Playing the Identity Card

By Christopher Phillips, The Majalla 6 April 2010

For a country that takes great care to promote a positive image abroad, Jordan has recently been subjected to unusually harsh criticism from Western NGOs. In February, Human Rights Watch accused Amman of arbitrarily withdrawing citizenship from several thousand of its citizens of Palestinian origin, “denying them basic citizenship rights such as access to education and health care.” Similarly, the previous month Freedom House, the Washington-based democracy watchdog, relegated the Hashemite Kingdom from the tiny list of ‘partly free’ Arab governments to the ever-increasing collection of ‘not free’ states in the Middle East.

The two complaints are not unrelated. The failure of Jordanian democratizing initiatives has much to do with government fears that genuine freedom will allow its Palestinian-originating majority to dominate over the East Bank elite who have ruled in Amman since independence. The practice of withdrawing citizenship from a select few stems from the same concerns. Though over half of Jordan’s population are of Palestinian origin, many are economically and politically disenfranchised and social divisions remain acute. Despite sixty years of attempted integration, the Hashemite monarchy has still not come to terms with its ‘Palestinian problem’.

The Hashemites’ fear of its Palestinian population has deep roots. Forty years after Jordan lost the West Bank to Israel, and sixty years since the first Arab-Israeli war, descendents of refugees from both conflicts remain in breeze block refugee camps scattered around Jordan, alongside a further 300,000 that were expelled from Kuwait during the 1990-91 Gulf Crisis. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) that operate these camps, in 2003 1.7 million of Jordan’s 6.3 million population were registered refugees.

It was from these camps that Yasser Arafat’s PLO drew support in the late 1960s until they were crushed by King Hussein’s forces in the 1970 Black September civil war amidst fears that Arafat sought to replace the Hashemite monarchy with a revolutionary Palestinian state. Though Arafat was exiled to Lebanon, the idea of a Palestinian government in Jordan was revived by the unlikely source of Israel’s Likud Party in the 1980s and 90s which sought to legitimize their annexation of the West Bank with the slogan, “Jordan is Palestine.” Despite Hussein signing a peace with Tel Aviv in 1994 and renouncing his own claim to the West Bank in 1988—thereby giving his support to the idea of a separate Palestinian homeland outside of Jordan—the election of Benjamin Netanyahu last year has revived Amman’s paranoia. Indeed, as Human Rights Watch reported, Jordanian officials defended the practice of withdrawing citizenship from Palestinians as a means to counter any future Israeli plans to transfer the Palestinian population of the West Bank to Jordan.

Yet withdrawing citizenship from every Jordanian Palestinian to guard against right-wing Israeli rhetoric would be impossible and such recent actions must be seen more as a method of intimidating disgruntled citizens rather than a tool to actually redress Jordan’s demographic balance. This is in line with a wider practice of official and unofficial discrimination within the kingdom. On the one hand, unlike refugees in Lebanon and Syria, Jordanian Palestinians enjoy full citizenship rights entitling them to live where they like, be educated and to vote. At the same time, many Palestinians face a glass ceiling whereby the vast majority of positions in the army, civil service and government are filled by the East Bank Jordanian minority. Moreover, political discrimination is widespread. Carnegie’s Arab Reform bulletin highlights that in Jordan’s parliamentary elections, urban areas with large Palestinian populations receive the same number of MPs as rural areas with a population up to seven times smaller to ensure the dominance of East Bank Jordanians.

Magnifying these divisions is Jordan’s economy. Whilst western allies have praised King Abdullah II’s market reforms since inheriting the throne in 1999, their effects have been lopsided. Fueled by foreign investment, central Amman is currently awash with cranes building new skyscrapers, banks, luxury hotels and malls—including the new $300 million Jordan Gate complex and the $370 million Abdali Central Marketplace. Yet any benefit is largely restricted to a small elite, and the United Nations Development Programme warned recently that poverty and unemployment, both currently at 13%, is likely to increase. Jordanians already speak of two Ammans: the wealthy West and the poor East. Not surprisingly, most of the inhabitants of East Amman are originally Palestinian.

The division though is by no means black and white, and many among the West Amman elite are themselves of Palestinian origin. At the same time, many of the thousands of Jordanians living below the poverty line have no familial ties to Palestine. Even so, the Jordanian government is well aware of the problem of its mass of urban poor Palestinians, who resent both their economic and political disenfranchisement. This situation is only exacerbated by frustration at Jordan’s policy towards Israel and the Palestinian territories. Despite a decade and a half of peace with Tel Aviv, Jordan’s Palestinians have seen neither material benefits at home nor relief for their relatives in Palestine. Whilst paying lip service to the Palestinian cause, Abdullah II’s apparent compliance with the US and Israel on issues such as the Iraq war, the boycott of Hamas and his comparative silence during the Gaza War only serve to heighten a perceived distance from the government.

Whilst Abdullah is clearly torn between the pro-Palestinian sentiment of his population and the need to toe the line of his western allies to secure aid and investment, the continued revocation of citizenship from Palestinians suggests that the latter will always outweigh the former. On the one hand, Abdullah appears keen to address the divisions in his society. Since assuming power, the King has launched three widespread campaigns to promote national unity. ‘Jordan First,’ ‘We are all Jordan,’ and ‘The National Agenda,’ were all designed to integrate the disparate elements of Jordan’s population, particularly the Palestinians, behind the state and monarchy. Yet these were not accompanied by any real effort to end political discrimination or economic imbalance, so it is not surprising that they had little impact on lessening dissent.

Slogans cannot paper over the cracks of decades of division. Irrespective of developments in the West Bank, until the real problem of economic and political disenfranchisement at home is addressed, Amman is likely to continue to rely on intimidation tactics like revoking citizenship and decreasing freedoms to deal with its disgruntled Palestinians.

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