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Why the Palestinian Authority's biggest claim is a lie

If the only thing PA officials could cite for the disastrous Oslo process is false, why would Palestinians accept them to lead their struggle after three decades of failure and corruption?
Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas chairs a meeting of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in the city of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank on 25 December 2023 (Thaer Ghanaim/AFP)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas chairs a meeting of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in the city of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank on 25 December 2023 (Thaer Ghanaim/AFP)

In the weeks before the 7 October offensive by Palestinian resistance groups, Palestinians globally were marking the 30th anniversary of the failed Olso Accords and analysing the role of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in sustaining this false "framework of peace".

By then, support for the PA had long been dwindling but plummeted even further after 7 October. According to a recent poll, "in the West Bank, 92 percent called for the resignation of [Abbas] who has presided over an administration widely seen as corrupt, autocratic and ineffective".

The PA has lost relevance in a society that has become increasingly critical of its role in furthering their oppression.

Yet in their obsession to destroy all Palestinian resistance movements, US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, along with the European Union, are trying to bring the PA back from the dead - even though Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dismissed the idea in his desperate and brutal attempt to create a new Nakba through his genocidal war.

'Profound historical compromise'

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After the Oslo Accords were signed in September 1993 between then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the PLO had effectively been replaced by the PA as the political body negotiating the future of the Palestinian cause.

Since the signing of Oslo, the number of Israeli settlers increased more than sixfold from 116,000 in 1993 to 750,000 today, according to the UN

Since the establishment of Israel in 1948, it has been a Zionist imperative to ignore the plight of the Palestinians, or simply deal with them as security or demographic problems, rather than look for a sustainable political settlement.

For decades, Israel has refused to acknowledge any Palestinian political or legal rights, and disregarded dozens of international resolutions by the UN Security Council and General Assembly.

Even when Arafat recognised Israel on 78 percent of historic Palestine in 1993, all Israel gave in return was to recognise the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people without any reference to rights.

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The Oslo process was predicated on this profound historical compromise, commonly known as the "two-state solution": One Israeli state on 78 percent of the land occupied in 1948 and one fragmented Palestinian state in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which were occupied in 1967.

However, what has been missing from this framework was a genuine commitment from Israel to achieve this goal. Even before the assassination of Rabin in 1995 by an Israeli extremist, Israel never ceded any grounds on the main issues separating the parties.

Once the PA was set up in 1994, the Oslo process allowed the two parties a maximum of five years to negotiate the "final status" issues. Stated broadly, they included borders, Israeli settlements, the return of the Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem and sovereignty or declaration of an independent Palestinian state.

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When Benjamin Netanyahu, who was utterly opposed to Oslo, became prime minister in his first stint in 1996, he did everything in his power to obfuscate this process. By 1999, even though Israel had committed to an interim agreement, it delayed or cancelled its agreements, such as further withdrawals from Palestinian lands or the release of prisoners.

It had also become clear that when Arafat joined Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and US President Bill Clinton in the summer of 2000 at Camp David, he was set up to be blamed for failing to reach a political settlement as the US president colluded with the Israeli prime minister.

For three decades, none of the US administrations had been serious about pushing the Israelis to reciprocate the historical compromise of the PLO or fulfil the final objective of Oslo. And with each passing year, the two-state prospect became more of an illusion than a solution.

Since the signing of Oslo, the number of Israeli settlers increased more than sixfold from 116,000 in 1993 to about 750,000 today, according to the UN.

As for the other final status issues, Israel, particularly since 2009 when Netanyahu returned to power, has declared its opposition to withdrawing from the Jordan Valley or from any settlements, which surround most Palestinian cities, ceding any sovereignty in Jerusalem, allowing any meaningful number of refugees back to Palestine, or even allowing a sovereign Palestinian state to come into existence.

Israel has also refused to free any of its Palestinian prisoners as stipulated in the Oslo Accords. Instead, it has detained thousands more arbitrarily, under administrative measures without ever being charged. As for Jerusalem, the incursions by Israeli settlers on Muslim holy sites have recently become almost daily rituals.

'Plummeting support'

When Arafat died while under siege in late 2004, Israel facilitated the election of Mahmoud Abbas to become the new head of the PA in 2005. Israel has not allowed any elections to take place since, as he's been very cooperative with its policy of managing its military occupation.

Indeed, since he became the PA president, Abbas began under US pressure a security coordination program with Israel.

It was not only a condition to ensure his survival, but also a sure way to curry favour with the US, which has since bankrolled his security forces.

These forces now number around 70,000 in the occupied West Bank. Their primary task is to protect Israel from any form of resistance, ensure stability and keep the Palestinians in the major population centres under control. These enclaves are about 18 percent of the total area of the West Bank.

With support for the PA plummeting amid Israel's genocidal war on Gaza, Hussein al-Sheikh, the secretary general of the PLO, could only mention one positive outcome of the failed Oslo process. On 17 December, he said that its main benefit was that it "led to the repatriation of two million refugees to the West Bank and Gaza from countries they fled to during the 1948 and 1967 wars with Israel".

As the PA minister of civil affairs and the principal PA liaison with the Israeli military administration, which is the occupying power in the Palestinian territories, Sheikh is considered by many experts as Abbas's designated successor, while also considered by many Palestinians as the principal collaborator with the occupation.

In 2018, I had a heated discussion about the peace process with Mohammad Shtayyeh, the PA prime minister since 2019. He similarly argued that, if nothing else, the Oslo Accords and the PA succeeded in returning two million Palestinians from exile to the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

Abbas, the current PA president whose term expired back in 2010, keeps repeating the same figure before many audiences. This fallacious argument has also been used by other PA officials and supporters on social media.

So the question is: how true is this number, and are PA officials peddling lies?

Fraudulent claims

This figure is in fact fictitious and PA officials have been advancing this lie to justify their failed policies and validate their tenuous hold on power.

In 1994, the number of Palestinians in Gaza was about 731,000, and in the West Bank, there were about 1,444,000. According to the Population Reference Bureau (PRB), the population rate of natural increase (taking into account both annual births and deaths) was 3.9 percent in Gaza and 3.2 percent in the West Bank.

Since Oslo, the number of Palestinians in the West Bank has decreased by almost half a million - not increased by two million as peddled by PA officials

At a rate of 3.9 percent, the population growth calculator puts the number of people in Gaza today at around 2.3 million, which indeed is the case now in 2023.

In the West Bank, with a growth rate of 3.2 percent, the calculator would put the number of people at around 3.7 million in 2023, in contrast to the actual population of the West Bank today, which is 3.2 million.

In other words, since Oslo, the number of Palestinians in the West Bank has decreased by almost half a million (not increased by two million as peddled by PA officials). This is perhaps due to the hardships faced by many Palestinians in the West Bank and the racist Israeli policies implemented there, particularly after Netanyahu and his successive extremist governments came to power in 2009.

Yet the question remains as to how many people have actually returned to Gaza and the West Bank since the establishment of the PA in 1994.

Diana Buttu, author of Fractured Lives: Restrictions on Residency Rights and Family Reunification in Occupied Palestine, published in 2015 by the Norwegian Refugee Council, documented all the restrictions placed on the return of Palestinians. Initially, in 1994, Israel only allowed a quota of 1,500 people per year to return to Gaza and the West Bank under a very restricted family reunification programme.

After many complaints by the PA and pressure by the US administration, the quota was increased to 2,400 per year in 1999. But during the Second Intifada in 2001, the programme was suspended indefinitely. In 2007, when about 1,200 Fatah supporters fled to the occupied West Bank after Hamas took over power in Gaza, they were given temporary, not permanent, stay permits. Moreover, when Netanyahu was re-elected in 2009, an indefinite freeze on family reunification was instituted.

In her research, Buttu interviewed Hussein al-Sheikh in 2012. He told her that, by then, Israel had only allowed 31,830 exiled Palestinians to return to Gaza and the West Bank. She also reported that there were tens of thousands of applications that were never approved or even adjudicated while the freeze was still in force.

The freeze ended briefly in October 2021 when Netanyahu was out of power and only 442 people were approved. The freeze was restored eight months later with the new government of Netanyahu, Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich.

Therefore, according to Sheikh himself and all the available data, less than 33,000 people have been approved to return to the occupied territories by the Israeli Military Authority over three decades. This number was also corroborated in a Human Rights Watch report issued in 2012, which stated that the number of applications that were approved by 2009 did not exceed 33,000, after which no application was approved.

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This is less than 1.7 percent of the figure that's been purveyed by Sheikh, Shtayyeh, Abbas and other PA officials. This is not just a mistake, but a deliberate mischaracterisation of facts. Even when accounting for the half a million people the West Bank had lost over 30 years, the number of Palestinians in the occupied territories has been reduced by 10 percent since Oslo.

If the only thing PA officials could cite for the disastrous Oslo process has turned out to be fraudulent, who among the Palestinians would accept them to lead their struggle after three decades of failure and corruption?

So much for the return of two million Palestinians, which is nothing more than fictional propaganda. And so much for the West's illusion of imposing illegitimate leaders on the valiant Palestinian people.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Sami Al-Arian is the Director of the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA) at Istanbul Zaim University. Originally from Palestine, he lived in the US for four decades (1975-2015) where he was a tenured academic, prominent speaker and human rights activist before relocating to Turkey. He is the author of several studies and books. He can be contacted at: [email protected].
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