JERASH, Jordan – Mohammed Yousef Abu Sulayman is missing his front teeth. The 40-year-old car mechanic lives in the Jerash refugee camp, locally called Gaza Camp for its more than 25,000 refugees whose families fled from Gaza in 1968. As an ex-Gaza refugee without a national ID number, Abu Sulayman has long lived without access to healthcare, full education, representation or any jobs aside from blue-collar labor. Now he also lives without teeth.
Abu Sulayman is one of 16 Gaza Camp refugees who were detained for two weeks in October following a weekend-long clash between the Palestinian camp, neighboring village al-Haddad and Jordan’s public security forces. According to the Jordanian news agency Ammon News, the conflict started as a “tribal altercation” between Haddadi and Gaza Camp residents on the evening of Oct. 3, but shifted into violence between the refugees and police, with tear gas, rubber bullets and rock-throwing throughout the camp.
Despite eyewitness reports of violence on both Palestinian and Jordanian sides, no Haddadi residents have been arrested. Abu Sulayman, on the other hand, told Al-Monitor in an interview that the Jordanian gendarmerie arrested, beat and then detained him for two weeks — even though he took no part in the protests. Charged with “illegal gathering” and “inciting riots,” he's now awaiting trial before the State Security Court.
Mohammed Yousef Abu Sulayman, one of the 16 Palestinian detainees, shows his missing teeth after alleged Jordanian police abuse. (Photo by Alice Su)
Abu Sulayman was asleep when the clashes first started, he told Al-Monitor. A dispute between some youth turned into all out village-camp conflict as Haddadi residents entered the camp on Thursday evening, Abu Sulayman said, looting supermarkets, burning coffee carts and breaking into camp homes. The refugees retaliated, throwing rocks and burning car tires.
Jordan’s gendarmerie was called in to stop the clash. But the police sided with the Haddadi mob, Abu Sulayman said, standing by and letting them attack the camp while holding the refugees back. Tear gas filled the local mosque. Electricity was cut. Parents tried to keep their children at home.
“People were on the roofs, shooting in the air and saying ‘Damn you, go back to Gaza,’” Abu Sulayman said. “There was tear gas everywhere.”
The clashes calmed on Friday evening. Abu Sulayman thought it was all over. He was in his house at 9 p.m., playing with his youngest son while his wife cooked dinner. Suddenly, police forces entered his house.
“There were 12 officers wearing masks,” Abu Sulayman said. “They kicked the door down and beat me in front of my children and wife. ‘You animal, you dog. Who brought you to this country?’ they said. They hit me with sticks and the butts of their guns.”
The police detained Abu Sulayman for two weeks, through the Eid al-Adha holiday, along with 15 other camp residents. They were held in a prison near Irbid while Gaza refugees held a vigil back in the camp, demanding immediate release of the detainees and investigation of official abuse.
“We will remain neighbors, welcoming you like family,” the camp protesters said in a statement to al-Haddad village. “We will not allow the devil to cause a rift between us at any cost.” The statement also included a message to the gendarmerie, saying that individual abuses of power would not undermine the refugees’ respect for Jordan’s public security forces.
Saleh Abu Jeish, a lawyer based in Amman, has taken up the refugees’ case. He is pressing charges against the Public Security Directorate (PSD) for torture, ill treatment and abuse of power, citing detainees’ personal testimonies of being abused by “sticks, electric batons and ropes, among other methods.”
In a statement to Jordanian news site Khaberni, PSD spokesman Amer Sartawi denied Abu Jeish’s claims. “We arrested a specific group of people after they threw rocks at public security vehicles and assaulted the police,” Sartawi said. The lawyer’s torture claims were an “exaggeration and insult,” he said, adding that the electric batons Abu Jeish described do not exist in PSD equipment. “Our officers were only in the camp to protect people and property, maintain security and prevent as much harm as possible.”
Abu Jeish replied that many of the detainees had been arrested without connection to the clashes. “Witnesses, detainees and their family members all confirm that some were arrested while returning from work,” he said. “Others were arrested from their homes without reason.”
Gaza Camp lies less than an hour north of Amman. Its residents have had the same water sanitation network since UNRWA set up the camp in 1968, a dilapidated system of cesspools that store toilet wastewater in underground tanks. An open gutter runs through the middle of every street. When the pipes break, human excrement can be seen flowing and overflowing through them.
The air in Gaza Camp smells like sewage and rotting fruit. According to UNRWA, three out of four shelters in Gaza Camp are unsuitable for living. After 45 years, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) is funding a new sewage system. Gaza Camp’s contaminated water tanks have caused a doubled rate of diarrhea and skin disease versus in other refugee camps, SDC says. Construction is in its early stages.
Abu Jeish said in an interview with Al-Monitor that he feared Jordan’s State Security Court might deport the refugees or keep them from renewing their IDs. Gaza Camp residents are essentially foreigners, Abu Jeish said. Because they came from Gaza instead of the West Bank, ex-Gaza refugees have even less rights than other Palestinian refugees in Jordan. They cannot access most jobs, public welfare or representation. Jordan does not recognize the refugees as citizens, granting them only temporary travel documents that must be renewed every two years. Nevertheless, Abu Jeish said, they should still hold basic rights in court.
“I will appeal to human rights,” Abu Jeish said. “That shouldn’t distinguish between foreigners and Jordanians, or anyone else.”