Fears cloud view from East Bank: Jordan can see benefits from Palestinian independence but could be swamped, writes Sarah Helm from Amman

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THE first farm on the east side of the Allenby Bridge is owned not by a Jordanian but by Mohamed Atiyeh, a Palestinian from an influential West Bank family who fled Jericho after Israeli forces took the West Bank of the Jordan in 1967.

'I bought land near the river to be as close as possible to Jericho. My roots are still there,' Mr Atiyeh said. His family still owns property in Jerusalem's Old City.

Among the East Bank's chattering classes the big question is whether Mr Atiyeh and thousands of other affluent Palestinians will return to the West Bank if self-rule and an independent state come about.

'Of course I will return. I live here not because I chose to but because I had to,' said Mr Atiyeh. 'There is already talk on the West Bank of new demands for land.' And on the East Bank there are fears of a slump in property values. The clean new suburbs of Amman have been largely built by Palestinian entrepreneurs among the 2 million-strong Palestinian population who now make up about half the residents of Jordan. Observers of Jordan's politics are dismissive of Mr Atiyeh's predictions, saying life is too secure for these people to return to an unknown future on the other side.

The new negotiations on Palestinian self-rule have profound implications for Jordan, which is historically, socially and geographically so closely linked. Each section of East Bank society is weighing its own future against the growing possibility of a Palestinian-Jordanian confederation.

Indigenous Jordanians on the East Bank are concerned about preserving their identity. The powerful Islamic movement is warning King Hussein against an American-inspired peace treaty that would threaten their fight for an Islamic Palestinian state. In the refugee camps there is talk of little else but the new hope of return. The business community hopes for new markets. Regional strategists, however, warn of volatile currents across the grubby little stream, which is the river, that could draw Jordan into conflict.

The conflicting reverberations converge on the Royal Court in Amman, where King Hussein is playing a very cool game. If he times his moves correctly, the gains from the peace process for Jordan and the Hashemite dynasty could be great.

There is little doubt that the King, who disengaged from the West Bank in 1988, would like to see ties restored with a close confederation which, in an ideal world, would cast Jordan as a guarantor of Middle East peace and restore the King's influence over the land he lost to Israel in 1967. But the King cannot be seen to be forcing this end. To do so would only revive fears on the West Bank of imperialist tendencies. Instead, he is allowing the new relationship to develop naturally, building up a democratic base at home so decisions will be endorsed by the people and keeping his negotiating team behind the scenes at the talks.

For the East and the West Bank the strengthening of natural ties will come about first and foremost through economic necessity. Despite the air of affluence in some parts of Amman the country's economy has been badly affected by the Gulf war. Saudi Arabia's markets have been largely closed off and American aid withheld as a punishment for what was viewed as a pro-Iraq stance. Sanctions have severely damaged trade with Iraq.

Jordanian investors would look hungrily at new markets in the West Bank. Already the Palestinians are expected to adopt the Jordanian dinar as their currency, controlled by the Bank of Jordan. 'After 25 years of occupation they are not going to be captive to the shekel,' said Fayez Tarawneh, a member of the Jordanian delegation.

Closer economic links will be forged quickly in the knowledge that if Jordan doesn't move in, its Saudi rivals certainly will.

US and European pressure is also pushing pro-Western Jordan towards involvement with the peace plan. America is already talking about financial rewards to Jordan after its latest positive noises in the talks. 'We are inclined now to push hard in Congress to help them,' said US sources in Amman.

As well as the economic momentum there is intense desire on the East Bank for peace, which will strengthen both sides. Kamel Abu Jaber, the Jordanian Foreign Minister, said: 'If Palestinians are hurt we are hurt. There is a unity of aspiration.' There is also growing acceptance in Jordan that, along with the West Bank, it can live prosperously alongside Israel. Crown Prince Hassan talks of the Palestinian entity as a terra media linking Israel, the West Bank and Jordan.

East Bank Palestinians who have lived under the confident and relatively stable rule of King Hussein are ready to push hardest for the closest ties, and some advocate a complete merger of the two countries. They harbour few of the doubts of a Jordanian takeover, which still linger in the West Bank.

Rubbing his two fingers together, a 65-year-old refugee in Baqa camp, near Amman, said: 'We are one people. Jordanians and Palestinians. I want to go back to my land. But if King Hussein wants to rule that will be good.'

The talk of confederation has revived memories of King Hussein's proposal in 1972 for a united Arab kingdom, incorporating both East and West Banks, which was dismissed by Palestinians at the time. 'There is a dream here in Jordan,' Mr Tarawneh said. 'It is not to consider whether a Jordanian is a Palestinian or a Palestinian a Jordanian. But the dream is to have a kind of unity in this geographical area.

'Of course the ideal is for a full, independent state for the Palestinians but, if that is not possible, a Palestinian entity in a confederation with Jordan is a model that has potential.'

It is among the Jordanians that the talk of confederation arouses most fears. East Bankers who are traditionally employed in government jobs have never been as prosperous as the new entrepreneur Palestinian and the latest Palestinian arrivals from the Gulf states. Determination not to be swamped further by incoming Palestinians has begun to bring such voices into the open.

They talk of the threat of further Palestinian emigration to Jordan from the refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria should confederation take place. 'This is Jordan and that is Palestine. We are two different states. It just happened that they lost their land and that we helped them,' said Amr Majali, a supporter of the largely East Bank Jordanian party, al-Ahd.

Other objections to a confederation come from those who believe too much faith is being put in the peace process and that violent opposition could still break out in the West Bank as autonomy begins to take shape. Confederation would almost certainly involve Jordan in underpinning West Bank security, drawing the Jordanian army into quelling Palestinian factional

violence.

Hamas, the militant Muslim movement in the occupied territories that opposes the proposed peace treaties, is an arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has 22 seats in Jordan's parliament. Ziyad Abu Ghaminah, spokesman for the Brotherhood in Amman said: 'We are against any steps which give legality to the Jewish state. Confederation would do just this by accepting the right of Israel to exist on Palestinian land. We will oppose this in every way.'

(Photograph omitted)

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