All the Palestinians got from Oslo was KFC

Dalia Hatuqa

Foreign Policy  /  September 30, 2023

Thirty years of the peace process has left us with less land and fewer rights.

The year was 2003. The West Bank was still battered, its smooth limestone exteriors pock-marked with bullet holes and roads shattered under the weight of Israeli tanks. Less than a year before, Israeli forces had launched a full-scale invasion of six West Bank cities, including Ramallah. The pretext: taking out the Palestinian leadership, mainly Yasser Arafat, and destroying the Palestinian Authority (PA) institutions.

Those of us living there were under curfew on and off for weeks at a time. Tanks roamed the streets, Apache gunships fired into Palestinian Authority ministries and police stations, even F-16 fighter jets were carrying out extrajudicial assassinations.

Palestinians went through it all. The good, the bad, the ugly. The good was how we stuck together, helping each other out, sharing food while under curfew, cooking for the whole building, borrowing whatever we needed from one another. The bad and the ugly ranged from wide-scale destruction of homes and infrastructure, to widespread arrests, detentions, and murder.

Small pockets of freedom existed. When Israeli tanks disappeared, we would take long walks in the neighborhood, roaming the streets just to be outside and remember what it was like to feel the wind on our faces. Sometimes we would sneak over to friends’ houses and stay until the curfew was lifted. On days we were exceptionally brave, we would venture to Jericho, which despite being besieged, had been spared the fate of Jenin, Hebron and the other cities that were attacked in April and May 2002.

It was the first city the Israelis had granted the Palestinians full civil and security control over, turning a once sleepy desert town—known for its fair weather in the winter—into a tourism hub. In the immediate aftermath of the signing of the Oslo peace agreement between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel in 1993, Jericho, the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city, with a rich biblical past, was brimming with tourists.

In 1998, at the pinnacle of these peaceful years, the Intercontinental Hotel Jericho and the Oasis Casino next door became a symbol of the peace that could be: Israelis and foreigners alike frequented it, and mingled with the Palestinian staff, who were forbidden from gambling but allowed to work there.

But it was a peace that never materialized. Following the second Intifada, and especially after the 2002 invasion of the West Bank, Jericho’s nascent tourism sector evaporated and a major source of income died. On a warm day in January 2003, my friend and I decided to go spend a weekend there.

We planned to leave during the six-hour window when the curfew was lifted for people to go buy groceries, and come back a couple of days later when it was lifted again. It was a privilege very few could afford and we knew we were lucky to be able to pretend that the occupation didn’t exist for several days.

But the hotel itself reflected the sad reality of the post-Oslo failure. The rooms were clean, but worse for wear. The pools were practically empty. The lobby was dim and bereft of life. But it was the adjoining casino, shuttered in 2000, that was truly eerie. As two out of maybe 10 other occupants, the manager offered to show us around. It was like stepping into a perfectly preserved time capsule.

The green felt-top blackjack tables were immaculately maintained. White sheets were laid over the plush chairs, slot machines, and roulette wheels to shield them from dust and time—perhaps a sign of hope that they would be used again sometime soon. The chips even lay on the tables, spread out in perfect little towers, waiting for a wager that would never come. It was like taking a screenshot of the Oslo period’s heyday.

I recently spoke to Jamal, a young Palestinian who worked there during that time. He said he made a decent amount of money back then, enough to pay for his undergraduate degree. When I tracked him down earlier this year, he was unemployed, his degree framed, waiting to be hung somewhere.

Today, Jamal says that Oslo was a facade. During its finest hours, he was able to drive in his Palestinian plated car directly to Tel Aviv. He wasn’t afraid to speak Arabic inside Israel. But that’s all that it was, he says. Beach trips, parties and a freedom that came at the expense of many other things. When the bubble burst, the first to go were the young Palestinians who protested outside of Ofer, the prison, court and military installation near Ramallah, throwing stones. There, they were met with live ammunition. There was no mercy.

The years that followed brought with them changes that seemed to suggest a calmer, more stable era. But these changes merely concealed the underlying forces that continued to dictate life in the West Bank and Gaza: Israel’s military rule.

Following Yasser Arafat’s death and Mahmoud Abbas’s election in 2005, there was a lot of international interest in boosting the stature of the Palestinian Authority and the ability of its security forces to enforce law and order—but also, ultimately, to crush dissent. During Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s era (2007–2013), we Palestinians slowly began to see our roads repaved by USAID. Stop lights functioned and people (mostly) obeyed them. Luxurious cafes sprung on every other corner and people began to take out loans for homes, cars and even iPhones.

Life, as we knew it, changed before our eyes. Al-Tireh street, where I lived with my family, became a hub of bustling restaurants and coffee shops. Elsewhere, there were new Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) outlets and gleaming, brand-new apartments. Gated communities sprung up around Ramallah, and high-end cars clogged the busy thoroughfares—many of them belonging to PA officials and upper middle-class Palestinians who benefited from the status quo.

The “economic peace” that is still vociferously defended by both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, actually existed for a few years. It was like Oslo 2.0. And though the Fayyad era was defined by an unsustainable influx of foreign capital, mostly in the guise of aid, it only dressed up the ugly truth of occupation.

While it’s true at that time you could drive from Ramallah to Nablus and barely see an Israeli soldier, Gaza was pulverized several times, killing hundreds of innocent children. Settlement-building went on unabated. Finally, everything fell apart again. By 2013, animus between Fayyad and Abbas had reached a breaking point and he resigned.

Fayyad’s case is instructive. Here is a man that was a darling for the West. He came from the International Monetary Fund, implemented security sector reform, got rid of the armed groups, locked up Hamas members en masse, implemented economic reform, and introduced U.S.-developed financial tools to the West Bank housing market.

In other words, he did everything the Americans wanted, everything the Israelis wanted, everything the European Union diplomats wanted, and still, it wasn’t enough. For ordinary Palestinians, it was one more step that they took to placate Israel and the international community but got them nowhere near equal rights, let alone a state of their own.

Throughout the years, the Intifada fizzled out but it morphed into different manifestations: a “knife intifada,” a “car-ramming intifada,” the “lone-wolf intifada.” Observers speculated and some swore that this would be the third intifada to take over the West Bank, but that never happened.

Yet attacks on Israelis grew and Palestinians started using new ways to exact vengeance. 2014 was the pinnacle of the make-shift, uncoordinated attacks carried out mostly by young men who were not affiliated with traditional parties. They started using kitchen knives or ramming their cars on sidewalks. Israeli authorities didn’t know what to make of these lone-wolf attacks so it continued to do what it did best: collectively punish Palestinians.

Most, if not all, of the houses where assailants and suspected attackers had lived were demolished, their family homes blown into smithereens often in the dead of night. This is what happened to the family of Abdel Rahman Shaludi from Silwan. On October 22, 2014, he drove his car into a Jerusalem light rail stop, killing two people, one of them a baby. Less than a month later, his family’s apartment was destroyed. He was already dead, killed at the ramming site, but his family was punished.

I recall his mother Enas, sitting on an old, worn-out couch in the four-story building their apartment was in. The demolition left seven members of Shaludi’s immediate family—his parents, two boys and three girls, homeless. At that point, they were staying with the extended family in the building until they figured out what to do next. I’ll never forget her solemn face or what she told me: “Violence breeds violence.”

It’s been 30 years since Oslo was inked, and some would say, much has changed, and yet somehow, nothing has. Even during the heydays of the peace years, settlements continued unabated, mushrooming across the West Bank. These days, half a million Israeli settlers live in the West Bank—their shiny red tile roofs a testament to them being out of place. They live on hill summits with an eye on the Palestinians whose land was stolen to make way for the settlers’ homes, pools, and manicured lawns.

They’ve grown emboldened by the Israeli state and their violence knows no bounds. Some of the villages and towns bore the brunt of that state-sanctioned violence more than others. This past February, hundreds of Israeli settlers rampaged through Huwara, near Nablus, leaving at least one Palestinian man dead and hundreds of others injured. They burned cars and torched houses. The violence was so brutal that even the Israeli military commander for the West Bank called it a “pogrom.”

Despite the devastation, Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich still called for Huwara to be “erased”—comments that the U.S. State Department called repugnant. But dozens of videos that have emerged from scenes of similar attacks have shown Israeli soldiers standing idly by, unwilling to protect residents as settlers set fire to Palestinian homes and businesses and blocked emergency services from responding.

Attacks and harassment by settlers are now occur regularly, and largely with impunity. Thirty years on, international outrage and condemnation comes and goes. Worst of all from the perspective of Palestinians, they do not have legitimate political representation. Mahmoud Abbas is still the president of the PA, PLO, and Fatah. The president of everything, as Jamal puts it. And he’s been that since he was elected in 2005.

Over the last two decades, so many promises for elections have been made and broken. Hopes start off high then are crushed by a last-minute statement by Abbas, like a vomit-inducing rollercoaster that finally brings you back to square one. Edward Said predicted in 1993 that the PLO would “become Israel’s enforcer” and that’s what transpired courtesy of a security agreement between the two that Abbas once dubbed as “sacred.”

Unsurprisingly, the Palestinian Authority’s legitimacy has been increasingly challenged, mostly by young Palestinians who see it as an additional layer to their oppression—on top of the Israeli occupation to which the PA is inexorably tied.

Unemployment, poverty and despondence have become the norm here in the West Bank; Oslo was a mirage that faded as fast as it took the ink on the agreement to dry.

Today, Jericho’s Intercontinental Hotel, once a symbol of what a shared life with Israelis would be, is no longer. It was downgraded from a five-star hotel and renamed Oasis, perhaps an homage to the defunct neighboring casino.

Palestinians still flock to it during hot summer and warmer winter days, but they are the privileged ones. In the nearby Aqbat Jabr refugee camp, hard-packed sand hills and scrub-brush overlook the sprawling low-rise cinder block and mud brick dwellings. Here, Palestinians still live in dire circumstances. In recent months, Aqbat Jabr has been a constant target for lethal Israeli military raids, bringing death and destruction to Jericho.

This year alone, Palestinians in the West Bank lived through at least three large-scale Israeli raids. Many of them were not even yet born when the Oslo accords were signed and yet they are now feeling the wrath of its failure.

Dalia Hatuqa is a multimedia journalist based in the United States and the West Bank