Palestinians in Jordan Since 1967

Palestinians in Jordan Since 1967
A Never-Ending Normalization

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Making a life in Jordan

Mohammed Mukahhal, a graduate of the Wadi Seer Vocational Training Centre, established a computer-aided design company selling clothes throughout Jordan and the Middle East. 

UNRWA Archive
Munir Nasir

The resurgence of a Palestinian national identity in the 1960s under the aegis of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) eroded the vision nurtured by Jordan as a unified home to both indigenous (Trans)Jordanians and Jordanian-Palestinians (whether refugees in Jordan or indigenous West Bankers). The PLO’s aim of liberating Palestine in the name of all Palestinians brought into question the nature of the links between Jordan and its Jordanian-Palestinian citizens. To which source of authority would they give their allegiance? Conversely, who would be entitled to represent them on the regional and international scenes?

When the PLO was created by the Arab League in 1964 amid calls by the Fatah movement for the establishment of a “Palestinian entity,” Jordan expressed its concern that this would undermine its control and sovereignty over the West Bank . At the time, it got Egyptian assurances that this would not be the case. This was confirmed in article 24 of the Palestine National Charter adopted by the PLO on the occasion of its establishment in May 1964: “This Organization does not exercise any territorial sovereignty over the West Bank in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, on the Gaza Strip or in al-Himma Area.”  Israel’s occupation of the West Bank (as well as other Arab territories) in 1967 resulted in Palestinian guerilla forces establishing themselves along the new cease-fire lines, in the refugee camps, and even in Jordanian towns, and in effect creating a PLO state within the state.    

In 1969, PLO militias and the Jordanian army clashed in various parts of the country (culminating in the bloody “Black September 1970” events), eventually leading to the PLO’s defeat and exile to Syria and Lebanon in 1971. On the political front, the Arab Summit, Rabat, 1974 recognized the PLO as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” and UN General Assembly Resolution 3236 reaffirmed the Palestinian people’s inalienable rights “to self-determination without external interference” and “to national independence and sovereignty.”

Both events had deep political impacts. Jordan and the PLO competed not only over the political representation of the West Bank population. Within Jordan, the government strengthened its grip over  Jordanian-Palestinian citizens; it banned autonomous military activity and strictly contained political militancy. Simultaneously, it introduced a policy of “Jordanization” of the public sector, whereby preference for access to sensitive jobs would be given to “indigenous” Jordanians. In 1988, as a result of the Palestinian intifada, King Hussein announced that Jordan was severing its legal and administrative links with the West Bank, in “adherence to the Palestinian people's right to self-determination on their national soil,” and recognizing, in effect, that Jordan was henceforth limited to the Jordan River ’s east bank.

The severance decision was not officially meant to affect the status of Jordanian-Palestinians. Yet, the prospect of a Palestinian entity on the West Bank that could influence Jordan’s politics through its representation claims over the Jordanian-Palestinians raised fears over the country’s stability. More ominously, allegations that the Jordanian-Palestinians represented a majority of Jordan's population seemed to support the claim of Israeli right-wing parties that Jordan was in fact a Palestinian state (al-watan al-badil, or alternative homeland). The launch of the Oslo Process in 1993 did little to alleviate these fears: the advent of a Palestinian Authority in the occupied Palestinian territories did not prevent the PLO leadership from continuing to claim that it represents the entire diaspora at the negotiating table. Adding to the Jordanian malaise was the realization that the fate of Jordanian-Palestinians would be decided during Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (which excluded Jordan).

These developments widened the chasm between Jordanian-Palestinians and “indigenous Jordanians." At a policy level, the “Jordanization” of the public sector was reinforced, extending to matriculation at public universities (through a quota system favoring de facto “Transjordanian” niches such as students from “tribal areas” or relatives of military personnel) and to political institutions including the parliament: since the 1990s electoral laws have led to an under-representation of Jordanian-Palestinians in the Lower House.

The Jordanian-Palestinians’ relative disenfranchisement has been reflected in the latter's low participation rates in general elections; employment rates increasingly confined to the private sector; and work migration abroad. UNRWA has remained of vital importance for the poorest of them, especially in the refugee camps. Such disenfranchisement has been compounded by the Palestinian leadership’s disregard for their living conditions and little interest in involving them in the state formation process in Palestine. As a result, many nationalist militants have withdrawn from politics or joined the ranks of Islamist organizations. More broadly, Jordanian-Palestinians have developed a hybrid, de-territorialized identity tailored to make the most of adverse conditions.

The repeated failures of the Oslo process since 2000 have had mixed effects on Jordanian-Palestinians. The perpetuation of the refugee issue, coupled with the twin fears that the worsening of the West Bankers’ living conditions may lead to their large-scale migration to Jordan and that Jordan might be proposed as an alternative Palestinian homeland, has led Jordan to pursue the “Jordanization” policy outlined above and to withdraw citizenship from individuals suspected of being West Bankers. Jordan is reluctant to host new (forced) waves of Palestinian refugees, whether from Iraq (in 2003-10) or from Syria (since 2013).

On the positive side, the Jordanization process has been embedded in a developmental agenda designed to reform the country’s overall governance, irrespective of the turbulences of the Middle East region. The main message conveyed by related initiatives such as “Jordan first” (2003) and “We are all Jordan” (2006) is that all segments of society, including the Jordanian-Palestinians, should contribute to reform. To bolster the legitimacy of such initiatives, the government released in 2003 a report that claimed that the Jordanian-Palestinians (non-Jordanian Palestinian residents excluded) represented 43 percent of the Jordanian population, with the implications that they were merely one of many ethnic minorities in the culturally diverse Jordan (which includes Transjordanian Arabs, Chechens, Circassians, Armenians, and other groups).

In the government’s inclusive approach, camp refugees are now described as part of the Jordanian people who should receive the same services as other Jordanians. Since the early 2000s the thirteen camps have been included in nationwide infrastructural and housing rehabilitation programs aimed at enhancing living conditions in the country’s poverty pockets. Although opposition parties contend that such policies promote the refugees’ permanent resettlement in Jordan, the refugees themselves have viewed these interventions favorably.

Despite these developments, it is too soon to conclude that long-term normalization of the status of Jordanian-Palestinians in Jordan is in sight. Israel’s staunch refusal of any compromise on the refugee issue and its continuous allusions to Jordan as a watan badil for the Palestinians ensure that Jordan’s relationship with its Jordanian-Palestinians citizens will remain uneasy.

Selected Bibliography: 

Ababsa, Myriam, ed.  Atlas of Jordan – History, Territories and Society. Beirut: Presses de l’IFPO, 2013.

Abu-Odeh, Adnan.  Jordanians, Palestinians and The Hashemite Kingdom in the Middle East Peace Process. Washington, DC:  United States Institute of Peace, 1999.

Brand, Laurie A. Palestinians in the Arab World:  Institution Building and the Search for State. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Brand, Laurie A. “Palestinians and Jordanians:  A Crisis of Identity.Journal of Palestine Studies 24, no.4 (Summer 1995): 46-61.

George, Alan. Jordan. London: Zed Books, 2005.

Mattar, Philip, ed. Encyclopedia of the Palestinians. New York: Facts on File, 2005.