Degrees of Separation: Jordan's Contiguous Border With Israel

Palestinians who utilise the border crossings between Israel and Jordan are subject regularly to systematic discrimination. It is surprising, therefore, that Jordan continues to consent to Israel manning shared borders, particularly those of the Jordan Valley and the West Bank.

Palestinians who utilise the border crossings between Israel and Jordan are subject regularly to systematic discrimination. It is surprising, therefore, that Jordan continues to consent to Israel manning shared borders, particularly those of the Jordan Valley and the West Bank. After all, Jordan is a country where roughly 50 per cent of the population is Palestinian, a number that is far greater when it includes Jordanians of Palestinian descent.

Two issues dominate Jordan's relationship with Israel. The first, of course, is daily security. Jordan's peace treaty with Israel in 1994 created a strong foundation for shared military exercises, intelligence and border regulation, knowledge Jordan desperately requires as the spillover effect from Syria's civil war continues. The second, a far more complex issue, is the fate of the West Bank. For Israel, Jordan's independence under King Abdullah II is seen as a strategic advantage that can be used to weaken the threat of Palestinian infiltration or sabotage. Similarly, an Israeli presence quells fears in Jordan over what the demographic implications of a Palestinian security presence on its own borders would be.

The Black September Complex

In 1988, King Hussein famously declared, "Jordan is not Palestine", adding that an independent Palestinian state would one day be established on occupied Palestinian land. Memories of the 1970 Black September civil war between the Jordanian government and Palestinian refugee militias still weigh heavily on many Jordanians' minds. Without a shared border with Israel, the risk of penetration from Fatah or Hamas is likely to upset Jordan's delicate political balance.

Following the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who arrived in Jordan in previous decades, the prospect of another wave from a future Palestinian state is a daunting one for many Jordanians, especially the indigenous East Bank tribes. Members of Syria's Palestinian community have already been exposed to prejudice, with the Jordanian government being accused on multiple occasions of denying entry to Syrians of Palestinian origin, a charge which it has denied vehemently.

Although most Palestinians in Jordan have Jordanian citizenship, Jordan still considers them refugees with a right of return to Palestine. According to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), there were over 1.8 million registered Palestinian refugees in Jordan in 2006. Around 150,000 Palestinians, largely hailing from Gaza, but including those who remained in the West Bank and arrived in Jordan after 1967, have been denied citizenship. The Jordanian government does issue temporary passports for some Palestinians, but only if they do not own travel documents from the Palestinian Authority already.

Systematic Separation

The choice between a Jordanian identity and a Palestinian one became more mutually exclusive following two events: the first intifada, and Jordan's disengagement from the West Bank in 1988. The resulting presence of Israel on shared borders has devolved into a regime of permits and harsh restrictions on the movement of Palestinians, especially in the Jordan Valley. Annex 1 of Jordan's Peace Treaty with Israel, for example, stipulates that both countries will not "allow any person entering the area under this carry weapons of any kind in the area; unless authorised". This clause is a direct reference to the repeated cross-border attacks on Israel by both the Palestinian Fedayeen and Fatah in 1965. Internal divisions between the Jordanian government and its citizens during that period disintegrated into a national, as well as a regional, security threat. Current regulations are in place, therefore, to prevent passive assistance to Palestinian parties and secure the ongoing peace treaty between Jordan and Israel. Others have gone so far as to argue that security operations target Palestinians disproportionately, though this is difficult to prove.

The Right to Return and the Alternative Homeland

Divisions in Jordan's population are still dynamic, with more recent events triggering friction amongst Jordan's polity. In February, disorder ensued in Jordan's parliament when Israel threatened to revoke Jordan's custodianship rights over holy sites in Jerusalem. A month later, the shooting of a respected Jordanian judge at a border crossing between Jordan and the West Bank sparked street protests asking the Israeli government to meet certain demands. It is too early to determine whether a resolution of the Palestine-Israel dispute will change Palestinian attitudes of belonging to Jordan. Moreover, many worry that Jordan will be left off the table when discussing Palestinian reconciliation efforts in the future.

It is true that a large proportion of Palestinians, particularly those from wealthier strata, have settled down as Jordanians. In Jordan's refugee camps and lower-income areas, however, the situation is markedly different. Here, the 'right to return' is a dominant narrative, and discontent is common. UNRWA estimates that 65 per cent of 1.8 million registered Palestinian refugees in Jordan were still living in ten official, and three unofficial, camps in 2006. It is possible that as this faction becomes increasingly desperate and politicised, economic problems could mutate into political tension.

While it is interesting to speculate on the hypothetical, Israel's recent decision to build a 550-kilometre security fence along its border with Jordan has made a future Palestinian presence on shared boundaries redundant. Inter alia, the fence represents a long-term decision to continue Israel's relationship with Jordan in the future. For now, however, the fence means more restrictions on movement, adverse effects on family ties and social connections between Palestinians and Jordanians, and tighter agricultural controls to come.

This article originally appeared on Middle East Monitor. Read it here.

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