by Mudar Zahran
Middle East Quarterly
Winter 2012, pp. 3-12 (view PDF)
Winter 2012, pp. 3-12 (view PDF)
Thus far the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has weathered the storm that has swept across the Middle East since the beginning of the year. But the relative calm in Amman is an illusion. The unspoken truth is that the Palestinians, the country's largest ethnic group, have developed a profound hatred of the regime and view the Hashemites as occupiers of eastern Palestine—intruders rather than legitimate rulers. This, in turn, makes a regime change in Jordan more likely than ever. Such a change, however, would not only be confined to the toppling of yet another Arab despot but would also open the door to the only viable peace solution—and one that has effectively existed for quite some time: a Palestinian state in Jordan.
Abdullah's Apartheid Policies
The majority Palestinian population of Jordan bridles at the advantages and benefits bestowed on the minority Bedouins. Advancement in the civil service, as well as in the military, is almost entirely a Bedouin prerogative with the added insult that Palestinians pay the lion's share of the country's taxes.
In his 2011 book, Our Last Best Chance, King Abdullah claimed that the Palestinians make up a mere 43 percent. The U.S. State Department estimates that Palestinians make up "more than half" of Jordanianswhile in a 2007 report, written in cooperation with several Jordanian government bodies, the London-based Oxford Business Group stated that at least two thirds of Jordan's population were of Palestinian origin. Palestinians make up the majority of the population of Jordan's two largest cities, Amman and Zarqa, which were small, rural towns before the influx of Palestinians arrived in 1967 after Jordan's defeat in the Six-Day War.
In most countries with a record of human rights violations, vulnerable minorities are the typical victims. This has not been the case in Jordan where a Palestinian majority has been discriminated against by the ruling Hashemite dynasty, propped up by a minority Bedouin population, from the moment it occupied Judea and Samaria during the 1948 war (these territories were annexed to Jordan in April 1950 to become the kingdom's West Bank).
As a result, the Palestinians of Jordan find themselves discriminated against in government and legislative positions as the number of Palestinian government ministers and parliamentarians decreases; there is not a single Palestinian serving as governor of any of Jordan's twelve governorships.
Jordanian Palestinians are encumbered with tariffs of up to 200 percent for an average family sedan, a fixed 16-percent sales tax, a high corporate tax, and an inescapable income tax. Most of their Bedouin fellow citizens, meanwhile, do not have to worry about most of these duties as they are servicemen or public servants who get a free pass. Servicemen or public employees even have their own government-subsidized stores, which sell food items and household goods at lower prices than what others have to pay, and the Military Consumer Corporation, which is a massive retailer restricted to Jordanian servicemen, has not increased prices despite inflation.
Decades of such practices have left the Palestinians in Jordan with no political representation, no access to power, no competitive education, and restrictions in the only field in which they can excel: business.
According to the Minority Rights Group International's World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples of 2008, "Jordan still considers them [Palestinian-Jordanians] refugees with a right of return to Palestine." This by itself is confusing enough for the Palestinian majority and possibly gives basis for state-sponsored discrimination against them; indeed, since 2008, the Jordanian government has adopted a policy of stripping some Palestinians of their citizenship. Thousands of families have borne the brunt of this action with tens of thousands more potentially affected. The Jordanian government has officially justified its position: Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Nayef Qadi told the London-based al-Hayat newspaper that "Jordan should be thanked for standing up against Israeli ambitions of unloading the Palestinian land of its people" which he described as "the secret Israeli aim to impose a solution of Palestinian refugees at the expense of Jordan." According to a February 2010 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, some 2,700 Jordanian-Palestinians have had their citizenship revoked. As HRW obtained the figure from the Jordanian government, it is safe to assume that the actual figure is higher. To use the words of Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of HRW, "Jordan is playing politics with the basic rights of thousands of its citizens."
But Abdullah does not really want the Palestinians out of his kingdom. For it is the Palestinians who drive the country's economy: They pay heavy taxes; they receive close to zero state benefits; they are almost completely shut out of government jobs, and they have very little, if any, political representation. He is merely using them as pawns in his game against Israel by threatening to make Jerusalem responsible for Jordanians of Palestinian descent in the name of the "right of return."
Despite systematic marginalization, Palestinians in Jordan seem well-settled and, indeed, do call Jordan home. Hundreds of thousands hold "yellow cards" and "green cards," residency permits allowing them to live and work in Israel while they maintain their Jordanian citizenship. In addition, tens of thousands of Palestinians—some even claim hundreds of thousands—hold Israeli residency permits, which allow them to live in Judea and Samaria. Many also hold a "Jerusalem Residency Card," which entitles them to state benefits from Israel. Yet they have remained in Jordan. Despite ill treatment by the Jordanian government, they still wish to live where most of their relatives and family members live and perhaps actually consider Jordan home.
Playing the Islamist Card
The Hashemites' discriminatory policies against the Palestinians have been overlooked by the West, Washington in particular, for one main reason: the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was the beating heart of Palestinian politics, and thus, if the Palestinians were empowered, they might topple the Hashemites and transform Jordan into a springboard for terror attacks against Israel. This fear was not all that farfetched. The Palestinian National Charter, by which the PLO lives, considers Palestine with its original mandate borders (i.e., including the territory east of the Jordan River, or Transjordan) as the indivisible homeland of the Palestinian Arab people. In the candid admission of Abu Dawoud, Yasser Arafat's strongman in the 1970s, "Abu Ammar [Arafat] was doing everything then to establish his power and authority in Jordan despite his public statements" in support of King Hussein. This tension led to the 1970 Black September civil war where the PLO was expelled from Jordan and thousands of Palestinians were slaughtered by Hussein's Bedouin army.
With the threat of Palestinian militants removed, the idea of having the Muslim Brotherhood entrenched in a Palestinian state with the longest border with Israel would naturally be of concern to Israel and its allies.
The only problem with this theory is that the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan is dominated by Bedouins, not Palestinians. The prominent, hawkish Muslim Brotherhood figure, Zaki Bani Rushiad, for example, is a native of Irbid in northern Jordan—not a Palestinian. Salem Falahat, another outspoken Brotherhood leader, and Abdul Latif Arabiat, a major tribal figure and godfather of the Brotherhood in Jordan, are also non-Palestinians. Upon President Obama's announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden, tribal Jordanians in the southern city of Ma'an mourned the terror leader's death and announced "a celebration of martyrdom." Other cities with predominantly Bedouin populations, such as Salt and Kerak, did the same. The latter, a stronghold of the Majali tribe (which has historically held prominent positions in the Hashemite state) produced Abu Qutaibah al-Majali, bin Laden's personal aide between 1986 and 1991, who recruited fellow Bedouin-Jordanian, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, head of al-Qaeda in Iraq who was killed in a 2006 U.S. raid.
The Hashemite regime is keenly aware of U.S. and Israeli fears and has, therefore, striven to create a situation where the world would have to choose between the Hashemites and the Muslim Brotherhood as Jordan's rulers. To this end, it has supported the Muslim Brotherhood for decades, allowing it to operate freely, to run charitable organizations and youth movements, and to recruit members in Jordan. In 2008, the Jordanian government introduced a new law, retroactively banning any existing political party unless it had five hundred members and branches in five governorates (counties). Since such conditions could only be fulfilled by the Muslim Brotherhood, most political parties were dissolved de jure because they did not meet the new standards, leaving the Islamic Action Front as the strongest party in the kingdom.
Both Jerusalem and Washington are aware of the Jordanian status quo yet have chosen to accept the Hashemite regime as it is, seduced by the conventional wisdom of "the devil you know is better than the devil you don't." The facts on the ground, however, suggest that the devil they think they know is in deep trouble with its own supposed constituency.