A Middle East mirage

Twenty-five years ago, Israelis and Palestinians reached out for peace. But it escaped them.

It was 25 years ago on the South Lawn of the White House that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat reached out to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for their historic handshake. A crescendo of applause rose from the audience.

The signing of the initial Oslo accord on Sept. 13, 1993, was seen as a triumph for peace after decades of conflict. The Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization formally recognized each other for the first time, agreeing to strive for coexistence and a lasting peace deal.

The accord’s legacy, though, has been a state of purgatory rather than a new state.

While it provided for partial self-rule for the Palestinian Authority in some areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it did not end the occupation or bring security for Israelis. It helped cement the separation of two peoples, setting boundaries without permanent borders. Today, few Israelis meet West Bankers, West Bankers don’t meet Gazans, and Gazans meet no one.

Even the gains made possible by Oslo now seem to be vanishing, with the Trump administration announcing Monday the shuttering of the PLO office in Washington. As the White House prepares its much-touted peace plan, the two-state solution, which Oslo implied as an ultimate goal, appears more distant than ever.

Much has been written about what went wrong, yet there is no consensus.

Rabin, who had implored his countrymen to give peace a chance, was assassinated a little more than two years after that day on the South Lawn, shot dead by a right-wing Israeli student. Israel kept building Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. With high expectations frustrated by realities on the ground, the accords were blamed for seeding a new round of Palestinian violence.

Those who were born in the shadow of Oslo, who are now 25 years old, shared their reflections about the legacy they inherited, and agreed perhaps only on this: The wave of optimism into which they were born has long ago crested.

The following remarks have been condensed for brevity.

Omri Reftov, a 25-year-old Israeli living in Jerusalem, reflects on the climate of “fear” in Israel during the second intifada uprising.

Omri Reftov, an Israeli raised in Tel Aviv, studies philosophy, history and economics at Hebrew University in Jerusalem after doing his military service in the artillery corps.

I connect the Oslo accords to Yitzhak Rabin and to Arafat and [President Bill] Clinton, but I also think of the conflicts that happened afterwards: Rabin’s assassination, the intifada. I think it was something very brave that they did — that Israel reached an agreement with a group that they always saw as terrorists.

I think it seriously changed the Israeli consciousness. It changed their approach to the Palestinians. Today when we talk about who we need to reach an agreement with, first and foremost it is the Palestinians, before the Syrians or the Lebanese. The Palestinians are first in our minds, and that is because of Oslo.

My feeling is that the agreement has kind of faded over the years. I have never interacted with Palestinians from the West Bank, never. I would really like to visit their areas, but I think there are a lot of barriers. I have a good friend who has gone to Germany to meet Palestinians, and I thought, why do we need to go to Germany to meet Palestinians? They live 20 minutes from me.

My father always told me about the times when Israelis could go to Gaza easily. It was not scary, and at the time of Oslo, there was a feeling of euphoria and finally we were achieving something that resembles peace. But I’ve never felt that same euphoria.

Both our leadership and theirs, no leadership is trying to promote peace or even discussions, and that is a shame. I don’t know if that comes from an ideology saying that peace will not bring security. I can identify with the expectation that along with peace we need to feel secure.

Anas Abu Arish, a 25-year-old Palestinian living in the West Bank, recounts waking up to the sounds of Israeli soldiers raiding a nearby house.

Anas Abu Arish, a Palestinian from the West Bank village of Beit Ula near Hebron, works as an editor at a news agency.

People expected Oslo to bring about some kind of positive change in the region, to get rid of Israeli military rule and bring us an independent Palestinian state out from under occupation. But I believe people misunderstood the agreement and took it for something different than what it really is.

I believe Oslo was an attempt to take the Palestinian revolution and resistance back to Palestine. The leadership saw there was no way to fully liberate Palestine in one shot, so they had this vision aiming to liberate Palestine in steps. I do believe this is what Yasser Arafat was thinking.

The post-Oslo time is not paradise, but it is not hell, either. The only contact I have ever had with Israelis is the Israeli soldiers. The soldiers are always on the checkpoints, and if I want to move from one city to another in the West Bank, I will see soldiers on the way.

Oslo helped in creating an entity for a future Palestinian state. It took the Palestinians from chaos and a lack of vision to a phase where they have Palestinian institutions. Now, at least we can talk about the shape of the future Palestinian state that we will build.

Without defeating Zionism, peace can’t exist in this region at all. I know it is a hard thing to say, but the only solution is the end of one of the two peoples. Either Zionism ends or the Palestinians end.

There won’t be any solution other than for the Zionists to go back to where they came from. Of course, they will refuse. Most Israelis my age grew up in a place called Israel, a different world from their parents, and of course, they won’t agree to this.

Israeli security personnel work to move Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin into a car after he was fatally wounded by a gunman Nov. 4, 1995, in Tel Aviv. The assailant was a right-wing student opposed to the Oslo accords. (AP)

Yaeli and Natan Douek, an Israeli couple, were both raised in a West Bank settlement and now live in another one, Kiryat Netafim, with two children. Yaeli is an administrative assistant at a pharmaceutical company, and Natan manages a factory.

Natan: The truth is that we didn’t really know much [about the Oslo accords], so we did a quick Google search. From what I understood, all it did was allow a Palestinian state to form and basically allow Israel to take its hands out of the area.

Yaeli: I remember since I was very small, my mom blamed everything on Oslo. The Arabs are bad, the agreement is bad, nothing will happen from this process, and it was seen in a very bad light.

Natan and Yaeli Douek, West Bank settlers. “I think a lot of people want something to work, but it’s like we all have our ankles too deep in this muddy water.” (Ruth Eglash/The Washington Post)

Natan: I do know Palestinians. I work with them at the factory, but it is mainly a work relationship. But still we are friends, you can say. Every time they have a holiday, they come back with sweets and stuff for us.

Yaeli: They are very nice. We always say if you have a puncture on a rainy night, only Arabs will stop to help you.

Natan: I do not go into their areas. There are many stories of Israelis with Palestinian friends who go into their areas and end up not coming out alive.

Yaeli: I think that if we want peace, then the idea of two separate states for the two people will not work. In order for us to be safe, we need to control it.

Natan: I think a lot of people want something to work, but it’s like we all have our ankles too deep in this muddy water. On the one hand, the Israelis want their country. It is the land that we’ve been promised, and it belongs to us. We came back for it and we won it, and, on the other hand, there are other people here who want it, too. We can’t really divide something that two nations are connected to in that way.

Right-wing Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon, center, flanked by security guards, leaves the Temple Mount on Sept. 28, 2000. His visit to the contested site, sacred to both Jews and Muslims, touched off violent protests across Israel. (Uriel Sinai Getty Images)
Palestinians stand atop the biblical tomb of Joseph in the West Bank town of Nablus on Oct. 7, 2000. Palestinian gunmen and civilians stormed the Israeli enclave amid days of clashes in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. (Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)
LEFT: The violence across Israel was set off when right-wing Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon, center, flanked by security guards, visited the Temple Mount on Sept. 28, 2000. The contested site is sacred to both Jews and Muslims. (Uriel Sinai Getty Images) RIGHT: Palestinians stand atop the biblical tomb of Joseph in the West Bank town of Nablus on Oct. 7, 2000. Palestinian gunmen and civilians stormed the Israeli enclave amid days of clashes in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. (Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)

Rabab Al-Hajj, a Palestinian, lives in Gaza City, where she studied Arabic in college and now works part-time in e-marketing.

The Palestinian cause was sold out when the Oslo accords were signed. Yasser Arafat signed them under pressure, despite the fact they didn’t contain anything in favor of Palestinians. They’re the reason for our miserable life now. They’re the reason for the losses of all future generations. Our future is lost. People only think of immigration. Almost every house has someone who left for good.

I have friends [in the West Bank]. We know each other online. We’ve never met. This is the dream. We always talk about our meeting, but I doubt it’s going to happen.

Rabab Al-Hajj lives in Gaza City. “How can we talk about peace while there is almost daily bombardment and killing?” (Courtsey of Rabab Al-Hajj)

I traveled outside Gaza only once, when I was young, with my family to Egypt. My parents studied in Egypt, and we have many relatives there. Once I traveled with them. For the West Bank I applied many times for permission, but I never got it.

Everything was a fake. How can we talk about peace while there is almost daily bombardment and killing? Always the excuse is that the Palestinians are the terrorists.

I don’t believe any peace will be reached with Israelis. We are always committed, but they are never committed to any deal that was signed. Palestinian leaders are cheated when they talk about the possibility of peace. If the Palestinian leadership listens to the ordinary people, they wouldn’t go for any peace.

Our original village was confiscated by Israelis, and they are living there. I can’t even see it. I don’t know how peace will happen in such a situation. I don’t think the two-state solution is the best solution. We need our land back.

Israeli border police evacuate Jewish settlers by force from the West Bank outpost of Mitzpe Yizhar, near Nablus, in 2004. Under the international “road map” peace blueprint launched the previous year, dozens of West Bank settlements erected after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took office in March 2001 were slated to be removed. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Ahmed Al-Sheikh, a Palestinian, studies media at Al-Quds University at Abu Dis in the West Bank after being imprisoned for three years for throwing stones at Israelis.

Unfortunately, there were no results from Oslo. Unfortunately, the Israeli authorities did not honor any agreement they made. Also the Palestinian negotiation was weak.

Ahmed Al-Sheikh, a student at Al-Quds University. “It not only separates us geographically, it separates us socially and culturally. Jerusalem is separated from the West Bank. People can‘t communicate.” (Sufian Taha)

It not only separates us geographically, it separates us socially and culturally. Jerusalem is separated from the West Bank. People can’t communicate. I cannot go to Jerusalem. My sister married someone from [the East Jerusalem neighborhood] Issawiya. I didn’t see her for six years.

I will accept the borders [created by the 1967 war] as a temporary measure. All of [the territory occupied by Israel in 1967] and unconditional right of return. Not East Jerusalem — all of Jerusalem for the Palestinian people. I will not accept an Israeli state on the land of Palestine. I will accept us and the Jewish people in one state. It doesn’t matter who will run it, but I will not accept a Zionist state.

Ahmed’s father, Mohammad Al-Sheikh, 73, interjected:

Many people were happy, I remember it so well. But daily we lost use of land. Daily we lost to [Israeli] settlements. We are not against the Jewish people, just against those who expelled us. Now our situation is 100 times worse than the 1990s.

Just give me something. I’m not asking for all of Palestine, just a rubbish state, a very weak state. Even the small things they won’t give us. Just give us the West Bank only. I’d take Imwas, my village, over paradise.

A Palestinian protester slingshots stones toward Israeli forces after a protest along the Gaza Strip border on April 5, 2018. Violence flared for weeks this spring as thousands of Palestinians demonstrated at the border. (Wissam Nassar for The Washington Post)

Stav Nisim Shoshan, an Israeli raised on Kibbutz Matsuba in the Galilee, works for a production company after doing his military service in a tank unit.

It was an agreement that has defined the reality of today. The goal was not to create a country but to create an authority that would be a bit less than a country, so that Israel would still be able to keep track of its own security situation, but to give them some independence.

There was something else: Israel recognized the Palestinian leadership not as a terrorist group, and they recognized Israel. Or their leadership does. I’m not sure about their people.

Stav Nisim Shoshan lives in Tel Aviv. “At the end of the day, we are all human beings; we even have some of the same genetics and history.” (Ruth Eglash The Washington Post)

I only met Palestinians during my army service. I was in the [West Bank] for eight months as a soldier wearing a uniform. Of course you see their life is completely different from our life. We went into a village. It was very relaxed, and young Palestinians came to speak to us about soccer, about Barcelona and Real Madrid, and the beach in Tel Aviv. They told us their dreams were to be a lawyer and go to Tel Aviv. I am sure that a day after that they were throwing stones at us.

At the end of the day, we are all human beings; we even have some of the same genetics and history. I think it would be amazing to visit  Ramallah and eat hummus there! I would go if I felt safe and secure, maybe if I spoke Arabic. But to go as a stranger and it’s obvious I am Jewish, maybe it would be cool, but I’m not sure.

In my immediate group of friends, we are in favor of peace, but we don’t really talk about it that much. We are busy building our lives.

Sufian Taha and Hazem Balousha contributed to this article.

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Credits: Story by Loveday Morris and Ruth Eglash. Video by Jon Gerberg and Joyce Lee. Photo Editing by Chloe Coleman and Annaliese Nurnberg.