Jordan's Palestinians debate the 'right of return'

In Jordan's Palestinian camps, the central demand comes with a range of meanings.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
The Palestinians in Jordan are probably in the most peculiar position of all Palestinian refugees. While a majority hold Jordanian nationality, discrimination still exists at various levels, and the political and national identity of the younger generation is fading. A major obstacle to the peace process is the Palestinian demand for a "right of return." Israel vehemently rejects any such idea, saying it would mean its destruction, and has demanded that the Arab League remove the return clause from its peace proposal, something most Palestinians oppose. "They cannot do this. They don't have the right to give up this section [of the proposal]. No one does," says a Palestinian refugee, originally from Haifa, living in Amman. "I am a Palestinian, and so I have the right to go to Palestine," says A, whose family came from the Beersheba area. He now resides near Jerash, north of Amman. Jerash Camp, known locally as "Gaza Camp" because of the large number of refugees who fled there from the Gaza Strip, is home to an unusually large number of non-Jordanian Palestinians. "I don't have a Jordanian national number, so my ID card must be renewed every two years," A. explains. "People like me don't have the right to work in the public sector and it is hard for us to get security clearance to work in the private sector." "I am not grounded in this country, so of course I have to go back to Palestine," he says. "If the Jews want, we can live side by side... The problem is not with the Jews, it's political. We can make peace, but not without a solution to the refugee problem." Jordan is something of a depoliticized country. While parties do exist, most are essentially names given to local organizations. The only real party at the national level seems to be the Islamist association, and Palestinian parties hardly exist. Unlike the West Bank or Lebanon, in Jordanian refugee camps one doesn't find offices of the major parties or posters for different Palestinian factions. In Jerash Camp and in the ones around Amman, nothing more than small stickers with Islamic messages can be found. Even Yasser Arafat's portrait is missing. There is, however, a feeling that people are sick of Fatah, "because of the corruption, and because they forget us," says one refugee living in a camp near Amman. Hamas is seen as a viable alternative. Labib Qamhawi, a Palestinian whose family originated in Nablus, says that although the Palestinian identity of some in Jordan has begun to be "diluted," they will never forget their Palestinian roots. "Americans of Irish descent still recognize their origins, even after 100 years," says Qamhawi, a political analyst. "We cannot accept any [peace deal] without the right of return." "But the right of return to Palestine is not only about going home," Qamhawi continues. "It is about having a home. Palestinians must have a home to return to. They can then choose to return or not. But this talk about a final solution is irrelevant if Palestine is Israel." Around 60 percent of the Palestinians living in Jordan have Jordanian ID cards. Palestinian identity seems strongest among the approximately one million refugees without Jordanian citizenship and among those who live in the camps. Although the younger generation maintain a Palestinian identity, they appear to have lost interest in partisan politics and in the details of what many term "The Struggle." "At university, none of my Palestinian friends was politically active, or anything like that," says one recent graduate. "We are Palestinian, but for some it is nothing more than a name. I am maybe different, for me it is important. Palestine is something missing for me." Integration creates identity problems, particularly among the less educated, according to Qamhawi. Others agree. "Young people are consumed by the consumer society, the values of the TV," says Taher Kanaan, who was deputy prime minister in King Hussein's last cabinet. Kanaan, originally from Nablus, is also a former Jordanian minister for the "occupied territories." He says the right of return is "fundamental," but explains: "It doesn't mean return to the same house or the same street. I don't care if the flag is blue and white. The right of the Palestinians is to their homeland. If people, the Israelis, have immigrated to this homeland, then these newcomers do not have superior rights, they should have equal rights." Qamhawi says he opposes peace proposals at present, such as the Saudi plan due to be relaunched later this month in Riyadh, "because Israel isn't serious - it takes the benefits and doesn't give." "For the sake of peace, I would give up the return to Palestine, and stay here in Amman, because I have a home and my family is here, and I am a full citizen with a passport. But I would still have the right to visit," says a Palestinian in Amman whose family fled to Jordan from Lod in 1948. And Oraib al-Rantawi, who family left the Haifa and Tel Aviv areas in 1948, says that although he was once one a hard-liner in the Palestine Liberation Organization and a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, he now supports a two-state solution with negotiations on the right of return. "The right is the right. Israel must recognize that. But we can negotiate on how to exactly it will work, who will return to Israel, who to the West Bank, some to third countries, and some can remain in the host states," he says, sitting in his office on Haifa Street in Amman, not far from Nablus Street and Hebron Street. "But this is only part of a comprehensive deal. It must be a full package. Israel must withdraw from the occupied territories, including east Jerusalem. As part of this we can discuss the return and reach a compromise," he says. Whether or not Palestinians in Jordan, let alone those in countries like Lebanon and Syria, would agree to this, remains to be seen.