The image of peace and its aftermath
With The Oslo Accords, the small state of Norway had suddenly done something that the US, a superpower, had not managed on its own.
It had used its smallness, its neutrality and modesty to create a situation catered towards peace, and the ceremony at the White House provided the small state efforts with credibility. Almost twenty years later, Oslo is, what Ben White says, the reason for the lack of a ‘Palestinian Spring’, writes Sille Storihle
IN A commentary in the Guardian on June 11, Ben White sheds light on why there was no ‘Palestinian Spring’. White addresses the lack of pro-democracy rebellions in Palestine, unlike those experienced in the Arab world since spring 2011. He only needs one word to make his point: ‘Oslo’ — the capital of Norway. But in this context Oslo no longer means Norway’s first city, but is an allusion to the spell that enchanted the Palestinian Revolution. Oslo, he says, ‘established a paradigm where the Palestinian struggle for return and decolonisation was turned into a façade of sovereignty, piecemeal concessions and occupation management.’ It turned the Palestinians into ‘employees of the occupation’, to use the words of Hanan Ashrawi, a former spokesperson of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. According to White, Oslo is also to be blamed for a ‘“professionalisation” of NGOs’, a situation where the NGO engagement in Palestine has been turned into a market place, and the various organisations compete for funding and juggle the donors’ various priorities, emphasising certain ways of empowering people whilst ‘marginalising and de-legitimising others’.
Ben White’s analysis of Oslo stands in stark opposition to the associations often made with regards to Norway. Norway has made peace one of its fundamental stands, and also one of its major exports. The country has nurtured and facilitated peace processes across the world, the Oslo Accords in 1993 being one of them. The Norwegian model for peace and conflict resolution is built on Norway’s non-colonial past and close relations to the United States and other great powers such as the European Union and Russia. The nation has economic resources and is dedicated to facilitate conflict resolution. One of the fundamental aspects of the Norwegian model for peace is the willingness to facilitate rather than negotiate, and a stand that claims a position of neutrality. However, the question must be asked — can there really be neutral parties in any process that attempts to resolve a conflict?
The annual celebration of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo City Hall sustains the image of Norway as a peace nation. Since 1901, a Norwegian Nobel Committee, selected by the parliament of Norway, has awarded the peace prize to individuals who made outstanding contributions to peace. Alfred Nobel’s will declared the establishment of the Nobel prizes, and made it clear that a Norwegian Committee would be responsible for the peace prize, while the four others were to be handled by the Swedes. Nobel’s will did not provide any explanations as to why Norway should be the host of the peace prize, but it is believable that the prize itself was a strategic tool to influence the separation of the Norwegian state from the union with Sweden. The official website of the Nobel Peace Prize itself speculates whether Nobel himself ‘considered Norway a more peace-oriented and more democratic country than Sweden.’ So even before the Norwegian state was separated from the union, the idea of Norway as a peace nation was born.
One of Norway’s most mediated, and influential, attempts at facilitating peace was what came to be known as The Oslo Accords, signed between the PLO and Israel in 1993. Over an eight-month period, Palestinian and Israeli delegates met in secret, in remote locations in and around Oslo, to formulate the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-government Arrangements, in which Israel came to recognise Yasser Arafat and the PLO as the official representative body of the Palestinians and the authoritative body within the occupied Palestinian territories. In turn, the PLO recognised the right of the state of Israel to exist and renounced terrorism, other violence and its desire for the destruction of the Israeli state. However, the open-ended nature of the agreement and the lack of accountability for follow up have now resulted in a permanence of the occupation, which continues to this day, masked by a deceptive facade of negotiations and a ‘road map to peace’.
So while the word Norway resonates with peace, Oslo has come to be synonymous with the enabling of a bureaucratisation and continuation of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Despite the recognition by majority of Norwegians regarding the failure of The Oslo Accords, the role of Norway continues to be legitimised through good intentions. When Norway became the host of the backchannel, it took the position of a facilitator, providing neutral grounds for the opposing parties to meet and come to agreements on issues that are still ripping the region apart. Norway’s neutral soil and undisturbed circumstances lend itself for the creation of peace. But Oslo’s failure has blemished the image. Oslo is now blamed for the disarming the Palestinian struggle.
There is a proverb that is very suitable here — ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions.’ Criticising good intentions, however, is inherently difficult, as it slips away quickly into claims of well-meaning and neutrality, especially when most of the process was blocked out of the public eye. Norway’s intentions were not only purely altruistic either — peace in the Middle East would not only benefit the region, it would also reward Norway for being the best in its class of peacemaking. The image of the Oslo agreement that remains in public memory is not from Oslo, but from Washington DC. The mediated moment that made it into history books and which has no credibility today, is the image of the handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, with Bill Clinton smiling in the middle. This image, taken on September 13, 1993, is from the signing ceremony on the White House lawn. The image has deteriorated over the last 20 years, but even in 1993 many people viewed this ceremony with disbelief when they saw it for what it was — a stage created to reinforce the dominance of Israel and the US, but concealed as a fair agreement that would lead to Palestinian self-rule.
The declaration of principles that was signed in 1993 has shown to have several fallacies, which reflect how this event was dedicated to creating an image of peace rather than being devoted to address the core issues of the conflict. Three major issues were not discussed in the declaration. Firstly, the declaration did not deal with resolving the governance of Jerusalem, one of the core issues in the conflict. Secondly, the return of the large amount of Palestinian refugees to Palestine was not addressed, and thirdly, the declaration did not commit to a plan of withdrawing the Jewish settlements illegally built in the West Bank and Gaza. In light of the absence of these issues in the agreements and the overly mediated making of history, staged in Washington, one has to ask: How can the Norwegian engagement remain undisputed and continue to nurture the Norwegian self-image as a ‘peace nation’?
With The Oslo Accords, the small state of Norway had suddenly done something that the US, a superpower, had not managed on its own. It had used its smallness, its neutrality and modesty to create a situation catered towards peace, and the ceremony at the White House provided the small state efforts with credibility. Almost twenty years later, Oslo is, what Ben White says, the reason for the lack of a ‘Palestinian Spring’. On the one hand, Oslo dismantled and caused capitulation of the Palestinian struggle; on the other hand, ‘peace’ became a commodity to be exported by Norway. Despite the fact that the Oslo agreement can now be seen as a setback — a tool for a systematised occupation — it still contributed to maintaining the image of Norway as a peacemaking nation.
Norway was never held accountable for its good intentions that contributed to maintaining a façade of sovereignty. It was Oslo that led, for example, to the division of the West Bank into different administrative divisions, leaving the Palestinians limited control over Area A and Area B and essentially no control over the largest part, Area C. Even if the Palestinian Authority was established pursuant to The Oslo Accords, to govern parts of the West Bank and Gaza, the Israeli occupation has strengthened its grip and made the possibility of a self-sustaining independent Palestinian state even less likely. The Oslo agreement is an example of the two-folded nature of peacemaking. As the stage unfolded, setting the scene for a shift in history, the small state lurked in the background, hoping that the situation would reinforce the image of its nation as one that had contributed to peace on an international scale, whilst eroding the possibilities for another state to gain its independence. Oslo might be to blame for the absence of a ‘Palestinian Spring’, for putting an end to the possibility of a dignified Palestinian sovereign state in the West Bank and Gaza and historical justice for the Palestinians, but nonetheless, Norway gained in the end by being able to maintain its nationhood.
The contradictions are many, and they defeat any understanding of the notion of a nation’s neutrality. The acclaimed image of Norway’s peacefulness and impartial stand should be challenged, as this small state did nothing more than facilitating for the stronger party. As the Norwegian historian Hilde Henriksen Waage put it, ‘the Norwegians could achieve nothing more than the strongest party wanted them to achieve.’ Norway did not have the muscles to challenge the premises laid down by the stronger part, Israel, and therefore its good intentions paved the road to hell. A hell that reached another peak with the Gaza war in 2009, a war that sheds light on another brutal image of Norway’s engagement in the Middle East.
In the 2009 war, the Israeli army launched M72 LAW rockets (light anti-tank weapon) on Gaza, rockets that were produced by the Norwegian company Nammo, a manufacturer of ammunition. The Norwegian state owns 50 percent of the company and is bound not to engage in direct weapons trade with Israel. But, since the M72 LAW rockets where compiled at the Nammo Tally factory in the US, the rules do not apply. So that, once again the Norwegian soil can remain neutral, rules can be bent, as the atrocities are played out elsewhere. And the image of the ‘peace nation’ can live on.
Sille Storihle is a Norwegian artist, currently working on a film on the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords and the construction of Norway's national identity. The project is in collaboration with artist Jumana Manna.
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