In Jordan's Nightmare, the Palestinians Arrive in Waves

Jordanians are always asking American diplomats about their fear that Israel is planning a `transfer operation.'

Danny Rubinstein
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Danny Rubinstein

Two weeks ago, the Jordanian authorities reimposed limits on Palestinians entering the country. Mass Palestinian migration from the West Bank to the East Bank is Jordan's "nightmare," as Prof. Asher Susser of Tel Aviv University puts it.

For two years, the Jordanians have been panic-stricken by the prospect of the intifada generating masses of refugees who would flow to Jordan and upset the delicate demographic, economic and political balances that protect the stability of the society and the regime in Jordan.

This is not new. After the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, hundreds of thousands of people from the West Bank moved east into Jordan, almost toppling the Hashemite kingdom. The first half of the 1950s was crisis-ridden for the Jordanians.

In 1951, King Abdullah was assassinated, and the assassination was followed by a string of coup attempts. The same thing happened after the Six Day War in 1967. A civil war erupted in 1968, culminating in September 1970, known as "Black September."

In the summer of 1988, during the first intifada, Jordan's King Hussein declared he was cutting all ties between his kingdom and the West Bank. He did it mostly to prevent emigration eastward. This time, too, after the outbreak of the Al Aqsa Intifada, Jordanian authorities were quick to prohibit nearly any Palestinian movement eastward from the West Bank into the kingdom.

But that's not always possible to contain. Many of the Palestine Liberation Organization's executives, who arrived with Yasser Arafat in the territories to set up the Palestinian Authority, are Jordanian citizens. As distress mounted in the territories, many decided to move their families back to Amman.

Some have homes and other property east of the Jordan River and no difficulty making the move. Nobody has precise data on how many Palestinians from the territories have moved into Jordan, but estimates run to around 50,000 or more.

The possibility of war in Iraq is one of the key reasons for the tightening Jordanian measures of the last two weeks. In the Arab world in general, but particularly the Palestinian world, there is real fear that Ariel Sharon's government will exploit chaos in Iraq to transfer Palestinians to Jordan.

Israeli streets are full of "transfer" graffiti slogans saying: "No Arabs, No Terror," and there are many direct calls for the expulsion of Arabs. Right-wing political movements in Israel preach that ideology - and none of it escapes Palestinian or Jordanian eyes.

The Arab media in recent days has been full of reports about peasants from the Samaria area who can't harvest their olives because of Israeli settler harassment. They emphasize that olives are the last resort for the villagers, who aren't allowed any more to work in Israel and can't get to jobs in other parts of the West Bank because of full closures and partial curfews.

The popular Abu Dhabi television station last week broadcast a dramatic, detailed report on the residents of the tiny village of Yanoun, southeast of Nablus, where everyone ran away because of settler persecution. Meanwhile, some of the residents of Yanoun have returned, after some Israelis from Ta'ayush, the Jewish-Arab cooperation league, moved to the village to protect the Palestinians, and reports in the press about the abandoned village forced the army to promise the villagers protection.

Return tickets

It's against that backdrop that the Jordanians issued regulations requiring all residents of the Palestinian areas who want to go to Jordan to prove they have no intention of remaining in the kingdom.

The Jordanians allow West Bankers to travel overseas via Amman airport, or to pass through Jordan on their way to another Arab country, usually on pilgrimage to Mecca. West Bankers and Gazans therefore have to show the Jordanian authorities round-trip tickets, and all the appropriate visas for their journeys.

A Palestinian who wants to stay in Jordan for special personal reasons has to make sure his Jordanian family puts up financial guarantees for him. A relative has to deposit a bond of 7,000 dinars (about NIS 20,000) to guarantee that the Palestinian will leave within the time allowed. Those who don't leave by their deadline are sought out and deported - and the bond is confiscated.

In recent weeks a day doesn't go by without the Jordanians making statements about their fear the Israelis will conduct a "transfer operation." American diplomats say they are repeatedly asked about it.

Those working most actively against a wave of Palestinian emigration to Jordan are the Jordanian nationalist groups, meaning people whose origins are in East Jordan (and who can fairly be described as anti-Palestinian). Their spokesman is the Christian journalist Fahed Al-Funk, who has a well-known column in the popular Al Ra'I newspaper, in which he constantly lambasts any plan for cooperation or confederation between Jordan and the Palestinians.

These groups are apparently finding attentive ears in the royal palace. In the past, King Hussein was deeply involved in West Bank and Jerusalem affairs, even after he lost to them in the 1967 war. His son, Abdullah II, is not so involved. He could barely agree to send a contractor to do repair work on the southern wall of the Temple Mount after the Israelis and Palestinians were unable to decide who would do the job.

It's possible the close relations Abdullah has developed with Iraq have something to do with this. A large part of Jordanian agricultural and industrial exports go to Iraq. The Jordanians get money and - more important - oil from Iraq, practically for free. There are hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees in Jordan, and they are a relatively quiet minority. The Jordanian connection with Iraq has blossomed somewhat at the price of Jordan's relations with the Palestinians and the West Bank.

Since the Israeli authorities put a closure on the Palestinian territories and brought hundreds of thousands of foreign workers to Israel to replace Palestinian workers, there's been growing Palestinian pressure on the Jordanians. The equation is obvious.

The more Israel builds fences and checkpoints preventing the Palestinians from moving westward, the more Palestinians have to turn eastward. Thus, a person from Nablus who can't travel overseas through Ben-Gurion Airport has no other way to go but through Amman.

The growing Palestinian dependence on Jordan angers the anti-Palestinian groups in Amman. The number of Palestinians with Jordanian citizenship is estimated to be around 60 percent of the population, and the families of the original Jordanians feel threatened. They know the day is not far off when they'll have to finally resolve the issue of relations between Jordan and the Palestinian entity.

Now, for example, the Palestinian national movement, the PLO, claims to represent all Palestinians, which undermines the legitimacy of a Jordanian political entity in an area mostly populated by Palestinians.

That day could come sooner than many think because war in Iraq could lead to sweeping political initiatives in the area and decisions about the identity of Jordan and the future Palestinian state. The last thing they need now is a new wave of Palestinian immigration to the East Bank and Amman.

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