Jordan Opens Door to West Bank

As Palestinians prepared to sign accord with Israel on limited self-rule in Gaza and Jericho, Amman removes restrictions at border crossings and extends free residency

THE scene looked familiar as Palestinian passengers crossed by bus from the Israeli checkpoint to Jordan. But upon reaching the Jordanian border, authorities did not impound any passports, nor did they ask for entry permits required for Palestinian men ages 26-36.

``I was not asked for a prior permit or anything. It was smooth,'' says Zaki Tareq Abu Youssef from the West Bank town of Ramallah.

On the eve of the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian accord on limited self-rule for the West Bank town of Jericho and the Gaza Strip, Jordan has heralded a new era in its relations with the Palestinians. After six years of tightening restrictions on Palestinians traveling between Jordan and the West Bank, the Jordanian government decided May 1 to allow Palestinians free entry and exit, as well as unlimited residency, in the kingdom.

The move came a day after Interior Minister Salameh Hammad said that restrictions imposed six years ago to prevent a massive Palestinian influx into Jordan were no longer feasible in view of the impending autonomy for Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Mr. Hammad told the official media on April 29: ``The earlier measures were aimed at consolidating Palestinian steadfastness in the occupied territories and blocking Israeli plans of pushing out Palestinians from their homeland.''

Although officials say that the move has no political dimensions, Jordanian and Palestinian analysts agree that the new policy will promote a larger and more positive role for Jordan in the West Bank.

The previous restrictions were endorsed in 1988 following Jordan's turnover to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) administrative responsibility for the West Bank, which had been under Jordanian rule until captured by Israel in 1967.

The restrictions had caused thousands of families to separate, since Palestinian husbands of Jordanian women were not allowed to reside in Jordan - except if Israel granted them (and only a few were) a reunion card allowing them to stay abroad without losing their residency in the West Bank.

As a result, some had to seek divorce as Israel did not allow the woman to live in the West Bank, and often was not allowed even visit, while the husband was not allowed to live in Amman.

Some, like Adel and Lama, tried to find other ways to stay together. Married since 1989, Adel was able to stay with Lama by obtaining a work contract and residency permit from an Eastern European country. But the contract has expired, and the couple was not sure if they could remain together - until Jordan's decision.

``Adel can now stay,'' says Lama, who has already applied for a family reunion permit from the Israelis to live with her husband here in the West Bank. ``We no longer need to find means to prolong his stay here.''

Another crucial problem for tens of thousands of West Bankers has been employment and education. But the new regulations will allow those Palestinians to seek jobs or attend Jordanian colleges and universities.

By May 2, many Palestinians were lining up at the Jordanian Follow-up and Inspection Committee to retrieve their passports. They didn't have to wait: People in the lines were given their passports immediately.

Palestinians from the West Bank, whose passports had been impounded by the Committee while they were visiting Jordan (to ensure that they return to the West Bank), had found it difficult to transact business in Jordan without their passports for use as an identity document.

West Bankers hold Jordanian passports, but in 1988 the documents were reduced from five-year citizenship documents to two-year travel documents. They are nevertheless recognized as passports in other countries.

The Jordanian government has said repeatedly that its measures were aimed at thwarting Israeli efforts to evict Palestinians from their homeland and force a massive influx to the West Bank.

But many Palestinians, as well as political analysts, saw ethnic overtones in the moves. Jordan may have been trying to mark clear differences between Palestinians and Jordanians after the Palestinians in the West Bank made clear through the 1987 intifadah (uprising) against Israel that their allegiance was to the PLO rather than Amman.

Following the signing of the historic Palestinian-Israeli peace accord last September, Jordanian official statements implied that the separate agreement on Palestinian autonomy reached between Israelis and Palestinians had further severed relations between the West Bank and Jordan.

But it seems that Jordanian decisionmakers have concluded that it was better to keep all options open, particularly because Jordan is very wary about its future relations with the West Bank. Various Jordanian and Palestinian sources, and prominent West Bank personalities who have traditionally backed Jordanian rule, have conveyed to King Hussein their skepticism about the way the PLO has handled the peace process and have appealed to him not to abandon the West Bank's future.

The king recently took some assertive steps, including his successful bid to restore the Dome of the Rock, one of the two holiest Muslim shrines in Jerusalem. And he stated that there could be no comprehensive peace agreement with Israel without the Israelis returning East Jerusalem to Arab sovereignty.

Late last month, in another indication of a strong revival of pro-Jordanian leadership in the West Bank, many Palestinians flocked to Amman to extend condolences to King Hussein over the death of his mother, Queen Zein al-Sharaf.

In private meetings and in sessions with Jordanian officials, traditional Palestinian leaders are said to have expressed open resentment against the PLO and hinted they wanted Jordan to stay behind them.

The PLO leadership has reportedly been losing support in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but Palestinian officials are hoping that the implementation of the autonomy deal will salvage its dwindling constituency.

But while some Jordanian political analysts view it an opportune time for Jordan to regain its role in the West Bank, others want the king to focus on his Jordanian constituency. Jordanian columnists have publicly called for closure of the Jordan River crossing points for fear of an influx of West Bank Palestinians, especially if the autonomy deal fails.

Once again, however, Jordan has decided to keep all of its options open.

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