Jordan seeks to ease travel burden on Palestinian Jerusalemites

Jordan recently announced its decision to allow and arrange for Jerusalem's Palestinians to renew and receive official documents in the city itself, instead of having to travel to Amman, a move widely welcomed by Palestinians.

al-monitor Protesters hold Palestinian flags and shout slogans near the US Embassy in Amman, Jordan, Dec. 15, 2017. Photo by REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed.

Jan 29, 2018

Conflicts often have unintended consequences. The attention that US President Donald Trump has brought to Jerusalem has raised the city’s profile in Palestine and the world, shedding light on the many problems facing the city and its Palestinian population. Jerusalem’s 330,000 Arab residents received a small gift this week in the form of a change in Jordanian policy that will make life a little bit easier. In an interview on a television show dedicated to Jerusalem, Fawaz Shahwan, head of the Civil Affairs Department at the Interior Ministry, said Jerusalemites will soon be able to process personal documents without having to travel to Jordan to do so.

Palestinians registered as residents in Jerusalem are stateless. They are neither citizens of Palestine, Israel or Jordan, but are allowed to carry Jordanian travel documents. In the past, Palestinians in Jerusalem needing to renew a travel document or file a birth or marriage certificate had to travel across the King Hussein Bridge to Jordanian Interior Ministry offices in Amman. Israeli-issued permits to exit across the bridge (NIS 230) and an exit tax (NIS 180) amount to about $120 per person. The fee for a passport is itself 200 Jordanian dinars ($282).

On Jordanian state television Jan. 22, Shahwan said of the change in Jordanian policy, “As part of King Abdullah’s interest in Jerusalem’s holy places and the people of Jerusalem, these services are being made to help strengthen the steadfastness of the people of Jerusalem in their city.”

Talal Abu Afifeh, a resident of Jerusalem’s Shuafat refugee camp and head of the Jerusalem Intellectuals Forum, told Al-Monitor, “The passport issue being renewed in Jerusalem is a good thing. We have been asking the Jordanians for this service for years, and it is a welcomed move to help strengthen our people’s steadfastness.” Jordanian officials plan to open offices in Jerusalem as part of the Jordanian Waqf.

Mahdi Abdul Hadi, founder and director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, told Al-Monitor that there is no separating Jerusalem and Palestine no matter how difficult the situation and no matter the problems and difficulties surrounding documents. “It has been 50 years of suffering [for Palestinians], especially in terms of travel and the [King Hussein] bridge, and therefore any help to ease the life of Jerusalemites is a duty and a responsibility of all Arabs.”

Since capturing and occupying East Jerusalem in 1967, Israel has separated the city from nearby Palestinian towns, including Bethlehem and Ramallah. A census was conducted in summer 1967, soon after the June war, and every Palestinian registered in Jerusalem and their descendants received permanent residency and a blue ID.

Israel's unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem on June 27, 1967, and the imposition of Israeli law meant that residents received Israeli license plates, which allows them to travel freely in Israel and in the occupied territories. They also became eligible to receive social benefits and had the same taxes levied on them as on Israelis, although there has been little spending on Palestinian communities in East Jerusalem. Still, this was viewed as a privilege in comparison with the situation of their brothers and sisters in the rest of the occupied territories who live under military rule and face travel restrictions.

The situation of Jerusalemites changed dramatically after the first intifada, which began in 1987. In 1988, Jordan severed administrative relations with the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and when the Oslo Accords were signed, Palestinians outside Jerusalem became the administrative responsibility of the new Palestinian government. Thereafter, these Palestinians were issued Palestinian passports and other personal documents (birth, marriage, death certificates, etc.). In negotiating Oslo, Israel had fiercely fought against Palestinians in Jerusalem being under Palestinian control, thus turning 330,000 Palestinians — 37% of the entire population of West and East Jerusalem — into political orphans.

This arrangement led to cries from Jerusalemites to Jordan to re-establish relations with them, at least on an administrative level. A political leader in Jerusalem told Al-Monitor that since Jerusalemites have no citizenship in any country, it made sense for Jordan to make an exception for them in regard to the 1988 West Bank disengagement.

As for Jordan’s special relationship with Jerusalem, this was highlighted in the Jordan-Israel Peace treaty and Amman's 2013 agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization on Jerusalem, giving the Jordanian government a role in any negotiated change in the status of the city’s holy places. These agreements, however, deal with land and buildings, ignoring Jerusalemites' actual needs, which have become considerably more acute in recent years, especially after Israel erected the wall around Jerusalem, denying access to the city by Palestinians from the rest of the West Bank.

The wall and other discriminatory Israeli policies have had their economic effects on the people and also on institutions in Jerusalem. Israel continues to close major Palestinian public institutions in violation of a letter of assurance sent by US Secretary of State James Baker on the eve of the Madrid peace talks in October 1991. The Israeli closures include Orient House, the Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce, the Higher Tourism Council and the Jerusalem branch of the Palestinian Prisoners Club. In addition, Palestinian cultural institutions are barred from receiving funds from the Ramallah-based government, leaving them with significant financial problems.

Jordan’s recent policy change, while welcomed by Jerusalemites, is not enough to lead to major improvements. The Palestinian and Jordanian governments thus need to work together to find solutions to the many socio-economic problems that have arisen as a result of persistent Israeli efforts to isolate Jerusalem from its natural Palestinian networks and connections.

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