Jordan queen's decree stirs tempest over citizenship rights

Move highlighted tensions over stateless Palestinian population

When the world's youngest and hippest queen stepped to the podium of the Arab Women's summit in Amman last month, few imagined that her decree - giving Jordanian women the same rights as men to pass on their nationality to their children - was more than a naive impulse to loosen the bonds of tradition in her conservative kingdom.

But now Queen Rania's first foray into politics has stirred a hornet's nest among Jordan's Bedouin tribesmen, and threatens to alienate a people who have for decades been the foundation of the Hashemite royal family's security force and political support.

The uproar erup-ted after tribesmen objected that Rania's decree would hand citizenship to hundreds of thousands of stateless Palestinians born to Jordanian-Palestinian mothers. The Palestinian-born queen, they argued, had a hidden agenda: to tilt the fragile demographic balance in this country of six million toward a Palestinian majority.

"I don't think Queen Rania intended to create a problem," says Oraib Rantawi, a prominent Palestinian-Jordanian academic recently recruited to advise King Abdullah. "But we have many extreme nationalists who don't want Palestinians to be Jordanians."

Three generations after Israel's war of independence sent the first Palestinian refugees spilling into Jordan, the Arab world is still wrestling with the problem of how far to absorb a migrant people, many of whom still live in camps. Humanitarian concern at the refugees' 50-year plight is balanced by Palestinian fears that full integration would soften the struggle for the Palestinian right of return - and turn countries with small indigenous populations like Lebanon and Jordan into quasi-Palestinian states. "We are not male chauvinists," says Nahid Hatr, a spokesman for advocates of East Bank supremacy. "But we don't want the world to solve the Palestinian refugee crisis at our expense."

To spare the queen embarrassment, and to avoid further alienating the Palestinians who make up the majority of the country's population, Jordan's cabinet last week moved to defuse the outcry by issuing a little-publicized amendment to Rania's decree. "There will be no automatic right of naturalization," Jordan's Information Minister Mohammed Adwan said. "We will study each application on a case-by-case basis on humanitarian considerations, but we will not award hundreds of thousands" more passports.

But with continued conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and a new war looming in Iraq, East Bankers remain deeply suspicious that their homeland could become the Hotel Hashemite Palestine, and their monarch its concierge. Jordan is alone in the Arab world in routinely granting refugees passports, but each war in the Middle East has propelled a fresh wave of Palestinians into Jordan, turning its Bedouin into a minority in their own land.

With the region again on the brink of war, senior officials say they are concerned that Israel might now use the "fog" of war to push Palestinians en masse into Jordan. Their fears have reached new heights since Jordan's foreign minister, Marwan Muasher, failed to secure a public declaration from Israeli Prime Minister ariel Sharon disavowing the possibility of a population transfer.

Analysts say the Hashemites can ill afford to further marginalize their Bedouin subjects, who have ancient tribal and trading ties with Iraq, by naturalizing more Palestinians. Last month, the kingdom faced its worst violence in 32 years, sending tanks to confront the southern town of Maan, the heartland of East Bank identity, and sparking fears of crumbling East Bank support for the Hashemites. Analysts noted that unlike Black September of 1970 when King Hussein deployed his Army against Palestinian militants, the target is now an East Bank town, the first in Jordan to recognize Hashemite rule.

Much of the anger has focused on King Abdullah's decision to suspend elections, dissolve the parliament - hitherto an outlet for tribal grievances - and rule by decree. To soothe regional tensions, King Abdullah recently started a "Jordan First" campaign designed to end Palestinian-Jordanian rivalries and forge a national identity based on kingdom rather than kin. Billboards throughout the country are emblazoned with Jordan First slogans, and alongside the requisite portrait of the late King Hussein in an East Bank trademark red-checked head scarf, his son, Abdullah, appears in a less clannish black suit and tie.

But East Bankers say the campaign is a pro-Palestinian assault on their privileges. In a biting edition attacking Rania's decree, the mouthpiece of East Bank opposition, Shihan, splashed its front page with the derisive headline, "Gazans First."

"If we're not doing enough to keep the West Bank Palestinian, we should at least keep Jordan Jordanian," says Fahed Fanek, an East Bank columnist. "The slogan 'Jordanians First' would be better."

Jordan First has fared better among Palestinians, despite warnings that the campaign could be used to deracinate them while doing little to dismantle a 50-year-old discriminatory system.

"Jordan First sounds great," says Fawzi Samhuri, director of the Jordanian Society for Citizens' Rights, which claims to be Jordan's only grass-roots group dealing with Palestinian cases. "But where is the implementation?"

Despite the king's campaign for equal rights for Palestinians, Mr. Samhuri claims that only six of the 147 judges appointed in November are of Palestinian origin. Two Jordanian ambassadors and six of 29 ministers count themselves Palestinians.

But with or without Rania's decree, members of the committee entrusted to implement Jordan First concede, Palestinian girls with Jordanian passports will continue to marry their cousins in the West Bank to rescue them from the misery of Israeli military rule.

Meanwhile, Jordanian authorities have imposed tough restrictions on Palestinians entering from the West Bank, slowing to a trickle the flow of families flocking to Amman for their holidays. Thousands of Palestinian pilgrims were forced to spend Ramadan camped in the rain at the border before Jordan allowed them to cross for the annual Umra pilgrimage to Mecca.

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