Negev, close to Gaza. The bus was full of professors and students from two American Christian colleges.

Aziz, who recently created a summer camp for Syrian war refugees in Turkey, spent part of the journey chanting biblical hymns to cheer up the guests. Nevertheless, he “resented religion and blamed God” when his eldest brother died, in 1990, during the first Intifada. It has never been proved that Tayseer threw stones at soldiers, but he was jailed and “forced to confess under torture”. Released in a critical condition after 11 months of imprisonment, he only survived for three weeks in the hospital.

Anger led Aziz to enlist with the military activities of Fatah in order to avenge his brother. Being angry, however, did not eliminate his “sense of emptiness.” He then decided to learn Hebrew in an institute where he met Jews and Israelis who became good friends. One of these is 32-year old Kobi Skolnik, former soldier and settler, and former member of the racist Jewish group Kach – “no longer a fanatic”, according to his own description. Both are now one of the teams of Mejdi Tours guides, sharing their experiences with strangers.

Udi Goren. All rights reserved.

In a stopover in Hebron, pointing to a house where he used to do target practise (shooting at Palestinian targets when serving in the Army), Kobi is interrupted by an amused Aziz to remind him that this is also where his cousin lives. This is a story repeated in every tour to demonstrate how committed they are “to raising awareness and changing mentalities”. Because “Israelis and Palestinians need a cultural not a nationalist revolution”, Kobi said.

To those who cry foul at “normalizing”, Aziz addresses a resolute message: “Writing about life under occupation in a magazine with Israeli writers is not normal. Speaking to classrooms about life in Palestinian cities is not normal. Meeting with Israelis in a dialogue group to discuss how to change the current status quo is not normal. Normalization best describes armchair critics who complain about the occupation without taking action. Normalization is pretending that Palestinians can end the occupation by ignoring Israelis.”

Aziz does not forget the year 2008, when he went to Egypt to receive the Eisenhower Medallion, bestowed by People for People International. Upon arrival, he was arrested as “a liar”. It was “impossible” for a Palestinian to be invited to a ceremony hosted by the then First Lady, Suzanne Mubarak - “I was left in a cell for one day, and the most embarrassing thing was that only an Israeli could get me out of an Arab jail.” 

4. Rami, Bassam, and the Parents Circle-Family Forum

Rami Elhanan was that Israeli. Aziz Abu Sarah calls him “my brother”. Both are leading member of the Parents Circle-Family Forum (PCFF), an organization that unites bereaved relatives in both camps. He says that he “fully understands” those who condemn “normalizers”.

“There is frustration, because nothing happens on the ground”, Rami said, while dining in Sheikh Jarrah, a Jerusalem neighborhood where Jews and Arabs used to gather on Friday to protest against settlers evicting Palestinians from their homes. “Some people consider that ‘normalization’ is worse than occupation, because it damages the struggle for freedom. We meet and hug each other. We eat humus together. But, at the end of the day, Palestinians go back to their everyday harassment, while we, Israelis, go back to our comfortable and easy lives.” 

After this statement, the Israeli who lost his 14-year old daughter, Smadar, killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber on September 4, 1997, looks at his best friend, Palestinian Bassam Aramin, whose 10-year old daughter, Abir, was murdered by Israeli border police, on January 16, 2007, and emphasizes: “Nobody can recriminate against people like us who paid the highest price possible.”

Udi Goren. All rights reserved.

Bassam, 45-years old, a resident of Anata, in the West Bank, was arrested at the age of 17 for tossing grenades at a military patrol. During his 7-year jail sentence he asked if he could watch Schindler's List. “It was the first time I saw a movie about the Holocaust”, he said. “I wanted to see someone kill Jews, torture them. After a few minutes, I found myself crying in sympathy with the children, women and men who were being killed only because they were Jews. Then, I was very angry when I realized that they did not resist.” 

Released in 1993, when Oslo was, in his words “a glimmer of hope”, Bassam gave up the armed struggle to “follow the path of justice.” He won a civil process in court and keeps up the pressure, “to put the killer behind bars”. In 2003, he co-founded Combatants for Peace with Israeli soldiers refusing to serve in the occupied territories.

“Dialogue is the real and most effective weapon”, Bassam asserts. “As fighters we know the meaning of fear and loss. When Abir was killed, it was one of the members of Combatants for Peace who had lost his sister when he was 5-years old who taught me how to be brave and deal with my pain, without more bloodshed.”     

This brother is Elik, son of Rami and of Nurit Peled-Elhanan, an academic awarded with the 2001 Sakharov Prize and daughter of late General Matti Peled, “the peace warrior”. After the killing of Smadar, which “left Israel in a state of shock”, her father started thinking about, “what happened and why”. He realized that had been hiding himself “in a glass bubble that has blown up”, and that he could never go back to the “normal life as a brainwashed Israeli.”

In 2008, he unenthusiastically accepted an invitation from Bassam to attend a PCFF meeting. “The decisive moment” which led to his becoming a member, he told me, was when Palestinian families shook his hands and cried with him. “I was so deeply moved, because we, ordinary Israelis, don’t grow up seeing Palestinians as human beings who share our grief.” 

5 – Adi, Gil and Breaking the Silence 

If you ask Gil Hillel about the media frenzy generated by a certain video showing a group of Israeli soldiers filmed last August dancing at a Palestinian wedding in Hebron, she will say that the footage was not proof of “peaceful coexistence” in the largest city of the West Bank. Instead, it was more evidence of the bad habits of the occupiers, who “invite themselves” to whatever place or event they want.

Gil is a member of Breaking the Silence (BS), an organization created after the Second Intifada in 2000 by “veteran combatants who have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the occupied territories”.

I went with Gil to the city that Palestinians call by its Arabic name of al-Khalil (“Friend”) where she once served in the Sachlav (Orchid) combat unit of Israel Military Police. Now a social worker and university student, she was accompanied by Adi Mazor, another former combat soldier with Infantry Caracal Battalion in Qalqilya, also in the West Bank. They are both 30-year-olds. 

Hebron has been divided since 1997 into two parts – H1 and H2. The H1 area, under the nominal jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority, is home to around 140,000 Palestinians. Another 30,000 Palestinians, plus 500 Jewish settlers, inhabit H2, under exclusively Israeli military control. Here, “77% percent” of the Palestinians “live below the poverty line”, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. 

This is a place venerated by the three monotheistic religions, as it holds sacred tombs of Abraham, a prophet common to all three, and his family. But only a short stroll is needed to convince us that here there is more sinning than sanctity. Recent and ancient massacres still haunt the population, especially the ones living in the Old Quarter, known as “Ghost Town”.

In Hebron, Gil’s task was to control demonstrations by settlers. Protected by 2,000 soldiers - a ratio of 4:1 - they have total freedom. Palestinians have access only to 20-30 square km of the city. To enter the mosque, the faithful have to endure a strict security check. On the contrary, yeshivot  (Jewish seminars) students walk around freely and flamboyantly with their submachine guns and revolvers.

Udi Goren. All rights reserved.

The order that Gil received from her commanders concerning Palestinians was “to instil fear”. She also mentioned shifts when soldiers were bored and would enter Palestinian houses, without any intelligence information. An example: “One night, we shut the family into one room, conducted noisy searches and then left shooting stun grenades in the air. We needed action, and this became routine.”

On our way to Hebron, in a van shared with Yehuda Shaul and Yuli Novak, co-founder and executive director of BS, we stop at a village to buy sandwiches and water. A group of young Palestinian boys approach Adi and Gil, asking for cigarettes. Gil, of Yemenite origin, refuses to speak Arabic, explaining that the words she learnt in the Army “are very aggressive, like ‘Give me your ID, now!’”

Adi, whose grandparents are from Morocco and Tunisia, greets the teenagers in their own language: “Salam” (Peace). But she doesn’t share the tobacco leaves that she will revolve several times while touring Hebron, after crossing the Kiryat Arba settlement. We are about to sit down together at a stone table near Shehada Street, where only two Palestinian shops are allowed to remain open, when she confesses: 

“I don’t know what is the best solution to the conflict: one state or two states. My only belief is that the occupation is wrong and has to end. One Saturday, when my parents visited me, I was guarding a Palestinian man who was blindfolded and handcuffed. I don’t have memories of that moment, but my mother has. I could have prevented that humiliation – I was the gatekeeper. I did nothing. Only after we leave the Army do we begin to understand our actions. As programmed soldiers, we learn to be good shooters and not to think - just how to obey. As women, we even adopt the mannerisms of men. We dress and act like them. I wanted so much to be feared that when young Palestinians tried to start a conversation, saying ‘Hi, pretty girl’, I always became furious and shouted at them: ‘I am a soldier!’ I did not want them to look at me as human, but as someone to be afraid of as they were of the men.”

Wandering through the almost empty and filthy streets of Hebron, Adi and Gil, who now have Arab friends in the mixed cities of Lod and Haifa, try to start a conversation with two Israeli border policemen. They step outside the guardhouse for a moment, perhaps paying more attention to the good looks of both these women than listening to the message they are trying to convey.

All that breaks the ensuing silence is an old settler who, in an act of defiance, screams his gratitude to the Army, for “protecting the Jews”, and behind that a muezzin, his recorded voice chanting Allahu Akbar.

 For Part 2 - the whole series of 20 photographs for 20 years - click here.

About the authors

Udi Goren, from Tel Aviv, is a travel photographer, speaker, teacher and artist. In spite of making a living mostly from travel photography and commercial work, Udi takes on activist projects and aims to make an impact with his photography. He strongly believes that when done right, photography can bring forth great changes.

Margarida Santos Lopes has been reporting on the Middle East since 1979, having covered events from the first multiparty elections in Algeria to the funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. Now a freelance, she was editor of the Foreign Desk and the Sunday magazine of the leading daily PÚBLICO. Her articles about the Oslo Accords in 1993 were honored with one of the most prestigious Journalism awards in Portugal (Prémio Norberto Lopes da Casa da Imprensa).