In his recent address to Congress, King Abdullah II of Jordan dramatically quoted FDR’s famous “four freedoms speech” as a means to describe American foreign policy as freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. The goal of the speech was to call for greater US involvement in facilitating an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. What is significant about this call is the Palestinian conundrum that Adbullah himself faces in Jordan.
Unlike the Palestinian cause in the West Bank, Lebanon, or Syria, the cause in Jordanian refugee camps is not as plastered all over the place as in other Arab countries where Palestinians reside. Thanks in part to an efficient secret police force, the Hashemite cult of personality remains dominant, at least in public. But Jordan’s demographics continue to work against Abdullah and his dynasty.
There are approximately 3 million Palestinians living in Jordan, comprising about 2% of the total population. Of these, around 60% have Jordanian ID cards. There is a successful Palestinian upper and middle class in Jordan, but predictably an exclusive Palestinian identity seems strongest among the approximately one million refugees without Jordanian citizenship and among those who live in the squalid refugee camps. Politically speaking, Jordan has seen an active participation from their Palestinians and, since 1950, every government formed in Jordan included 2-4 ministers of Palestinian origin as well as a Palestinian Prime Minister - Sulaiman al–Nabulsi in the summer of 1956.
As in many places in the Muslim world, as well as in places with substantial Muslim minorities, it is the younger generation that is becoming more and more Islamist in its ideology while maintaining a strong Palestinian identity. Ominously, we are hearing more cries for an intifada from them on a daily basis.
In practice, all fractions within Palestinian society saw Arafat as their leader for many years. The so called “cohesiveness” amongst Palestinians is now non-existent and Palestinians are now divided more than ever by region, by tribe and clan, and by religious outlook. The acrimony between Palestinians that Arafat managed to paper over is now on display as a civil war develops in the Gaza Strip. As journalist Nicholas Jubber writes, “the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are divided by their unequal economies, distinct dialects, and cultural animosities forged by their pre-1967 experiences under separate regimes—Nasser’s Egypt and King Hussein’s Jordan.” In terms of an extended social network, West Bankers do not rely on their “Palestinian brothers” in Gaza but rather on their families and friends in Jordan. And Gazans do the same thing with Egypt.
From a political point of view, the administrative infrastructure that the Egyptians left when the Gaza Strip was captured in 1967 was very different from the one left by the Jordanians. When Rashad al-Shawwa, a Gaza businessman, was appointed by Israel as the new mayor in the summer of 1971, he proposed to implement King Hussein’s “United Arab Kingdom,” a plan to unite Gaza and the West Bank under one governing system. In turn, Shawwa was severely criticized for even putting forth the idea. As Nicholas Jubber notes, “heavy Jordanian investment in the West Bank helped to establish a better system of infrastructure there, and the economy is more advanced. Among the people of Gaza, accusations about the alleged snobbery of West Bank Palestinians are common.” These conditions were not significantly changed during the decades of direct Israeli rule.
More ancient animosities are also on display. The on-going intifada revived tribal rivalries which originated in the days where the leading families of Jerusalem and Hebron, Nashashibis, Hussainis and Khalidis, controlled the agenda for all of Ottoman and British Palestine. As Jonathan Schanzer writes, “despite a recent flood of books and articles attesting to long-standing patriotism, the Palestinian Arab community has a longer tradition of factionalism and disunity. Indeed, it was tribalism and clan rivalries that rendered the Palestinian nationalist movement ineffectual against the Zionist movement during the first half of the 20th century.” With the failure of national politics, these same families have returned as leading institutions for Palestinians. Success means choosing the right team.
The battles in the streets of Gaza today illustrate the tensions between secularism and religion in the Palestinian areas arena, a microcosm of the tensions afflicting the entire Islamic world. Arafat emerged as a secular leader precisely during the heyday of other nationalist figures like Nasser and Saddam Hussein. The Iranian Revolution changed this irrevocably, and helped trigger Islamic revivals that have or threaten to undo secular regimes, mostly tyrannical, throughout the Muslim and Arab worlds. Among Palestinians the choices are stark. Hamas represents the Islamist agenda and Fatah represents the secular lifestyle most Palestinians embraced during the later 20th century. But the Palestinian example shows that the game is basically over. The newly created Palestinian Unity government sees secular Fatah leader Abbas reduced to parity or worse with his Hamas rival Khaled Mashal. The clever wording of the document allows both Hamas and Fatah to claim that neither party had totally abandoned its traditional position. And the oblique tone was also intended to appease the Americans and Europeans. After all, the main goal of the new coalition is to get the international community to resume the flow of financial aid. In this, it has evidently been successful.
True co-existence between Palestinians under Hamas/Fatah and Israelis won't happen until Palestinian society experiences a breakthrough in democratic thought and values, one that accepts Israel's permanence and also allows for a middle class to grow, acknowledging that honest relations between Israel and Palestinians are normal and natural. Although Jordan under Abdullah could serve as a positive example for how Palestinians could become assimilated in an Arab country, the desire to keep the Palestinians in their dire state is greater. In the end, the ongoing factional violence which includes kidnappings and assassinations now threatens to return the streets of Gaza to a state of war. And the so-called unity government is just a tactical truce to be held until one party believes unity no longer serves its interests.