Jordan feels heat of intifada

Israel's Shimon Peres will fly to Cairo for talks on the Jordan- Egypt peace initiative.

Jordan's King Abdullah is emerging as one of the Middle East's foremost proponents of halting the seven-month-old Palestinian-Israeli confrontation and reviving the defunct peace process.

And one only has to look as far as the 50,000 residents of the Wahdat refugee camp here to understand the king's motivation. They are part of the Palestinian majority among Jordan's 5 million citizens.

King Abdullah fears that the Palestinian uprising among their relatives across the Jordan River could spread, triggering unrest and economic havoc here. So he and Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, who has similar concerns, are pushing a new peace proposal.

But the peace initiative isn't the prime focus of attention at the refugee camp. Rather, it's the latest Palestinian suicide attack in the Israeli town of Kfar Saba that grabs the attention of Wahdat residents and evokes the most chilling - and for King Abdullah's regime, alarming - response. The bomber had killed one Israeli and wounded forty others.

"We wish that it was 40 dead and one wounded," says Fahid Bayyari, president of the 3,000-member Wahdat Club, the camp's cultural center. "I hope that every day I will hear about suicide operations like that. Israeli mothers should taste the same agony the Palestinians feel every day."

Other club luminaries, gathered together in advance of a board meeting, agreed.

Bayyari's sentiments are widespread in this crowded camp of more than 50,000 people, where stores are named after towns in the West Bank and people identify themselves as coming from villages that, in physical terms, no longer exist. Anger runs high over suffering among their relatives and deep over decades of homelessness that started with the expulsion or exodus of parents and grandparents during Israel's emergence in 1948. Their anger is compounded by being close to - yet far from - this seminal event in Palestinian history, an intifada that in their view needs to be won in order for a Palestinian state to emerge.

"There is a feeling here that you are not part of the struggle, and this gives you a lot of frustration," says Youssef Abuhanieh, a hotel manager. "Everyone should take part. The words become the way to support the people under occupation."

Caught between mounting public anger and its peace treaty commitments with Israel, the regime in Jordan is trying to defuse the violence through a joint peace initiative with Egypt that includes curbing the uprising, halting Israel's economic siege, pulling Israeli troops back to the positions they held before the confrontation, and bringing both sides back to the negotiating table.

"If the situation worsens and Israel does not respond to political initiatives, there will be pressure to abrogate the peace treaty with Israel," says Salameh Ne'mat, Amman correspondent for the London-based al-Hayat daily newspaper. "Doing so would bring sanctions from the US. The authorities will refuse to abrogate the treaty, putting them into a confrontation with the opposition that could turn violent."

On Sunday, King Abdullah promoted the initiative during meetings with a US congressional delegation, telling its members, according to an official source quoted in the Jordan Times, that "the region is not able to endure the tense atmosphere with the escalation of violence in the Palestinian territories." According to the Associated Press, 482 people have died during the uprising, including 396 Palestinians, 66 Israeli Jews, 18 Israeli Arabs (including 4 Israeli soldiers) and one German.

The Palestinians have backed the initiative from the start, and Jordan has gained EU endorsement, but the big question, of course, is Israel.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is reportedly wary, among other things, of the plan's call for the resumption of final-status peace talks to be completed within a year. Sharon instead wants to aim for a limited interim agreement, with negotiations starting only after a cessation of what he says is Palestinian-initiated violence. Sharon told the Jerusalem Post in an interview published yesterday that the initiative "needs some changes and improvements." Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is expected to go to Egypt to explain the Israeli position as soon as today.

Meanwhile, Jordan fears unrest not only among Palestinians, but also among East Bank Jordanians hurt by the economic decline of the past eight months, Ne'mat says. Such discontent flared up in the form of economic riots in 1989 and 1996. The downturn is being caused by a drop-off in tourism and foreign investment in Jordan due to the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation.

But in Wahdat, most residents want to see the intifada continue. They support it by providing funding, along with the government, to treat wounded Palestinians in Jordanian hospitals; by sponsoring scholarships for children of slain Palestinians to complete university studies in Jordan; and through educational activities, according to Omar Nofal, manager of the club. And they also help out relatives living under the economic siege in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Last month, when Israel reimposed travel bans in the West Bank city of Hebron after a Palestinian sniper killed Shalhevet Pas (a Jewish settler's infant daughter), Kamal Abu Haikal, who owns a shoe store here, dipped into his savings to help his first cousin Akram.

Israeli curfews and blockades have made it impossible for Akram and tens of thousands of other Hebronites to earn a living.

"I don't worry about Akram only, I worry about all of my family, about all Palestinians," says Kamal Abu Haikal.

The Jordanian government recently imposed a ban here on marches in solidarity with the intifada, though police did not intervene when hundreds of Wahdat residents subsequently demonstrated on March 30, some of them reportedly chanting "give us guns."

"People are talking now about other ways than demonstrations to support their relatives," says Bayyari. They are speaking about harming not only Israel, but its main ally, the United States, he added. And Bayyari says that such harm could take place outside of Israel and the Palestinian territories. "The idea would be to carry out suicide attacks wherever the enemy is located," he says.

"If your brother has been murdered, will you keep silent?" asked Bayyari.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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