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Friday, September 16, 2011

Jordan's Palestinian problem

A must-read piece in Hudson-NY by Mudar Zahran:


The King of Jordan, Abdullah II, delivered a speech on September 11, in which he mentioned the Jordanian civil war of 1970 for the first time ever: "There are not any issues we are too embarrassed to discuss, even if there is someone who wants to discuss the incidents of 1970, this is a part of history; let us think of the future and not the past."

Commenting on the fear of Jordan's Bedouin minority -- who make up the king's military and are the protected class -- that Jordan might become the Palestinian majority's homeland -- a plan dubbed "the alternative homeland" by the local media -- the king said: "I would like to assure everyone that Jordan will not be an alternative country to anyone. Is it even logical that Jordan will become an alternative to anyone while we sit there and do nothing? We have an army and we are willing to fight for our country and for the future of Jordan, and we must speak vigorously and not ever allow this idea to remain in the minds of some of us….We have fought Israel before many times."

"Jordan and the future of Palestine," he added, "are much stronger than Israel today; the Israeli is the one who is afraid….When I was in the United States, I spoke to an Israeli intellectual; he told me that what was happening in Arab countries today is in the interests of Israel. I told him, 'I think it is the opposite: your situation today is much harder than before.'"

King Abdullah also mentioned the need to address the issue of "national identity" in Jordan -- a phrase associated with isolating the Palestinians, who make up 80% of the population, in favor of the Beduin minority, for whom he would establish Jordan as a purely Bedouin state: "We must speak with a loud voice about the Jordanian identity," he said, "yet national unity is a red line." In other words, the king openly supports talk about imposing a Jordanian Bedouin identity on the country, while at the same time prohibiting any "unity" with the Palestinians -- a notion he had previously denounced.

The king, in his speech, was using a common Arab political trick of saying an undesired thing to the public -- reminding the Palestinians of the civil war in which they were slaughtered -- and then, in the same sentence, ostensibly defusing the threat of another slaughter by adding that he would spare the Palestinians so long as they accept the situation as is, where they are citizens, but still treated as refugees and outsiders in every way.

Although it is common for Arab regimes that are pro-Western to talk tough about the US and Israel every now and then -- to rally their people behind them by threatening these cost-free targets, and thereby divert anger away from their own repressive regimes onto other countries -- this time the context was different: The King's speech, aired on Jordanian national television, came two days after Wikileaks released several US Embassy, Amman, cables that described the testimonies of some Jordanian Palestinians officials who were complaining to Embassy officers about the discrimination against the Palestinians in Jordan. One cable, entitled, "The Grand Bargain," mentioned a Palestinian political leader's belief that the "right of return" was unfeasible - signifying the Palestinians' willingness to accept a permanent home in Jordan --rather than in hoping to return to Israel, as the refugees and five generations of descendants are continually being promised -- in exchange for finally attaining civil rights in Jordan.

The government-controlled Jordanian media expressed anger at the US Embassy -- to the point of issuing calls for a protest against both the American and Israeli embassies in Amman, which they called "the espionage beehive."

The King's talk sounded provocative and terrorizing to the Jordanian Palestinians, who are already discriminated against and disenfranchised politically by the Hashemite regime. The Bedouin-dominated town of Kerak in Southern Jordan, for example, has ten parliamentary seats for fewer than 150,000 voters, while the Palestinian-dominated Amman has barely twenty parliamentary seats for three million voters.

What made matters especially threatening was the way Jordan's Bedouins seem to have understood the King's remarks. The King's statement, for instance, that he would "not feel embarrassed to address any issue including the civil war," seems to have been understood by the Bedouin military as permission to go out and target the Palestinians. Comments on Jordanian social websites, such as Facebook, appeared, with disturbing messages of incitement: Jordanian Bedouins began calling for violence against both Israel and the Palestinian majority. One of commentators said on Facebook: "We shall give the Palestinians another Black September," said one, "only this time we will make it red." Another said: "Those Palestinians are worse than Jews. I could never make out the difference. We will march to kick [the Palestinian] out [of Jordan] and we will knock down the Israeli embassy." Still another said, "You do the killing, guys, just leave the hot Palestinian chicks for me; I will rape their little girls." While this anti-Palestinian sentiment is not new in Jordan, after the King's speech it reached a new extreme.
It seemed as if the king was threatening Israel with a war, and the Palestinians in Jordan with a civil war. This perceived threat translated into protests: one against the American Embassy in Amman on September 15th, and one against the Israeli Embassy for Friday, September 16th. Both protests were called for and organized by Nahid Hattar, a Christian Bedouin writer, who has been calling for ousting the Palestinians from Jordan, and who has openly admitted his direct one-on-one connection to the former chief of the Jordanian Intelligence Department while the latter was in office.
That Wikileaks cable he refers to doesn't only mention a minority of Palestinian Arabs in Jordan who privately believe that "return" will never happen and who want compensation instead - it also mentions East Bankers who want to use the "right of return" to kick out the Palestinian Arab majority:
East Bankers have an entirely different approach to thinking about the right of return. At their most benign, our East Banker contacts tend to count on the right of return as a solution to Jordan's social, political, and economic woes. But underlying many conversations with East Bankers is the theory that once the Palestinians leave, "real" Jordanians can have their country back. They hope for a solution that will validate their current control of Jordan's government and military, and allow for an expansion into the realm of business, which is currently dominated by Palestinians.

¶12. (C) Palestinian-origin contacts certainly have their suspicions about East Banker intentions. "If the right of return happens, East Bankers assume that all of the Palestinians will leave," says parliamentarian Mohammed Al-Kouz. Other Palestinian-origin contacts offered similar observations, including Adel Irsheid and Raja'i Dajani, who was one of the founding members of the GID, and later served as Interior Minister at the time of Jordan's administrative separation from the West Bank in 1988. Dajani cited the rise of what he called "Likudnik" East Bankers, who hold out hope that the right of return will lead to an "exodus" of Palestinians.

¶13. (C) In fact, many of our East Banker contacts do seem more excited about the return (read: departure) of Palestinian refugees than the Palestinians themselves. Mejhem Al-Khraish, an East Banker parliamentarian from the central bedouin district, says outright that the reason he strongly supports the right of return is so the Palestinians will quit Jordan. East Banker Mohammed Al-Ghazo, Secretary General at the Ministry of Justice, says that Palestinians have no investment in the Jordanian political system - "they aren't interested in jobs in the government or the military" - and are therefore signaling their intent to return to a Palestinian state.

¶14. (C) When East Bankers talk about the possibility of Palestinians staying in Jordan permanently, they use the language of political threat and economic instability. Talal Al-Damen, a politician in Um Qais near the confluence of Jordan, the Golan Heights and Israel, worries that without the right of return, Jordan will have to face up to the political challenges of a state which is not united demographically. For his part, Damen is counting on a mass exodus of Palestinians to make room for East Bankers in the world of business, and to change Jordan's political landscape. This sentiment was echoed in a meeting with university students, when self-identified "pure Jordanians" in the group noted that "opportunities" are less available because there are so many Palestinians.

¶15. (C) The right of return is certainly lower on the list of East Banker priorities in comparison with their Palestinian-origin brethren, but some have thought the issue through a little more. NGO activist Sa'eda Kilani predicts that even (or especially) after a final settlement is reached, Palestinians will choose to abandon a Palestinian state in favor of a more stable Jordan where the issue of political equality has been resolved. In other words, rather than seeing significant numbers return to a Palestinian homeland, Jordan will end up dealing with a net increase in its Palestinian population.

¶16. (C) As with their Palestinian counterparts, conspiracy theories are an intrinsic part of East Banker mythology regarding the right of return. Fares Braizat, Deputy Director of the Center for Strategic Studies at Jordan University, told us two of the most commonly held examples (which he himself swears by). The first is that Jordanians of Palestinian origin choose not to vote because if they were to turn out en masse, Israel (and/or the United States) would assume that they had incorporated themselves fully into Jordanian society and declare the right of return to be null and void. The second conspiracy theory, which has a similar theme, is that after the 1994 peace agreement between Jordan and Israel, the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank issued a deliberate directive to "all Palestinians" residing in Jordan to avoid involvement in Jordanian politics so as not to be perceived as "going native." The main point of both theories is that Palestinians are planning to return to a future Palestinian state, and therefore have nothing substantive to contribute to the Jordanian political debate - a convenient reason for excluding them from that debate in the first place.