Jordan uneasy after Hamas arms find

The Palestinian militants have denied they are scouting targets within the kingdom, a US ally.

The political reverberations following the discovery of a Hamas weapons cache in Jordan this week underscores the growing tension between the government and Islamic opposition parties here, and speaks to the often uneasy relationship between native Jordanians and the country's 1.7 million Palestinian refugees.

Jordanian security services said they found the secret stash of explosives, artillery shells, detonators, and machine guns this week, but didn't say where it was discovered. Thursday, Jordan's Prime Minister Marouf Bakheet said the weapons had been smuggled from Syria, where Hamas's exiled leadership is based.

Jordan, a US ally that inked a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, has also said operatives from Hamas, which now controls the Palestinian government after last month's vote, scouted targets in the capital, such as hotels, in preparation for possible attacks.

Over the years, the monarchy has accused Damascus-based radical Palestinian groups opposed to Middle East peacemaking of plotting attacks inside the kingdom.

"These activities contradict the promises of the new Palestinian government not to use the Jordanian arena for any purposes that harm Jordan's security, or for meddling in its internal affairs," said government spokesman, Nasser Joudeh.

Hamas on Wednesday denied the accusations, saying it has never targeted Jordan or any country other than Israel.

"This accusation is unacceptable. We don't play with the security of anyone," said Palestinian Foreign Minister and senior Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar, whose visit to Amman was canceled by Jordan following the reported discovery.

The fallout caused by the arms discovery has led Jordan's main Islamic opposition party to accuse the government of King Abdullah II of trumping up the charges of a weapons cache to delegitimize Hamas.

The party, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), whose members are largely Palestinian and, like Hamas, is part of the hard-line Muslim Brotherhood movement, accuses Jordan of joining a US-led campaign to weaken the newly elected Palestinian militants. "I think the Jordanian government has responded to [US] pressure and [that it] bets on the failure of Hamas's government in its task of leading the Palestinian people," says Zaki Bani Irsheid, the party's general secretary.

But the dispute goes deeper than day-to-day politics. Nearly half of Jordan's 5.3 million inhabitants are of Palestinian origin. The weapons discovery has also revived concerns among many Jordanians that Palestinians seek ultimately to take control of the country and transform it into a base from which to attack Israel.

Currently, parliamentary elections are weighted heavily in favor of Jordanian-dominated towns. For example, mainly-Palestinian Amman, population 2 million, has 12 seats in Parliament, while Maan, an almost exclusively Jordanian city with a population of 100,000, has six.

However, the IAF advocates a more equitable distribution of seats. But analysts says such reforms would have only one outcome.

"If the [IAF] changes the law, the Palestinians will get more than 50 percent of seats in Jordan," says Abdullah Abu Romman, a political commentator and editor of Al Murai, a Jordanian weekly newspaper. "It will no longer be Jordan. It will be Palestine."

Material from wire services was used in this article.

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