Twenty-five years ago this month, the signing of the Oslo Accords ushered in a new paradigm in Israeli-Palestinian relations, with negotiations at the forefront. Over the course of several years, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators held countless meetings replete with handshakes and photo-ops. At the same time, and less obvious to the public, they also fundamentally changed the Palestinian physical and legal landscape.
The changes in the legal landscape took a number of different forms: a multiplicity of laws due to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA); a Palestinian legal system unable to confront the occupation; an Israeli system rubber-stamping the occupation; and a bending of international law to appease Israel.
With the establishment of the PA, whose jurisdiction is limited, Palestinians were confronted with a dizzying set of laws: while Israeli military law remains in place in the entirety of the West Bank, Jerusalem and in historic Palestine, Palestinian Authority law, was now in place in Areas A and B, which amount to 41 percent of the West Bank and the entirety of the Gaza Strip.
This legal maze was not merely physical: the laws in place depended upon one’s identity. Thus, for example, unlike in countries around the world where one must abide by the law of the land wherever they are located, the Oslo Accords perversely made the law applicable only to some. To illustrate the point, take, for example, a Canadian national visiting the United States. The Canadian national is not allowed to claim exemption from U.S. law simply because the person is a Canadian national. Rather, the law applies irrespective of nationality.
But, when the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) signed the Oslo Accords, it also signed off on the implementation of a dual set of laws based on nationality, which meant that the PA’s laws could only be applied to Palestinians while Israel maintained exclusive personal jurisdiction over Israelis in all criminal and civil matters, even for offenses committed in areas under PA jurisdiction. In other words, Israeli civilian and criminal law, but not Israeli military law, applies to Israelis irrespective of whether they are in the areas of the PA, in Area C, or in Israel; while Palestinians in areas A and B are subject to Palestinian civil laws and Israeli military law, irrespective of whether they are in Areas A, B, or C. In short, the PLO agreed to apartheid.
Thus, for example, an Israeli who harms or kills a Palestinian in Area A or B cannot be tried for their actions, while Palestinians living in Area C must obtain Israeli permits in order to construct an additional room in their house or even erect a tent or solar panels. Most absurdly, in cases where an Israeli and Palestinian commit the exact same crime, the rights guaranteed to them and the punishment meted out differ substantially.
At the same time, PA laws were solely designed to focus on matters falling within the areas of PA control but not in relation to matters affecting Palestinians beyond those areas. For example, the PA has never made any pronouncements or issued any injunctions in relation to Israel’s theft of Palestinian land, focusing instead on internal matters.
Meanwhile, the Israeli legal system, far from challenging Israel’s occupation, vacillated between rubber-stamping the occupation – as seen in the cases involving home demolitions – and outright refusal to confront the occupation. For example, Israel’s courts have refused to hear challenges to Israeli settlement construction on the grounds that these are issues better left to politicians and not the courts.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the changes in legal landscape is on the international level. While the Oslo Accords state that negotiations will lead to the “implementation of resolutions 242 and 338,” the mere fact that they engaged in a negotiation process over borders, settlements, Jerusalem, and refugees indicate that these matters are up for “compromise.” And, this has been the result: while it is clear that settlements are war crimes, the annexation of Jerusalem is illegal, Israel has no right to one inch of occupied territory and that Palestinians have a legal right to return, the Oslo Accords transformed these rights to mere issues to be negotiated.
Oft-repeated statements from representatives of the international community highlight that Israeli “unilateral actions will not be recognized” and that the occupation “can only be resolved through negotiations.” Stated differently, representatives of the international community are effectively saying that they will recognize those settlements – those war crimes – that the PLO agrees to. This is akin to saying that there are no international standards – no objective laws – but that consent, no matter how it is obtained, can excuse any illegal act.
The impact of these changes is profound. Today, Palestinians maneuver a maze of laws with no recourse in any courts while, internationally, the push toward negotiations has allowed the international community to hide behind meaningless statements and do nothing.
After twenty-five years – and with no prospects for liberation in sight – it is only the PA that continues to buy into the fiction of Areas A, B and C. Israel has long abandoned this division, comforted by the fact that it can continue to impose its military laws on Palestinians and their land. The choice that the PA faces today is whether to withdraw its recognition of the apartheid regime it helped create and withdraw its support for negotiations, or to continue with the fiction that going through this endless maze will lead to freedom.