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Robert Fisk: Why Jordan is occupied by Palestinians

A powerful group of ex-army leaders say their country is being overrun – and they blame King Abdullah

Thursday 22 July 2010 00:00 BST

Just opposite the Al-Quds restaurant in central Amman is a dull, grey-stone building spattered with old bullet holes. In 1970, this was where the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine staged one of their last stands against King Hussein's loyal Bedouin troops. In the resulting bloodbath, the "Black September" of Palestinian history, the Palestinian "fedayeen" were finally driven from Amman, their "state within a state" shifting from Jordan to Lebanon.

Yet in the restaurant across the road, beneath equally old photographs of a pre-Israel Jerusalem, some very serious men are complaining that Jordan is in danger of becoming Palestine. They moan that 86,000 Palestinians have received Jordanian passports unconstitutionally since 2005, that too many Palestinians are now in the Jordanian government, that corruption and a rigid adherence to American-Israeli policies are laying the groundwork for Israel to expel the West Bank Palestinians across the Jordan River. They have no time for the Jordanian-Israeli peace agreement.

Former General Ali Habashneh, Colonel Beni Sahar and Major General Mohamed Jamal Majalli interrupt their beef and chicken and "humous lahme" with expressions of fear and anger about the future of Jordan. Habashneh runs the Jordanian army's pensions committee and has 140,000 ex-army personnel and their families on his books; his voice is not to be taken lightly by King Abdullah of Jordan and his government. These are the king's men. But they are fierce nationalists.

And they are patriotic enough to have sent an open letter to King Abdullah, expressing their fears that Israeli plans for the West Bank and "a fifth column of collaborators" within Jordan who support US policy in the region – their identity is left dangerously unspecified – may destroy their country.

The Jordanian government, appointed by the king, has shown "extreme weakness", the letter says, towards Israel and America. "Recent [Jordanian] cabinets... have already begun to implement a covert... political quota system by placing Palestinians – including some who have yet to complete the full legal requirements of citizenship – in key positions at the pinnacle of the state apparatus."

This is the first serious opposition to emerge against King Abdullah since he succeeded his father, Hussein, who died in 1999. Abdullah has found it hard to match the personality and firmness of spirit of Hussein, who died of cancer but who, in his last days, tried vainly to tell Benjamin Netanyahu, then (as now) prime minister of Israel, that peace was deteriorating between Israelis and Arabs.

Perhaps 57 per cent of Jordanians are non-Palestinians – many of them from powerful tribes outside Amman. But the nationalists say that, by 1988, 1.95 million Palestinians held Jordanian citizenship. Another 850,000 hold citizenship that the ex-army men regard as illegal. Another 950,000 Palestinians from the West Bank live legally, but without citizenship, on the East Bank – in other words, in Jordan. Another 300,000 come from Gaza. The ex-army officers see a "silent transfer" of Palestinians across the Jordan river.

"We think the people around the king are not bringing up these issues," one of the men at the table says. "After the Rifai government was established, the head of the senate became Palestinian, the head of the judicial system became Palestinian. There were changes in the army command. The Palestinian head of the Aqaba special economic zone did not have citizenship 10 years ago. Our letter said that personnel in government should have received their jobs through parliament."

In most Arab countries, nationalism gave way to Islamist politics as old Arab secular movements failed in the face of Israeli and American pressure. But Jordan has reversed this transfer of influence. King Abdullah, to the satisfaction of most Jordanians of tribal or Palestinian origin, subdued the Muslim Brotherhood, stifled their parliamentary power and so preserved his own power. But the old-school army men and their followers, who include academics, schoolteachers and trade unionists, are now pushing the frontiers of politics in Jordan.

Around the restaurant table, there is frightening talk of ending the Arab peace treaty between Jordan and Israel; of creating a "Popular Army" of former servicemen who could create a territorial force to support regular soldiers in the event of an Israeli attack; of setting up a "new national army rather than a neo-colonial one".

General Habashneh is as explicit as any of the men. "There is corruption, a widening of the gap between rich and poor," he says. "Economic investment policies are destroying the country. This is what our national movement is all about. We are trying to get all our forces together to hold a national conference by the beginning of the new year, to decide on a strategic movement which will protect this country and remove the influence of the Israelis and Americans."

A young teacher sits at the table, anxious to show the non-military power of the New Jordanian National Movement, as it is already calling itself. "In March and the end of May, 110,000 teachers went on strike with demands for trade unions and better working conditions," he says. "Although this started as social demands, it became a larger movement of discontent. You'd be surprised how widely these views are felt – bus drivers, cigarette sellers, pharmacists, they're all part of a trans-Jordanian movement."

So far, there has been no reaction from Israel, although the nationalists identified a "venomous article" by a Palestinian writer in The Jerusalem Post which talked of men who wanted to set up "a racist, apartheid state" in Jordan.

One of the nationalist supporters, a writer whose books are banned in Jordan, says they have tried to explain to western diplomats in Amman that King Abdullah of Jordan is facing growing protests from former senior army commanders and other nationalist groups. Another man says he attempted to tell a British official what they were seeking, "but he just stood up and walked out of the room".

The open letter says that "the root cause of governmental weakness lies in the policies of privatisation and the liquidation of the public sector... that have led to the growing power of business interests and those who deal in corruption and shady financial deals... A narrow and unrepresentative coterie of political clans has monopolised the formation of cabinets and decision-making while preventing the Jordanian people from determining their fate and defending Jordan's national interests."

According to the ex-army officers, the king made some concessions to them in a recent speech when he deeply criticised Israel and the United States – although he failed to address the Palestinian issue.

This weekend, the government tried to split the ex-servicemen by getting former officers to denounce their colleagues for "deviationism" and "harming national security", thereby creating "negative reactions". There is no doubt whose "negative reactions" were meant.

What is a Palestinian?

The term Palestinian broadly refers to Arabs who declined Israeli citizenship in 1948, when the country was formed.

Previously, it had referred to the occupants of the territories controlled by Britain, including modern Israel.

After 1948, many Palestinians fled abroad, while the West Bank fell under Jordanian rule for two decades. Some Palestinians, including Druze and Bedouin, accepted Israeli citizenship, and are now called Israeli Arabs.

Today the term generally applies to those who would inhabit a separate Palestinian state based on the West Bank and Gaza.

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