Refugee gap

Despite the rhetoric of their leaders, most Palestinians in Jordan wouldn’t exercise any ‘Right of Return’ and simply want a better future in a country they have called home for decades.

Sheikh Adnan, resident of Gaza refugee camp (photo credit: ANDREW FRIEDMAN)
Sheikh Adnan, resident of Gaza refugee camp
(photo credit: ANDREW FRIEDMAN)
EVEN UPON first meeting with him, one cannot help but be taken with the quiet authority of Sheikh Adnan. A soft-spoken man with a trimmed beard and an ankle-length brown frock, Adnan navigates the grinding, ferocious poverty of the Gaza refugee camp, an hour east of Amman, with quiet but clear authority.
As he drives into the camp with a white, distinctly non-Arab looking visitor, a gaggle of boys crowds around his car to beg for money and to catch a glimpse of the rare visitor, but they have learned to heed the sheikh’s gentle reprimand. Their parents have learned to seek his counsel and advice on both practical and religious matters.
As such, his views on Palestine carry significant weight. And his thoughts on returning to his father’s village of Majdal – a small agricultural settlement near the Mediterranean Sea, on the outskirts of present day Ashkelon – are well considered and absolute.
“We will fight to go back to our homes until we are victorious,” he tells The Jerusalem Report with quiet intensity. “There can be no compromise on this matter. It is a dream my parents have maintained for more than 60 years since they arrived here from Gaza; and for me it is more than a dream. I demand this right, of Israel and of all the countries that support Israel. Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] and Prime Minster Netanyahu can sign any agreement they want, but it will have no bearing on us or on our right to justice.”
The sheikh claims there is “no one in the camp,” or any Palestinian refugee for that matter, who will say any different. “People have made exorbitant offers to buy us out with houses and money in order to get us to renounce our claims to homes in Palestine, but we have resisted. We will remain in this difficult condition until we obtain our rights,” he says.
A short while later, however, it becomes clear that the sheikh’s absolute statement that “all Palestinians in Jordan” are prepared to endure their squalid conditions in order to maintain the dream of returning to Palestine is not entirely accurate. On the contrary, during a two-day visit to Jordan in mid- March, a strong constituency of Palestinians emerged who view Jordan as their home, and who say they would not emigrate west of the Jordan River – either to a sovereign Palestinian state or to Israel proper – even if given the opportunity to do so.
Furthermore, the sentiment that Palestinian Jordanians have come to view the Hashemite Kingdom as “home” appears to cross economic strata and geographic location.
Only one of the individuals formally interviewed for this article or approached in casual conversation – taxi drivers, shop owners, environmental professionals and others – shared Adnan’s commitment to Palestine.
“Most people have family in Palestine, so of course the issue is an important one to us,” Tamer al-Bawab, a social media professional who also serves as managing director of the Palestine International Institute in Amman tells The Report. “But Jordan is the only home I have ever known – my parents and all my siblings live here, I went to university here, my friends are all here. Palestine is important to me, but I don’t feel a need to uproot my entire life in order to move there.”
Even to the uninitiated observer, al-Bawab’s desire to stay in Jordan hardly comes as a surprise. It stands to reason that an educated 29-year-old with a successful business and a promising career would stand to lose a lot were he to emigrate across the Jordan River.
The future looks much more depressing in the Gaza refugee camp. There is little vibrancy; even small children have internalized the crushing fact that they are nothing more than pawns in a vicious political quagmire, and that the dire surroundings of their lives are likely to define their lives, at least for the foreseeable future.
But here, too, some residents say their day-to-day struggle to survive far outweighs whatever dreams they might have about Palestine. They say that while they certainly dream of getting out of the camp, they mainly want to enjoy the same benefits that other residents of this country take for granted.
“My family is originally from Beersheba, but I was born here,” 44-year-old Ibrahim Sabah tells The Report. “I would love to visit Palestine, but I’ve never even been there. Most of all, I want the rights that other Palestinians have here – we do not have social security numbers, which in Jordan means we are virtually powerless. We can only work as day laborers, not as salaried employees, and it is illegal for us even to own a car or to rent a home outside the camp. It’s difficult to live this way,” Sabah says.
To be sure, the Palestinian issue remains a potent emotional one for most Jordanians, especially for the overwhelming majority here who claim Palestinian ancestry (although significantly, when asked where their families hailed from, most “Palestinians” said their families had immigrated to Palestine in the first quarter of the 20th century from Morocco, Tunisia and other quarters of the Arab world). The “right” of Palestinian refugees to return to the homes of their parents and grandparents across the Jordan River is a powerful enough theme that at least one cellphone company advertises its “roaming” service to the West Bank with a map of historic Palestine and a pledge that “you don’t have to pay to return.”
As a result, anti-Israel sentiment is rife throughout the Hashemite Kingdom.
Approaching the Sheikh Hussein border crossing near the Israeli town of Beit She’an, Orthodox travellers know instinctively to remove their skullcaps well in advance of reaching the Jordanian border, and to hide religious articles like tefillin, lest they be confiscated by customs officials. Jordanian law prohibits entry to outwardly Jewish items. Israeli cars entering the kingdom are fitted at the border with Jordanian license plates for the drivers’ safety.
THESE MEASURES are not superfluous.
Immediately upon entering Jordan, a translator warned this reporter not to photograph local residents in the poor towns along the Jordan River Valley, and he generously offered the use of his mobile phone instead of stopping in a border town to purchase a Jordanian SIM card. Getting out of the car with a foreign looking guest was simply too dangerous, especially as mobile phone retailers are required to photograph a visitor’s passport in order to sell SIM cards.
Even in Amman, Jordan’s political and economic capital with a high frequency of Western visitors, Israelis and Jordanians alike warned against trying to get a feel for the “real” Amman by venturing into the city’s lower socioeconomic neighborhoods.
Instead, they strongly recommended paying premium rates for a five-star hotel with top security arrangements in Shmeisani, West Amman’s clean, sterile and safe business district.
And even there, an evening walk outside the hotel proved ill-advised. Police had closed several main thoroughfares to accommodate a large demonstration calling for the expulsion of Israel’s ambassador and the cancellation of the 1994 peace treaty with Israel in reaction to the March 10 shooting death of Raed Zeiter, a Jordanian judge, at the Allenby Bridge border crossing. One did not need to understand Arabic to understand that Israelis were not welcome.
Still, the anger many Palestinians feel towards Israel does not necessarily translate into a desire to leave Jordan, or even into hatred for Israelis. In some cases, such as that of Ibrahim Sabah, this stems from a deep, daily struggle simply to survive. For residents of the Gaza camp, putting food on the table is a far more pressing concern than their devotion to “Palestine.”
Even in less dire conditions than Sabah’s, refugees in other parts of Jordan repeated his assertion, albeit from different angles and perspectives: Emigration to a Palestinian state is not on their agenda.
To the south of Amman, in the midst of green pastureland near Queen Alia International Airport, the Talbiyeh camp appears suddenly by the side of the road.
In contrast to many refugee camps in the West Bank that are indistinguishable from neighborhoods of Bethlehem, Nablus and other cities, Jordanian camps are recognizable immediately from the highway.
Conditions are obviously crowded (the Gaza camp has 40,000 residents in just one square kilometer). Unpaved roads are filled with potholes. Many children walk barefoot.But conditions at Talbiyeh are a far cry from the Gaza camp. In the latter, refugees came to Jordan from Gaza in 1967, meaning it is “officially” Egypt’s responsibility to care for their needs. As such, Jordan refuses to grant them social benefits or work permits.
That is not true for residents of Talbiyeh.
Residents here have social security numbers, meaning they can own businesses and have access to government services, such as health care. Whereas in the Gaza camp there appears to be little commerce apart from a sorry souk w ith l ow-quality f ruits a nd vegetables, there is clearly an economy here.
There are barber shops, small groceries, mobile phone stores and shops to buy stereo equipment.
Still, improved economic conditions have not led residents to radically different conclusions than their neighbors to the north.
Sitting in the reception area of the Talbiyeh Camp Women’s Centre, a community center that serves about 150 people a week, e-learning programs and more, center director Fatimeh Abu-Hilal says she would love to visit Palestine, but she admits that she doesn’t know much more than the stories she heard from her father.
“MY FATHER grew up in Jericho, and he always spoke about how beautiful Palestine was. On special days – Land Day, Intifada Day – he was always the first one to put on the radio to listen to programs about Palestine. It was his whole life,” 34-year-old Abu-Hilal tells The Report.
Despite their parents’ devotion to Palestine, however, both Abu-Hilal and Mira Moruabi, the 29-year-old co-director of the Women’s Centre, say their primary concern today is to ensure a better future for their children and grandchildren.
“We have to focus on jobs, not on the dream of Palestine,” Mourabi relates to The Report. “People have other concerns. They have lives to lead, they want to work.”
If there is any community of Palestinians that remains devoted to the right of return, it appears to be the older generation. One woman, 50-year-old Umm Sami Zayna, asserts enthusiastically and without hesitation that she would leave Jordan in order to build the Palestinian state. But virtually no person younger than Umm Sami said that.
It seems, then, that the generation gap in the camps is as sharp, or perhaps even sharper, than the communication gaps that define parents and teenagers around the Western world In large part, Umm Sami Zayna attributes this to “effective” UNRWA education in the camps. She says that prior to 1975, high school students were required to attend classes in “The Palestinian Cause” but that eventually UNRWA rules developed to prohibit three topics of conversation on school grounds: religion, sex and politics. The result, says Umm Sami, has been disastrous.
“The Palestinian cause is fading away,” she notes, sadly.
Academic and political observers in Jordan and abroad acknowledge the fact that a majority of refugees would prefer to stay in the countries they have lived in for decades, with citizenship rights and compensation, both for property lost in Palestine and for the pain and suffering they have endured since.
These trends were detailed by Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki a decade ago, in a landmark 2003 study entitled “Refugees’ Preferences and Behavior in a Palestinian- Israeli Permanent Refugee Agreement.” At that time, Shikaki estimated that no more than 10 percent of Palestinian refugees would elect to return to Palestine or Israel if given the opportunity to do so. Shikaki confirmed to The Report via email that no formal polling work has been done on this topic since then.
But analysts are quick to add that the desires of ordinary Palestinians do not dictate the official Palestinian negotiating stance on this issue, nor do they define Jordan’s interest in securing the right of return for as many refugees as possible.
“In practical terms, I think it is right to say that a great majority would not want to return,” Prof. Asher Susser, senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, tells The Report.
“But that is not really relevant. If even 90 percent of Palestinians do not envision returning to either the West Bank or Israel proper, that leaves 10 percent of the refugee population that does plan to exercise the right of return. We are still talking about 500,000 people. Israel is not going to let that happen.”
Susser points out that there is no more intractable issue for both sides than the refugee issue. He says the Palestinian position is clear, consistent and not negotiable. They want Israel to recognize its responsibility for the refugee crisis, to grant the right of return in principle, and refugees must have free choice to exercise that right or not. But Israel won’t accept any of those clauses. That’s why there has been a stalemate in negotiations for 20 years.
“It is the 1948 issues that are ultimately, absolutely unbridgeable,” Susser says. “By comparison, the 1967 issues – borders, for instance – are manageable. But the 1948 file – refugees, recognizing Israel as the state of the Jewish people – those are absolute nonstarters.”
The discrepancy between ordinary Palestinians, who say they would accept a compensation package, and Palestinian and Jordanian officials, who steadfastly demand unlimited right of return for all Palestinian refugees, is familiar to anybody who has spoken to Arab officials, from the PLO to foreign governments. One Western diplomat who has served as an advisor to several rounds of Israel-Palestinian peace negotiations and who is well versed in the intricacies of Jordanian society said there is a fascinating gap between what Palestinians truly believe and what they will say on record.
“There is a high level of recognition and acceptance that Palestinian refugees will not be returning to Israel. Most people don’t even really envision moving to a Palestinian state when it is established. But most refugees would accept a financial compensation package as well as citizenship in their current countries. Some say they would want to immigrate to Canada, the United States or another Western country,” says the diplomat, who has served two terms in his nation’s embassy in Amman but spoke to The Report anonymously because he was unauthorized by his government to speak on the record.
“But when I try to make the jump with them to express that opinion openly, to make that view – that so many people share – part of the public discourse in Palestinian society, it is just a non-starter. That, to me, would give such an important shot of confidence to Israelis who are understandably petrified of the whole refugee issue. But I’ve never met a Palestinian or Jordanian who is prepared to bring that discussion out on the open stage,” And then there are Jordan’s domestic politics. Nobody wants the refugees to return to Israel-Palestine more than Jordanian nationalists, says Susser, who adds that non- Palestinian Jordanians – East Bankers, in the local parlance – will do everything they can to prevent the Palestinians from taking over the country.
“Jordan’s greatest fear is ‘Jordan is Palestine,’” Susser asserts. “The notion that Israel harbors a not-so-secret plan to give Jordan to the Palestinians is a dominant theme of discourse in Jordan. That is why Jordan is more adamant about the right of return than any other Arab country.”
It is also the reason that East Bankers so strongly support the two-state solution. If Israelis and Palestinians fail to reach an agreement, eventually there will be a violent clash between them. If that happens, the fighting could force millions of Palestinians over the Allenby Bridge into Jordan – in other words, the Jordanians’ nightmare scenario.
That’s why King Abdullah pushes the two-state solution so hard. Two states for two peoples is perhaps first and foremost a Jordanian interest.
Presumably, the day is approaching when Palestinian youth will stand up to demand compensation for the losses they sustained at Israel’s hand, for their abuse as political pawns by Arab leaders over the past 66 years and also demand citizenship in the countries they have called home for more than two generations.
“I’m sorry to say this, but the Palestinians of our parents’ generation were not very strong people,” says Mira Moruabi. “As soon as they heard there were problems from the Israelis, they simply fled and left their homes to others. My hope is to be better than that.”