Delays that made history repeat itself in West Bank

Ambiguities in the Oslo accords have allowed extremists to flourish, writes Patrick Cockburn
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It has happened before. Two years ago, Baruch Goldstein, an army reserve captain from the Israeli settlement at Kiryat Arba overlooking Hebron killed 29 Palestinians as they prayed in the al-Ibrahimi mosque in the city. This week, Noam Friedman, another West Bank settler serving in the army, opened fire in Hebron's vegetable market 300 yards from where Goldstein carried out his massacre.

The Oslo accord, purportedly an agreement designed to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians, made such atrocities inevitable. It left more than 100,000 settlers in place on the West Bank, the hard core of whom said from the beginning that they would do everything they could to prevent Israeli withdrawal from any part of what they regarded as the land God gave to the Jews.

Oslo also encouraged attacks because it envisaged a long time-frame for its implementation - six years from its signing in 1993 to the end of final status negotiations in 1999. The justification for this was that resistance to such radical change would be less if it took place in stages. In practice, it gave plenty of time for opponents of Oslo, both Israeli and Palestinian, to derail it by bomb or bullet.

The nine months' delay in the implementation of the so-called interim agreement or Oslo II signed by Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, and the previous Israeli government last year, has been portrayed as being largely about the Israeli withdrawal from Hebron. This has not happened by accident. Mr Netanyahu wants to focus on the withdrawal, which is really a partition of the city, and not on the rest of the interim agreement, which would see an end to Israeli predominance in the West Bank.

The redeployment of Israeli troops in Hebron alone will not transform the balance of power on the West Bank. This will happen only when Israel carries out its three-stage withdrawal from rural areas as it is pledged to do under Oslo II. It is this which Mr Netanyahu has been striving to avoid.

The Palestinian population of the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem, is 1.3 million. Of these, around 300,000 passed from Israeli security control when its forces withdrew from six towns at the end of 1995.

An Israeli redeployment in Hebron will mean a further 100,000 Palestinians will gain autonomy. The real change comes when Israeli forces withdraw from the Palestinian villages in rural areas where a further 900,000 Palestinians live. Under Oslo II this was meant to occur earlier this year. Until this happens, Israel will still be in a position to isolate each of the autonomous towns, creating the cantons Palestinians have always feared.

Professor Khalil Shikaki, a leading Palestinian political scientist, says: "Following the three further redeployments, the Israelis should be out of every part of the West Bank except Jerusalem as defined by its municipal boundaries, settlements as defined by their current areas and specific military locations". In other words, around 85 to 90 per cent of the West Bank would be in Palestinian hands. The interim agreement also opens up a right of passage between the 800,000 Palestinians in Gaza and those of the West Bank.

The addition of Hebron to the six other autonomous towns is important for Palestinians but not the central reason why they signed the interim agreement. The economic life of each can be strangled by an internal closure by Israel, which often means no more than putting checkpoints on the main access roads. The Palestinians also fear that if Mr Netanyahu persuades the US and the rest of the world that he has made major concessions over Hebron, international pressure on Israel to implement Oslo will relax.

Not everything can be blamed on Mr Netanyahu and his government. Mr Rabin was ambivalent about Oslo. He signed an agreement withdrawing Israeli troops from populated areas, but at the same time pushed ahead with the construction of a system of "by-pass" roads, designed to rivet the West Bank more closely to Israel.

The ambiguities in Oslo, designed to marginalise opposition, ended up offending everyone. The settlers saw an end to their dreams of taking over the Biblical land of Israel, Palestinians found themselves forced into impoverished ghettos. In a world of disappointed hopes, gunmen like Friedman were bound to flourish.