Since its establishment, the Kingdom of Jordan has suffered from a split personality between two identities, the Jordanian and the Palestinian, that are intertwined like a pair of Siamese twins who hate one another, but cannot part from each other. The source of the problem is the fact that most of the citizens of the Hashemite Jordanian monarchy define themselves as “Palestinians”, but their state is “Jordanian”. So how should they relate to it – as their country or as a foreign interloper?
The core of the problem hinges on the fact that the Kingdom of Jordan is not an entity with historic roots, but rather a modern creation of British colonialism, which succeeded the Ottoman Empire at the conclusion of the First World War. Back then its name was “The Transjordan Emirates” because the British did not have a better, more unique name for it. Jordan is part of the “Sham”, the area that today includes Jordan, Israel, Syria and Lebanon. Until the era of the British Mandate, Jordan was never a state or a distinct country, like – for example – Egypt, and did not have its own local leadership. The British appointed Abdullah, the son of Sharif Hussein, to be responsible for the Transjordan Emirates, despite the fact that the people of the area didn’t see him as a natural leader, or one of their own, as he was born hundreds of kilometers south of Jordan. This fact is the reason that the regime in Jordan is seen as an illegitimate regime by many in Jordan today.
Jordan is culturally divided into two parts: Bedouin on one hand, and farmers and city folk on the other. In the days of the British Mandate, before the establishment of the Emirates, everyone was “Palestinian” because everyone was a resident of the British Mandate for Palestine – the Land of Israel. After the founding of the Emirates, Abdullah, the son of Sharif Hussein from Mecca, was accepted as a legitimate leader mainly by the Bedouin, who formed the locus of those who were faithful to him, however the residents of the villages and cities felt that he was a foreigner whom the British brought in and paid off with a job. Therefore, the Bedouin adopted the identity of the Emirates, and subsequently, starting in the year 1946, assumed identity as subjects of the monarchy; while the residents of the villages and cities continued to call themselves “Palestinians” just as they had during the period of the Mandate. Some of them had family connections with the residents West of the Jordan, and therefore it was easier for them to adopt the Palestinian self-definition, which they preferred over that of “Jordanian”.
In the 1948 war, a few hundred thousand Arabs fled from Israel to Jordan, most being housed in refugee camps. During the years after that, mainly as a result of the Six Day War in 1967, a few more hundred thousand moved to Jordan. All of these are “Palestinians” of another sort: those who in the past lived in “Western Palestine”, and then crossed over the Jordan. All together, the Palestinians form an absolute majority of the residents of Jordan, estimated at 70 percent. The Jordanians – by the way – claim that the Palestinians are no more than 30 percent. The main task of the monarchy since then has always been to unite the two main components of the population: the Bedouins and the Palestinians. In recent years this task has been given the name “Jordan First”, which is to say that all of the residents of Jordan should adopt the common Jordanian national identity, and rise above their traditional cultural differences. Just how effective this campaign has been is subject to disagreement. The king and his supporters speak of “holy unity”, while the Palestinians speak about a feeling of being pushed to the sidelines. This feeling of theirs stems from the fact that government positions are usually given to Bedouins, while the Palestinians are prevented from taking any significant part in governing, and therefore they mainly employed within the private economic sector. Usually the Palestinians are merchants, contractors, professionals and academics; and the Bedouins are officers in the military, police and the Muchabarat (internal intelligence).
Some changes have occurred over the years between the state of Jordan and the Palestinians living within its territory. The first watershed event was the Jordanian occupation of the West Bank in 1948, an occupation that was not internationally recognized. Residents of the West Bank received Jordanian citizenship after the conquest; however the Bedouin governing power related to them as hostile aliens – whoever among them dared to speak of Palestinian identity endangered his life.
A second event was the murder of Abdullah at the entrance of the Al-Aksa mosque in 1951. The claim was that the murder was a result of the negotiations that Abdullah held with the representatives of the Zionist movement. He had no problem negotiating with the Zionists, because he had no special interest in the part of Palestine that was west of the Jordan River and therefore he was willing to give it up to enable the establishment of a Jewish state.
The third event was Israel’s liberation of Judea and Samaria, (the “West Bank”) in the Six Day War (1967), and since then a conspiracy theory has developed that the Jordanian government actually gave up the territory willingly because it didn’t want the Palestinian residents.
The fourth event was the blocking of the connection between the two banks in 1988, as a result of the first Intifada. The disconnection included cancelling the Jordanian citizenship of the residents of Judea and Samaria, which led to the reality in which many of them today lack any citizenship at all. This event added to the suspicion that the only thing the Jordanian government wants is to rid itself of its Palestinian citizens, in order to proportionally increase the Bedouin component of the Jordanian population.
An additional aspect that negatively influences the way the Jordanian government relates to Palestinians is the tension that exists between the right of citizenship and the “right of return”. One would expect any person to want citizenship of the state in which he lives, because citizenship gives him a status of permanency in the state, and basic services such as passport, education, employment, medical care and pension insurance. But in the case of the Palestinians in Jordan, obtaining citizenship means that they have permanent status in the state of Jordan and therefore lose their status as refugees. Therefore they can no longer demand the “right of return”. This matter was exacerbated as a result of the peace agreement between Israel and Jordan in 1994, in which Jordan recognized Israel without demanding from it to recognize the “right of return” of the Palestinians to the West Bank. In the opinion of many Palestinians, the awarding of Jordanian citizenship to Palestinians residing in Jordan serves Israel’s interests because Jordan is thus released from the refugee problem in a way that is unsatisfactory to the Palestinians.
During the past fifty years, since the Palestinian Liberation Organization was founded, a cat and mouse game has been played between the Palestinians and the Jordanian government. The PLO has claimed all these years that it is the “only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” meaning all of the Palestinians in the world, including those Palestinians with Jordanian citizenship. Therefore King Hussein always suspected the PLO of undermining his status among the Palestinians with Jordanian citizenship and trying to incite them against the monarchy. This came to a boiling point in September of 1970, when the PLO took over broad areas in northern Jordan and turned it into an area of Palestinian autonomy with a military dimension. The claim then was that the PLO needed these territories in order to conduct the battle against the state of Israel, three years after Israel had eliminated the PLO from Judea and Samaria. However, Hussein understood that the battle against Israel was only part of the story, while the other part was the desire of the PLO to control the northern parts of Jordan, the areas in which the Palestinians are an absolute majority. Hussein also understood this as “it’s either Arafat or me” so he conducted a massacre among the Palestinians that resulted in the deaths of about 20,000 Palestinians. This seminal event created a positive balance of power for Jordan, the memory of which is not forgotten until today.
The peace with Israel is seen as illegitimate among the majority of Jordanian Palestinians. They see the peace as a personal interest of King Hussein, in order to win Israeli and American support against the neighboring Arab powers to the North and East: (then) Syria of Haffez al-Assad and Iraq of Saddam Hussein. The Palestinians see the peace agreement as a betrayal of their interests, because there was no stipulation for progress in the Palestinian matter, in contrast to the Camp David agreements between Sa’adat and Begin (1978) in which there was a clear reference to the promotion of Palestinian autonomy. Moreover, Palestinians saw the peace agreement between Israel and Jordan as a result of the desire of King Hussein to win recognition of the monarchy by Israel, and thus put an end to the Israeli talk by some – Ariel Sharon for example – about Jordan as a Palestinian state.
Also the internal situation in the Palestinian arena is a source of tension between the PLO and the Jordanian monarchy. Since Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament in January of 2006, PLO figures suspect that Jordan prefers Hamas over the PLO for a number of reasons. The first is the close cultural similarities between the Bedouins of Jordan and Hamas, a movement that is based, in large part, on the groups of Bedouin descent, which constitute a significant part of the population in the Gaza Strip. The second reason is the assumption that in the Palestinian arena, Hamas is the rising power and the PLO is declining, and the Jordanians prefer to connect with the future leadership over those politicians whose star is falling. Another reason is the desire of Abdullah, King of Jordan to placate the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, the ideological brothers of Hamas. Senior PLO people have found ways to express their displeasure with the connection between the Jordanian government and Hamas in the ears of their brothers in Jordan.
An additional problem that has darkened the relations between the Jordanian government and the Palestinians is the claim that Palestinians are marginalized. This is reflected in the absence of Palestinians in the decision-making process, and in positions in the military, security, and intelligence, as well as in their meager representation in political positions. They are discriminated against in the division of electoral districts and therefore the parliament does not reflect their true proportion in the population. The rate of unemployment among Palestinians is high, because the government prefers to employ the graduates of Bedouin universities, and not of the Palestinian ones. In many cases, Palestinians who are suspected of activities against the state have their citizenship revoked, and their ability to appeal the revocation of citizenship is limited. Arbitrary and outrageous decisions are taken against them, and they have nowhere to turn for help.
The marginalization of the Palestinian majority in Jordan spawned talk among them during this past year – the year of the “Arab Spring” – of the “alternative homeland”. Originally, this was a derogatory expression, relating to the intention of Israelis – Ariel Sharon, for example – to turn Jordan into a Palestinian state. The Palestinians want the northern part of Jordan, the area populated by a significant Palestinian majority, to become an autonomous area or even totally independent, regardless of what happens between Israel and the Palestinians who live in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. Because even if a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria will arise, this will not solve the problem of the tension between the Jordanian regime and the Palestinian citizens of Jordan. Therefore they have the right to solve their problem at Jordan’s expense, without regard to any solution that might be found west of Jordan between Israel and the Palestinians of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza.
This explains why King Abdullah has met often with the American President Obama: his father – Hussein – fought with all of his strength against the founding of a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria because he saw it as an irredentist threat to Jordan, while Abdullah is trying to convince the United States into pressuring Israel to establish a Palestinian state quickly in Judea and Samaria, so that he can say to the Palestinian Jordanians, “Whoever is interested in living in a Palestinian state should move to the Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria”. The situation that results is that there is today a sort of negative competition between Israel and Jordan: whichever of the two states will not give the Palestinians a state within its own territory, and succeed in fobbing off the hot potato called the “Palestinian State” to the other side, wins.
There is a certain resemblance between the claim of the Palestinians in Jordan and the claim of the Palestinian Arabs who are citizens of Israel, mainly in the Galilee. Also those Palestinians who are among us (in Israel) claim that a Palestinian state will not solve their problem as a Palestinian minority that lives in a Jewish state. Therefore they demand autonomy, if not independence, in those areas of the Galilee where they are a majority. Israel firmly rejects this demand, and Jordan is no different from Israel in its approach to the Palestinian demand. However, there is one small difference between Israel and Jordan: the Palestinians in Jordan are an absolute majority within the population, while in Israel their proportion (including Bedouins) is approximately one fifth of the citizens of the State of Israel.
The situation in Jordan is fragile, because during the past year the king began to lose esteem among the Bedouins, the traditional supporters of the house of the Hashemites. He apparently does not share his father’s abilities in public relations, and his efforts to placate Palestinian public opinion in Jordan do not please the Bedouins. The economic situation in Jordan also does not add to the stature of the king, and there is high unemployment. The lower the king sinks in status, the stronger become the voices among the Palestinian public to go to battle against the regime, and conduct a struggle like those in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Syria, which was the main feature that characterized public conduct in the Arab world during the past year. Among the Palestinians in Jordan there is plenty of resentment against the regime, and it could very well be that the shock waves of the “Arab Spring” will bring the Palestinian Jordanians out from their tranquil places of business to turbulent street demonstrations, which may begin soaked in blood while no one knows how it might end.
The idea of the “alternative homeland” gives chills to Abdullah II, king of Jordan and his Bedouin supporters, who have no alternative at this point, because if this idea will break out to the streets, he and they may find themselves in a situation similar to Mubarak, in the best case, and in the situation of Qadhaffi in the worst case. In a tribal society such as that in Jordan, things may deteriorate into harsh violence quickly, and the result of the battle might be a bloody scene reminiscent of what has been occurring in Syria during the past year.
The article is published in the framework of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel. Also published in Makor Rishon, a Hebrew weekly newspaper.