Jordan’s Redline on Admitting Palestinians Is Unlikely to Change

22-11-2023 09:38 AM
Marwan Muasher

Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, the large number of Palestinian civilians killed, and the discussion about opening safe passages from Gaza to Egypt have revived a long-standing Jordanian fear: that Israel might create or use conditions of war to push a large number of Palestinians from Gaza into Egypt and from the West Bank into Jordan.

Former prime minister Ariel Sharon, among other Israeli politicians, has raised the idea multiple times, claiming that Jordan can serve as an alternative home since many Jordanians are of Palestinian origin. When Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1994, Jordan insisted on including a clause to guard against the possibility of mass transfer. Article 2.6 of the treaty states that “within their control, involuntary movements of persons in such a way as to adversely prejudice the security of either Party should not be permitted.”

But Sharon’s once-fringe views are now front and center. Israel’s current government coalition includes two ministers who not only believe the West Bank and Gaza belong to Israel but also that the Palestinians living there have no right to do so. For the past month, both Jordan and Egypt have repeatedly declared that their borders would not be opened to receive even one Palestinian—not as a way to deny humanitarian assistance to Palestinians under attack but rather as a countermove to deny Israel the opportunity to empty the West Bank and Gaza of as many Palestinians as possible. Jordan’s fears are not unfounded, and its redline of refusing to admit Palestinians remains unlikely to change for several reasons.

The Jordanian government’s argument is logical. Israel has made clear through numerous government statements that it has no intention of ending the occupation or allowing the establishment of a viable Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 border. The apparent Israeli position is that the best that the Palestinians can hope for is more than self-rule but less than a state, in a “Bantustan”-like arrangement, surrounded on all sides by Israel. Such a plan was spelled out by former U.S. president Donald Trump’s “deal of the century,” widely suspected today to be a mere articulation of the Israeli position.

Jordan’s fear had been building even before the October 7 Hamas attack, thanks to another major yet often overlooked factor: demography. The number of Palestinians in areas under Israel’s control has now exceeded the number of Israeli Jews: 7.4 million Palestinians, some of them Israeli citizens, to 7.2 million Israelis. On average, every Palestinian woman has a birth rate of 4.1 children to 3 for every Israeli woman. The trend is clear: the Palestinian majority is only going to increase with time.

Israel cannot continue operating as a minority group ruling over a majority population with an apartheid-like legal structure—a designation used by B’Tselem (Israel’s largest human rights organization), Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and many others. Israel’s Palestinian citizens, who account for 21 percent of its population, have been legally deemed second-class citizens after a 2018 law declared that the country is a nation-state for the Jewish people. Palestinians under occupation are also subjected to a separate legal system than Jewish settlers living in the West Bank and Jerusalem. When Palestinians under occupation realize they are not going to be allowed a state of their own, their only alternative is to demand equal political rights where they live—which would be the end of the Zionist dream of a democratic Jewish state.

From Jordan’s perspective, mass transfer has become a real possibility, not just a theoretical argument. If Israel does not want either a Palestinian state or a Palestinian majority, then the only alternative is to try to affect a mass transfer of as many Palestinians as possible. Past conventional wisdom implied that displacement is no longer tolerated by the international community, but the examples of Syria and Ukraine suggest otherwise: 6.5 million Syrians and 6 million Ukrainians fled their countries without the international community being able to prevent the refugee crises. In addition, U.S. administration officials have privately admitted that Jordan and Egypt have justifiable reasons to be concerned, and Washington has publicly stated that it stands against the relocation of Palestinians to Jordan and Egypt.

Palestinians and neighboring host states have history as their guide, too. In 1948, 750,000 Palestinians left or were expelled from the resulting new state of Israel, with only 150,000 remaining. Despite UN Resolution 194 affirming that refugees should be able to return to their homes, no Palestinian has officially able to do so. Today, Israel will not readmit any Palestinian who leaves because of war conditions outside Palestinian territory. Neither Palestinians nor host states are willing to entertain another Nakba, the name given to the expulsion of Palestinians from their home and land in 1948, no matter how bad the humanitarian situation gets.

So far, the war conditions have applied only to Gaza. But Jordan is concerned that Gaza might set a precedent for a similar escalation in the West Bank. Already, settler groups are raiding Palestinian villages daily with the backing of the Israeli army, driving Palestinians out. This creates the impression that radicals in the Israeli government see the current war in Gaza as an opportunity for ethnic cleansing in the West Bank.

Jordan’s fears are also a matter of identity. The 1948 war resulted in a tripling of Jordan’s population, from about 430,000 to 1.2 million, with the addition of Palestinian refugees and inhabitants of the West Bank, which was annexed to Jordan. All Palestinian refugees were given Jordanian citizenship. Although the Jordanian constitution affirms that all citizens are equal before the law, the Jordanian establishment—the so-called East Jordanians, or the population in Jordan before 1948—never fully accepted that new order. The unwritten position is that Jordanians of Palestinian origin have to fully absorb the Jordanian identity, as defined by the East Jordanians pre-1948, no matter what the numbers of both communities are, out of fear that East Jordanian identity was in danger. This tension over identity remains unresolved.

To force a large number of Palestinians into Jordan today, and to perhaps give them Jordanian citizenship over time, would further fuel the argument over who is a Jordanian. Thus, the resolve not to admit more Palestinians in the country comes from two directions: an establishment that does not wish further dilution of the Jordanian identity and an official and public position that does not want a Palestinian state outside Palestinian soil, and certainly not in Jordan.

However, Jordan has accepted non-Palestinian refugees since 1990, including Iraqis after the first and second Gulf wars and Syrians after its civil war broke out in 2011. But these refugees largely either were Jordanian citizens or were expected to eventually return to their homelands, with no plans for naturalization. Palestinian refugees do not fit either category.

Jordan wants to affirm a distinct Jordanian identity on Jordanian soil, as well as help affirm a distinct Palestinian identity on Palestinian soil. This is why the decision not to admit Palestinians is different, difficult, and firm. Jordan is unlikely to succumb to pressure to admit Palestinians if the fighting increases in the West Bank. This position is supported by nearly all components of Jordanian society—East Jordanian or of Palestinian origin, in addition to the West Bank Palestinians, who wish to establish a state on their own soil. They seem to believe that Jordan admitting Palestinians would only serve Israel’s interest to empty as many Palestinians from their land as possible.

The closing of Jordan’s border to Palestinians—while on the surface appearing to be insensitive to Palestinian suffering—enjoys wide domestic and Arab support. It is viewed in the region as an attempt to block Israel’s desire to get rid of its Palestinian majority “problem,” and thus as a nationalistic move. It is also a position supported by the Palestinians themselves, despite their current and potential suffering at the hands of the Israeli occupation. A redline with such wide domestic, Palestinian, and Arab support is unlikely to change, even if the Hamas war spreads.

The writer is vice president for studies at Carnegie, where he oversees research in Washington and Beirut on the Middle East.

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