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JORDAN: Israeli threat to expel Palestinians stokes old fears

April 26, 2010 |  9:00 am

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For many Jordanians, an Israeli ruling this month expanding the state's authority to arrest and deport people in the West Bank is more than an injustice foisted on the Palestinians of the West Bank -- it is also seen as a threat to Jordanian identity.

Earlier this month, an Israeli military court amended an existing law to allow Israeli authorities to arrest, imprison or deport anyone in the West Bank lacking a recognized permit, leading rights groups to warn of the possibility of mass deportations of Palestinians.

Israel denied it is planning to carry out mass deportations, but some estimates have put the number of Palestinians at risk as high as 50,000, and Jordan fears it may be expected to take some of them in.

"[Popular opinion] is that this is a third nakba," said Basil Okoor, the editor of the Jordanian news site Ammon News, referring to the Arabic word for catastrophe which has been used to described the 1948 exodus of Palestinians to neighboring countries.

The ruling "is a new attempt by Israel to take Palestinian land by force and it's also a danger to the identity of the Jordanian nation by attempting to make it an alternative homeland for Palestinians," he told Babylon & Beyond.

Jordan, whose population is roughly half Palestinian in origin, summoned the Israeli ambassador immediately after the court ruling to protest the order and emphasize Jordan's refusal to resettle more Palestinians.

While many in the Arab world have expressed outrage on behalf of the Palestinians, the threat of mass expulsions is especially sensitive for native Jordanians, who fear another influx of Palestinians would reduce them to a minority and change the character of the country.

Okoor denied that popular Jordanian opposition to Palestinian immigrants is xenophobic in nature. Rather, he said, it stems from a real perceived threat to Jordanian identity. 

The Jordanian state has not hesitated to stoke these same fears in the pursuit of its own goals, critics say, making it difficult to draw a clear line between genuine concern and paranoid nationalism. When the government began revoking the citizenship of some Palestinian Jordanians last year, it also invoked the "alternative homeland" scenario.

Some Israelis have proposed transferring Arabs living in the Occupied Territories or even Israel to the neighboring Hashemite Kingdom as part of a "Jordanian option." Other versions of the Jordanian option include some sort of federation between Jordan and the West Bank.

The proposal has for the most part fallen out of the mainstream political rhetoric since the Oslo Accords, but many Jordanians accuse Israel of pursuing the same agenda by indirect means.

“The reason Jordan is anxious about this measure is because Amman is increasingly convinced that Israel is ... actively working to revive the alternative homeland scenario," Moiun Rabbani, a senior Middle East analyst based in Amman, told the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper the National, "and at the very least is pursuing policies vis-a-vis the West Bank that have an inexorable momentum towards such an objective.” 

Okoor said the Amman government risks provoking popular outrage if it appeals to take a less than firm stance against the transfer of any more Palestinians to Jordan.

"On a popular level, they say that between us and our government there is a social contract," he said. "But if the state breaks this contract by accepting these attempts to erase our identity and our presence, then we are no longer bound by this contract."

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: Jordanian police officers hold back a demonstrator as he chants anti-Israel slogans during a protest near the Israeli embassy in Amman on March 19. Credit: Khalil Mazraawi / AFP/Getty Images

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