If you're interested in conversation, most Palestinian taxi drivers will fill your ride with their view of the truth about Israel, the Palestinian territories, occupation, walls and water. I'm almost always interested in conversation, and my ride last week into the West Bank town of Beit Sahur generated the usual download of information.
"We go left here because Palestinians can't use those roads, only these. It's only five minutes from here but we must go around far out of our way," explained Zaid, my driver. But when I took a bus later in the week that went straight ahead, the journey took just as long as turning left.
"They came and took our homes," Zaid began to narrate, repeating a history familiar to many. But to resolve the complex situation Palestinians and Israelis face today, rehashing the events of 1948 and the Arab defeat of 1967 won't suffice. That's why I was struck by comments from a professional in the Palestinian territories' tourism industry who declared that the Oslo Accords of 1993-95 amounted to as serious a nakba, or "catastrophe," for the Palestinians as did Israel's declaration of statehood in 1948.
"At Oslo we traded sovereignty for autonomy," said George Rishmawi, the executive director of the Masar Ibrahim al Khalil, a walking trail extending through the West Bank that combines antiquities and scenery with local encounters, including meals and homestays with people who live along the path. (His political views do not represent his organization; they are personal.)
Though nominal control over certain locales in the West Bank is now given over to the Palestinian Authority, "All the important issues, borders, Jerusalem, right of return, water and statehood were all left to be determined. And here we are more than 20 years later, and nothing's been resolved. The time for a two-state solution has expired," Rishmawi said ruefully. "We are in the no-state solution."
Oslo may be a hit on the New York stage, but it could be losing its audience on the ground where it counts.
Twenty-two years ago, the first portion of the interim agreement called Oslo II concerned water rights. "Israel recognizes the Palestinian water rights in the West Bank," negotiators agreed in Article 40.1: "These will be negotiated in the permanent status negotiations and settled in the Permanent Status Agreement relating to the various water resources." It is significant that the term "rights" was included in Oslo II's Protocol on Civil Affairs. The quantity of water allotted to Palestinians in 1995 was 118 cubic meters per year, taken from previously existing sources in the West Bank. That allotment has not risen in the two decades since — even though the Palestinian population has grown from nearly 2.5 million then to more than 4.4 million today.
According to Amnesty International, "The average water consumption of Israelis is at least four times as much as Palestinians' average water consumption in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. In Gaza, 96 percent of the water is contaminated and unfit for human consumption."
"We are living in a chronic water issue that gets worse every year," Rishmawi noted on a typically sweltering summer day.
Another innovation of Oslo II was the division of the West Bank into Areas A, B and C. Ostensibly the Palestinian Authority has full civil and security control over Area A, which encompasses about 18 percent of the land in the West Bank designated for Palestinians. It was drawn to include major Palestinian cities and other populated areas. Area B, 22 percent of the land, empowers the Palestinian Authority on civil matters while Israel takes charge of security. In Area C, about 60 percent of the West Bank, Israel controls both civil matters and security, including land allocation, construction and infrastructure. The Palestinian Authority is responsible for education and medical services in all three areas, while Israeli military forces may enter all of them at will. That may amount to limited autonomy for Palestinians. But it is nowhere near the realm of sovereignty.
While there is an ongoing debate over whether Israel's control of the West Bank and Gaza is technically an occupation — adherents to the Geneva Conventions and Hague Resolutions say "yes"; the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and others label the areas "disputed" instead — there is no doubt that the Israeli military reigns supreme in the territories. Israel's government collects taxes owed to Palestinian authorities and metes them back monthly; it controls the supply of essentials like electricity, fuel, telecommunication frequencies and water.
"Oslo relieved Israel of its responsibility to provide us basic services as an occupier," Rishmawi declared, "and yet we remain under occupation." In his estimation, Palestinians are mentally, and perhaps emotionally, defeated. "The Israelis won't even let nonviolence win."
But last week's mostly peaceful resolution to civil disobedience at Al-Aqsa Mosque complex shows that nonviolence may still have a part to play in the contemporary Palestinian movement. For two weeks Palestinians and other Muslims refrained from praying at Islam's third most revered place: the home of the gold-domed poster child of Jerusalem's skyline. They were protesting the installation of metal detectors and surveillance cameras at the entrance to the site. Men and women prayed instead in the cool, ancient corridors that lead from Jerusalem's Old City to the plaza where the two important mosques reside; they prayed outside Jerusalem's storied city walls. Meanwhile, the demonstration enjoyed support from capitals and individuals around the world.
"God is everywhere," one foreign woman said as she laid her small rug down on the cold stone to show solidarity with Palestinian protesters. "I don't have to go inside for God to hear me."
The controversial security equipment came down on July 27, and people re-entered the plaza for worship. That night some violence broke out during evening prayers, but on Friday, Islam's holy day, there was calm.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas commended his people. "All stood as one, didn't blink, didn't hesitate and didn't tire," he said. And Palestinians agreed. "People in Jerusalem won today," was a common reaction. "This was a triumph for the people and the Palestinian Authority lost credibility," I also heard said.
A Palestinian businessman in Ramallah wove Oslo together with the temporary triumph of nonviolence: "If I take the 10,000-foot view and look back at the pace over 25 years, I'd say we've come a long way. You know, there's no straight process for building a state."