Hopes and fears bridge the Jordan river: With the prospect of self-rule, Palestinians are reviewing ties with their neighbour. Sarah Helm reports from Jerusalem

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Looking east across the Jordan, the bridge linking the two banks of the river seems remarkably rickety and short. The Jordan is so narrow at this point that the antiquated Allenby Bridge spans only about 30 yards.

From the West Bank there is little outward sign that a different country lies across the water: there is no Jordanian flag on the east side, for Jordan has refused to recognise the crossing as a border since Israel seized the West Bank from Jordanian control in 1967.

The Allenby Bridge is one of only two crossings between the West Bank and Jordan - and the rest of the Arab world. For 45 years its wooden planks have creaked under the strain of relentless traffic: Palestinians travelling back and forth through Israeli security checks and lorries loaded with West Bank produce.

As Palestinians have started serious planning for self-rule, they are reconsidering their curious love-hate relationship with their neighbour. Palestinian leaders have long accepted that the occupied territories, once granted autonomy and statehood, would have to enter into a confederation with Jordan. For the first time this is now a serious prospect and talks are under way about how to transform their cross-border links from the time-warped rhythms of the Allenby Bridge into mutually beneficial collaboration, with open borders, and a free flow of people and trade.

In the West Bank, closer links with Jordan bring hope in some quarters of real equal partnership, allowing Palestinian unity and economic prosperity. In other quarters, the prospect brings only deep suspicion. Old fears of King Hussein's real intentions die hard in the bars of east Jerusalem.

The suspicions of Jordan are rooted in bitter memories of the period from the creation of the state of Israel until 1967, when first King Abdullah and then his grandson King Hussein ruled over the West Bank, and in the disaster of the 1967 war that led to the Israeli occupation, for which many West Bankers still blame Jordan. In 1970, Palestinian-Jordanian rivalry erupted in civil war that left up to 20,000 dead. In 1972, King Hussein suggested confederation under his plan for a United Arab Kingdom. But this was soon torpedoed when the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was recognised as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

The intifada, which broke out in 1987, signalled to King Hussein that the Palestinians were now going it alone and in 1988 the King washed his hands of the West Bank, formally relinquishing any claims, bringing resentment from his remaining supporters for deserting them. The Palestinian determination to go it alone was strengthened by the policy of the Israeli government at the time, which, under Likud, favoured the 'Jordanian option', cutting a deal with Jordan which some right wingers took to mean transferring all Palestinians east across the Jordan river.

Today, with autonomy a real prospect, the official PLO policy on confederation is that it should take place, but only after a fully independent Palestinian state has been established and after a referendum has been held on both sides of the Jordan. This is intended to defuse fears that under autonomy the West Bank might become a satellite of Jordan, thereby giving up its battle for full independence, and playing directly into Israeli hands. However, some Palestinian leaders advocate confederation now, ahead of autonomy, fuelling fears of an early Jordanian take-over.

'There is a lot of suspicion here that Jordan's secret agenda is to take over, but I don't believe it is true,' says Osman Halak, owner of the pro-Jordanian newspaper al-Nahar. Critics say King Hussein would never be content with an equal partnership and, furthermore, a Palestinian state could not enter confederation with a monarchy. 'We hope, as Palestinians, to have a republican system. How can we confederate with a monarchy?' says Riyad al- Malki, a West Bank leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Other West Bank Palestinians are suspicious of the PLO's motives in advocating confederation, and of its growing presence in Amman. Some colleagues of Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader, seem to fear that the local Palestinian leaders in the occupied territories will discard the PLO hierarchy once they have their autonomy and their state. Improved PLO relations with Jordan, however, and a confederation deal, would give Mr Arafat a continuing central role in Palestinian affairs.

The West Bank's historical and emotional attachment to Jordan has also been weakened by the post-1967 generation, which has little memory of Jordanian days and a deep cynicism about the will of any Arab country to help them. The aspirations of this generation have been shaped by the resurgence of Palestinian nationalism and the intifada.

Whatever doubts exist, the West Bank is being inexorably drawn towards confederation by the deep historical, geographical and social ties it has with Jordan. When the interim authority wipes away the 2,000-odd military orders which run life in the West Bank, they will find Jordanian statutes still on the books. The West Bank and Jordan continue to share the same legal tradition; the Jordanian curriculum is still taught in schools; and many Palestinians still hold Jordanian passports.

However, the strongest ties between the two are between the people. With 2 million Palestinians in Jordan - half as refugees - almost everyone in the West Bank has relatives in Jordan. When the practicalities of solving the refugee crisis and unifying the Palestinian people are considered, confederation seems the only answer.

If confederation comes sooner rather than later, it will be for economic reasons. Autonomy cannot take off unless the West Bank and Gaza achieve economic independence and for that they depend on new markets, particularly in and through Jordan. The West Bank's economic relationship with Jordan has been strained by the Arab trade boycott and Israeli security restrictions.

The West Bank depends for about a quarter of its GDP on agriculture - and its only real market lies across the Jordan river. Farmers wishing to take fruit to Amman, however, must first hire a special security truck that meets Israel's specifications. They must also assure the Jordanians that none of the packing used comes from Israel - or the Arab trade boycott is breached. Factories set up in the West Bank since 1967 cannot export through Jordan unless they can show none of their machinery came from Israel. It all costs money and strangles economic potential.

Some economists say confederation should wait until the West Bank is strong enough to face competition. 'Politically we should have confederation soon. But economically we have to wait until we are ready,' says Samir Huleileh, a leading Palestinian economist. Others argue that the consumer should start to benefit from competition now. As one pro- confederation Palestinian put it, closer ties may mean Palestine risks becoming a part of Jordan but, by the same token, 'Jordan would become part of Palestine too'.

Tomorrow: Sarah Helm looks at the East Bank

(Photograph omitted)

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