Jordan-Palestine ties strained by peace talks

Relations between the Palestinian Authority and Jordan worsen whenever there’s an Arab-Israeli peace proposal that doesn’t allow for the return of the Palestinian refugees.

al-monitor Protesters from the Islamic Action Front and other opposition parties hold up Jordanian national flags and shout slogans during a demonstration against US Secretary of State John Kerry's framework plan for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, after Friday prayers in Amman, Feb. 14, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed.

Topics covered

refugees, peace talks, palestinian politics, palestinian human rights, palestinian, palestine, jordanian regime, jordan

Mar 23, 2014

Jordanian politicians are good at using a sieve to hide the sun — even the bright sun at the height of summer. Worse, they are convinced of what they are saying, and they try to convince the people, too. They try to address the country’s most difficult problems using slogans that become legally binding without being stipulated by law, and that makes these slogans vulnerable to being replaced by new slogans at any time. Thus, the problems remain unresolved and end up exploding later. This is what is happening with Jordanian-Palestinian relations in Jordan now.

A problem that slogans cannot hide

Jordanian-Palestinian relations have been complicated since the establishment of the Emirate of Transjordan in 1921, which became a kingdom after gaining independence in 1946 and the Palestinian nakba in 1948. The root of the problem is that Palestinian refugees were forcibly moved to the other bank of the River Jordan without the ability to return and became Jordanian citizens in accordance with the Jordanian-Palestinian unity decision of 1949. The latter claimed the Palestinian territories that were not occupied in the nakba as part of Jordan, under the throne of King Abdullah I. The constitution stipulated that the nonoccupied lands were an integral part of Jordan and that their inhabitants were Jordanian citizens.

The matter became even more complicated with the June 1967 defeat, in which Jordan lost even more land, over and above those areas lost in the nakba of 1948. After the defeat, more Palestinians in the West Bank moved to Jordan (the East Bank) and became Jordanian citizens.

Then, in 1988, Jordan’s late King Hussein disengaged Jordan administratively and legally from the West Bank, a decision that violated the Jordanian constitution. Jordan justified that move by claiming that Arab pressure was exerted on Jordan to empower the Palestine Liberation Organization, which had been recognized as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians in 1974. The Jordanian and Palestinian public criticized the decision, which they considered as conceding occupied Jordanian land that was not occupied on unity day.

Jordanian-Palestinian relations have been formed by political decisions taken by the heads of the political structures on both banks of the river. Those decisions have affected the entire structure of the two peoples, whereby any change will collapse the whole structure.

At first, the relationship was marked by sympathy for a people who had lost their land and become refugees dreaming of return. That sympathy developed into active support for a cause that was considered the primary cause of the Arabs. Moreover, the Palestinian cause became a Jordanian cause in the unity framework. But that didn’t last; in the wake of the 1967 defeat, a new terminology appeared: east Jordanians and Jordanians of Palestinian origin. The objective of that terminology was to consecrate the idea that there are two separate peoples and reject the two peoples melting together into one.

East Jordanians feared that the Palestinian majority would crowd them out of the country’s resources and control the Jordanian economy. Thus, east Jordanians rushed to fill the top positions in the state and said that they feared for their national identity. They revolted over losing benefits they would have had were it not for the Palestinian presence.

Racial division was thus established in Jordanian society, and that division was reinforced by the events of Black September in 1970 between the Palestinian resistance and the Jordanian army. This ended with the exit of the Palestinian resistance from Jordan forever.

The Palestinians said that they left Jordan after a massacre that targeted their presence, while the Jordanians said that they protected their country from the ambitions of armed gangs. Each party retains a painful memory of what happened and considers itself the victim.

Amid this complex relationship and the growing racial discourse, the Jordanian government did nothing to address the root of the problem in the historical context that created it. All the government did was adopt the slogan launched by the late King Hussein: “A country of immigrants and supporters.” But the slogan failed to address the problem because it consecrated the notion that there are two peoples in Jordan, with the east Jordanians having a privileged status over Jordanians of Palestinian origin.

Then the king repeated other slogans whenever the Jordanian-Palestinian relationship was tense: “Jordanians from various roots and origins” and “National unity is a red line.” The elite produced its own slogan: “We are all Jordanians for the sake of Jordan and we are all Palestinians for the sake of Palestine.” Under these slogans, it was forbidden to talk about problems in the relationship and the fears of both sides. East Jordanians who raised the slogans “Jordan is for Jordanians” and “Let’s preserve the national identity” were fought. And slogans launched by Jordanians of Palestinian origin, such as “Fair representation in state institutions” and “Those with transgressed rights,” were also fought. The latter slogan was used after a campaign of systematic exclusion, which Jordanians of Palestinian origin considered a denial of their role in building the country.

The “fire under the ashes” ended up burning the “romantic” slogans, and east Jordanians ended up clashing with Jordanians of Palestinian origin. They traded accusations. The Palestinians were accused of “selling their country,” while Jordanians were accused of being “conspirators against the cause.”

The two sides are fighting to control the majority

The Palestinians are not the only ones who were added to Jordan’s demographic makeup. Before them came the tribes that migrated from different Arab countries over the years, and earlier came the Circassians who took refuge from the Tsarist invasion of the Caucasus in the 19th century. There are also the Chechens, the Armenians and the Hijazis who came with the army of the Great Arab Revolt, which was led by King Abdullah I, the son of Sharif Hussein bin Ali. Then came the Iraqis in the wake of the occupation of Iraq in 2003. And today, there are the Syrian refugees.

In all this mosaic of Jordanian society, east Jordanians have no quarrel except with Jordanians of Palestinian origin, who make up one side in the eternal bilateral conflict for the majority.

Official Jordanian statistics show that the number of Jordanians in 1948 was 400,000; that, in the wake of the nakba, the country received 100,000 refugees; that Jordan’s population in 1967 reached 1.2 million and received 400,000 new refugees; that the population in 1990 was 4.17 million and received 300,000 refugees — the Palestinians who were living in the Gulf. The statistics ignore the fact that the latter already had Jordanian nationality and that non-Palestinian Jordanians are also diverse. The statistics make it look like Palestinians were being added to a pure east Jordanian people.

Amid the competition for the majority, the two biggest components recognize that Jordanians of Palestinian origin make up about 35% of Jordan’s 6.5 million people — a figure that has remained constant throughout the history of the relationship, with the rest being east Jordanians — without considering the other components of the social fabric.

A “Catholic marriage” and charges of treason

Efforts to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations aimed at reaching a “final solution” to the Palestinian cause usually raise the tension in Jordanian-Palestinian relations, while that tension declines when the negotiations stall.

The negotiations harm Jordanian-Palestinian relations whenever the proposed solution doesn’t allow for the return of the refugees. Such solutions raise the fears of east Jordanians that Jordan may turn into an alternative homeland for the Palestinians, an idea promoted by the Israeli right. Some fear the formation of a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation, where the Palestinian identity will predominate over the Jordanian one.

Throughout the 66 years of the Jordanian-Palestinian “Catholic marriage,” both sides have accused each other of treason. Therefore, both sides settled on being afraid all the time. Moreover, that fear will continue amid the slogans that try to address the imbalances in the relationship. The latest of these slogans is “in defense of Jordan and Palestine.” It was devised to face the growing racial discourse that accompanied the tour of US Secretary of State John Kerry in the region. Under the slogan of “harmony,” the two sides traded accusations that are sometimes whispered and sometimes said publicly, to assert their inability to reach a final resolution for the relationship.

The above article was translated from As-Safir Al-Arabi, a special supplement of As-Safir newspaper whose content is provided through a joint venture of As-Safir and Al-Monitor.

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