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A River Runs Through Them the ‘palestinian Question’ on Both Sides of the Jordan

October 13, 2006
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It is one the great unanswered questions in the Middle East today: How will a country of some 6 million people, facing external threats from troublemaking neighbors and internal threats from millions of Palestinians, ultimately solve its Palestinian question and, in the process, define its national character? That country? Hint: It’s not Israel.

Here in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the issue of Palestinian statehood is as critical as it is on the other side of the Jordan River, in Israel.

Since the Palestinian population exceeds that of native Jordanians, and the country’s economy is driven largely by Palestinians, it is unclear what will become of the kingdom if, and when, a Palestinian state is born.

Resolution of this issue is critical to Jordan’s future.

“What is the future of the Palestinians in the kingdom in the context of a final-status agreement?” asked one diplomatic source in Amman who spoke to JTA on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the subject. This is “Pandora’s box,” he said. “It’s the boogeyman in the closet.”

This ostensibly internal Jordanian matter has serious repercussions for Israel as well.

If Jordan’s monarchy were to be overwhelmed by the country’s Palestinian majority, that might take the pressure off Israel to accede to the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank. It also could spur a migration of Palestinians into Jordan.

On the other hand, if this unlikely turn of events were to take place, the reverse could occur: Palestinians in Jordan could also step up the fight for their own state in the West Bank in a bid to unify the Palestinian populations on both sides of the Jordan River. Either way, the Israel-Jordan relationship likely would be transformed from a reliable strategic partnership into a cold peace, at best, or renewed belligerence like that along the Israel-Gaza border, at worst.

“Israel has an interest in a stable Jordan,” said an Israeli Foreign Ministry official on condition of anonymity. “Those Israeli politicians who want [Jordan] to be a Palestinian state”– rather than in the West Bank, on historic Jewish land — “that would bring the problems both here and there.”

The balancing act

There is a great dichotomy here in Jordan. Native Jordanians control the army, dominate the political elite and get most of the good government jobs. The Palestinians, traditionally excluded from public life, have gravitated toward business and become Jordan’s economic engine — not unlike how the Jews of Europe achieved wealth from the late Middle Ages to Early Modern times.

Lacking easy access to jobs in the public sector, many Palestinians have become merchants, businessmen and professionals, and they have invested heavily in their education. In contrast to most native Jordanians, Palestinians here typically also have many relatives abroad, in places like the Persian Gulf and North America, who can provide them with financial assistance, professional connections and economic opportunities. Furthermore, many of the Palestinian refugees who came here from 1948 to 1967 brought with them wealth that was unmatched by that of the locals.

Yet because they are so numerous in Jordan today–Palestinians constitute between 55 percent and 66 percent of the country’s population, according to the more reliable unofficial estimates — the Palestinians also represent a threat to Jordan’s political status quo.

“Jordan’s biggest fear is that this will be the Palestinian state,” the diplomatic source said.

That’s partly why King Abdullah II has been so aggressive about advocating for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza — rather than in his country.

At the same time, Abdullah would be foolish to wish for an exodus of Jordan’s Palestinians. That unlikely event could shatter the country’s economy.

The Jordanian regime therefore must perform the balancing act of keeping the Palestinians in the country and integrating them into Jordanian society while denying them a political voice reflective of their growing numbers.

The monarchy has performed its balancing act by keeping democracy at bay, repressing Palestinian nationalism — Palestinian flags do not fly here, even in Jordan’s Palestinian refugee camps — and granting Jordanian citizenship to the vast majority of the Palestinian refugees here.

Of course, only one man has inalienable political rights in Jordan. The country is not a democracy, and even the legislatures operate at the pleasure of the king. Since 1994, Jordan’s kings have kept a tight rein on Palestinian political power through the country’s senate, whose members are all appointed by the king. In addition, Jordan’s kings have curtailed Palestinian political influence by delaying elections, revoking election laws, pressuring advocacy groups to avoid dealing with “sensitive” issues like human rights or Palestinian identity, limiting press freedoms, and effectively manipulating the electoral system to prevent opposition voices from gaining any real power.

Jordan also has a policy of delineating “country of origin” on Jordanian passports to distinguish Palestinians from “real” Jordanians. This identification of citizens by their national provenance has resulted in discriminatory practices many Palestinians privately complain render them second-class citizens, keeping them out of many plum positions in the army and government.

“The Palestinian says: ‘I pay taxes. I drive the economy. I’m building this country — it was a desert of Bedouins before I got here — but I have no political voice,'” the diplomatic source told JTA. “The Palestinian feels shortchanged.”

Jordanian government officials declined comment for this story.

Faisal Al-Rfouh, a former Jordanian minister and now a professor of political science and vice dean at the University of Jordan, is one of the many native Jordanians who insists on maintaining the status quo regarding the Palestinians.

Rfouh said that rather than grant full-fledged democratic rights to the Palestinians, those rights — insofar as they are granted at all in Jordan — should instead be reserved “for real Jordanian people who received His Majesty King Abdullah I, and were always loyal to the Hashemite family, who never thought to do any harm to their own nation and their king.”

He called this a “special democracy,” saying that the American model of democracy doesn’t suit Jordan.

Two Jordans

Sentiments such as Rfouh’s reflect the East Bank-West Bank schism in this country, pitting native Jordanians, known as East Bankers because of their origins on the east bank of the Jordan River, against West Bankers — Jordanians with Palestinians roots.

“I’d love to have all the Palestinians and all the foreigners go back home,” said Samir Barhoum, editor of the English-language daily Jordan Times. “But is that possible? You have generations of foreigners who came here and were born on the land and do not consider themselves alien.”

Many East Bankers insist on remaining distinct from West Bankers, seeking to cling to their power and wealth by resisting a shift from Jordan’s traditional nepotistic society to a more meritocratic one.

“Here the Palestinians control the press and they want to destroy both countries: Jordan and Israel,” said a Jordanian who asked that his name not be published for fear of retribution. “We respect them as refugees — to go back to their nation, but not to overthrow the regime.” At the same time, many West Bankers are adamant about destroying these divisions and becoming fully Jordanian.

“I would like to forget the past. We try to delete this from our memory,” said Essam Yaghy, a Jordan-born Palestinian. “We teach our kids there is no difference between Palestinian and Jordanian. We don’t care about nationality.”

Over the years, the distinctions between native Jordanians and Palestinians have blurred. Most Palestinians here were born in Jordan and have no other real home, and many East Bankers have married Palestinians, including the king.

Indeed, Palestinians here welcomed Abdullah’s recent call for Palestinian refugees in Jordan to “participate in decision-making” in the country — understood as a sign that the king is willing to give more political power to the Palestinians — and his pronouncements about Jordanians and Palestinians being “one family.” The remarks were seen as a warning to the tribalist old guard in Jordan, which resists the Palestinians’ integration into the country. The king also recently appointed some Palestinians to key posts in his government, including director of his office.

Abdullah knows that if the Palestinians maintain a distinct identity in Jordan, the country could become a Palestinian state simply through the implementation of genuine representative democracy.

The ‘time bomb’ keeps ticking

The debate over national identity in Jordan is tinged with hypocrisy, historians note, because few people here are really native to Jordan. Aside from the Palestinian majority, most of Jordan’s other families migrated here in the last century or so from Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq–including an estimated half-million Iraqis who have come here since 2003, when the United States toppled Saddam Hussein.

Even the Hashemites, who rule the country by way of a hereditary monarchy, came from the Hejaz area of Saudi Arabia as recently as 1921.

As for Jordan’s largest alien population, the Palestinians, it remains to be seen where they will take the country. Will they agitate for Jordan to become a Palestinian state, or will they identify as Jordanians and embrace the kingdom? How will they react if a Palestinian state is created in the West Bank?

Most analysts predict that the vast majority of Palestinians living here would stay in Jordan once a Palestinian state is born across the river. The West Bank has become a poorer, more politically unstable and more dangerous place to live than Jordan.

“Would I go back to Palestine? No. It’s very difficult there. Here I have a home, a family. My kids are in the schools here,” Yaghy said.

But Abdel Mahdi al-Soudi, a professor of sociology at the University of Jordan, said poor Palestinians would go back to the West Bank if they could, since it is their homeland. Whatever happens, the only certainty is that both Israel and Jordan will want any future Palestinian state to be demilitarized to minimize the threat of Palestinian takeover of either country.

Of course, given the current situation in the Middle East, the establishment of any sort of Palestinian state could be years away. In the meantime, the Palestinian demographic “time bomb” in both Israel and Jordan will continue to tick.

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