Jordan at crossroads as Palestinians seek identity: Underlying tensions are surfacing as the peace accord's implications become clear, writes Charles Richards in Amman

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The Independent Online
CLUSTERED round an intersection in central Amman are three buildings which stand as monuments to the delicate, see-sawing relationship between Jordan and the Palestinians. They are the offices of the Arab Bank, the Palestinians' main financial institution; Jordan's Department of Palestinian Affairs; and the blue building known to more than one generation of Palestinian inmates as the 'free hotel' - the headquarters of the Jordanian mukhabarat security service.

The relationship is changing. Jordan's links with both the West Bank and Gaza, and the Palestinians living in Jordan, are undergoing yet another re-examination. The agreement signed by Israel and the PLO on 13 September, and the accord signed the next day by Jordan and Israel, have for the first time established commitments to the Palestinians' governance of their own affairs, and for the return of some Palestinians (who and how many is yet to be determined) to their homeland.

The PLO-Israel accord aroused grave concern among some East Bankers or Transjordanians. They feared that once the Palestinians gained control of Jericho, Israel might dump unwanted Palestinians there. These would then swell the high numbers of Palestinians already in Jordan, and realise the dream of the Israeli right, that Jordan was Palestine in waiting, the alternative Palestinian homeland.

Transjordanians grumbled too about the dangers posed to the Jordanian economy of the agreement, and expressed concern about being unable to compete with the far more developed Israeli economy.

Yet the eruption of one of these periodic bouts of Transjordanian self-assertion pre-dated the PLO-Israel accord. For several months, Jordanians of Palestinian origin had been complaining of increased anti-Palestinian discrimination. All the sensitivities came out. Transjordanians complained about Palestinian ingratitude. Was not Jordan the only Arab state which automatically granted Palestinians passports and citizenship? And how did these Jordanians of Palestinian origin repay the investment of the state in their education? They had gone off to the Gulf, tempted by higher salaries.

The grumbles were more open than they had been, with Abdel Hadi Majali, brother of the Prime Minister, vocal in his call for a Jordan for the (Trans)Jordanians. Others, like the columnist Tariq Masarwa, from Madaba, felt that once Palestinians had their own homeland, they would have to make a choice. 'Every Palestinian who has a right to go back to his homeland should claim his right.'

For their part, many Jordanians of Palestinian origin were aghast at the change of mood. Many repeated their own prejudices against what they called half-educated, bush, Transjordanians. They noticed increasingly hostile treatment in government offices. Labib Kamhawi, whose family come originally from Nablus on the West Bank, and who had sat on the royal commission to draw up the national charter, berated the 'undeclared policy of discrimination in all respects . . . to the extent it is a threat even to our feeling of security'.

Traditionally, Transjordanians have dominated the armed forces, the security services, and the civil service. Jordanians of Palestinian origin have gravitated to business.

Mr Kamhawi asked who had the right to look into a Jordanian's origin. 'Who is a Jordanian of Jordanian origin? The majority are Jordanians of Palestinian origin. Some are of Syrian origin, like most of the merchant class. Some are of Circassian origin. Even the Hashemite monarchy come from the Hejaz. We will never accept to be second-class citizens in our country.'

It is the key question. Jordanians of Palestinian origin fall into several categories: refugees from 1948, that is from what is now Israel proper; those displaced from the West Bank in 1967 (some of whom may be allowed back by the Israelis in the interim period of self-rule); and 300,000 who fled Kuwait in 1991. They now constitute more than 60 per cent of the population.

Few are rushing to go back to the West Bank and Gaza. Most are happy to wait and see how the Palestinian self-governing authority works out. So many Palestinians have such intertwined ties of blood and interest on the East Bank that they will remain.

Crown Prince Hassan did not regret the sensitivities coming to the surface. 'The clearer people are on who they are and where they stand on the issue, the better. The declaration of principles has reminded people of the territorial focus. It is not a question of 'Jordan is Palestine', but Palestine is there. '

Yet if one man can hold the country together it is King Hussein. An older generation of Palestinians remain suspicious of him over his repression of the Palestinian revolt in 1970. Yet, as he celebrates his 58th birthday on Sunday, he is the true embodiment of national unity. He is seen by most Palestinians as their protection from Transjordanians and by Transjordanians as their guarantor against Jordan becoming Palestine.

Again and again he has stated that Jordan is Jordan, a haven for all regardless of their origins provided they want to be Jordanians. And he warned against any who sought to exploit Palestinian-Jordanian friction.

'The strength of unity among the members of our one family, regardless of origin or descent, their equality in rights and obligations in the most critically situated part of the great Arab homeland - all these are real foundations too strong to be tampered with from any quarter. Whoever does do so in any shape or form is deemed not to be one of us. He shall be my foe and yours till the day of judgement.'

(Photograph omitted)