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Why can’t Jordan take in the Gazans?
We should be wary about condemning Arab nations
The day Abdullah was born, his father Hussein wrote in his autobiography Uneasy Lies the Head, was one of great joy. ‘Now my cup of happiness is overflowing,’ the late king recalled: ‘the birth of our son, named Prince Abdullah in memory of my grandfather, has not only provided the throne of Jordan with an heir, but it was, from a purely personal point of view, the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me.’
In a description that many parents will empathise with, he recalled that ‘The baby was not really expected so soon, but during the night Muna woke me and said she felt unwell. Like any father-to-be, I was scared stiff! I grabbed the first clothes I could, rushed down, got the car ready and drove Muna myself to hospital. Soon afterwards, my son was born.’
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With his newborn, Hussein felt that ‘there is really very little more I can ask from life.’ The streets were crowded with people celebrating the birth, and the king and queen were flooded with well-wishers, although not everyone had the same dreams for the boy.
‘I must say I was amused, the day after Abdullah was born,’ the king wrote: ‘Amongst the stream of visitors coming to congratulate me was one Englishman, who asked me in highly anxious tones: “Sir, are you going to send him to Harrow?” I suppose I will.’
Today the beloved son, who inherited the throne after his father’s death in 1999, is very much the man at the centre of the world stage, restlessly engaged in meeting leaders from the US, Europe and the Arab world in an attempt to prevent the Middle East from exploding into war.
The king speaks perfect English in an English accent, although alas Abdullah could not follow his father’s footsteps in going to Harrow, instead attending school in the United States, although the Anglophilia of the Jordanian royal family is very real. Indeed, the King is half-British, Princess Muna being born Toni Gardiner in Suffolk. That her son could not attend school in England was a result of the sheer danger facing anyone associated with the Hashemite dynasty in Europe in the 1970s; in one shocking incident, an attempt was made on the life of the Jordanian ambassador in High Street Kensington in 1971.
That historical background also explains in part why Jordan, and Egypt, are very reluctant to accept refugees from Gaza if Israel invades, something which has become a talking point among western conservatives this past week.
As King Abdullah said: ‘That is a red line, because I think that is the plan by certain of the usual suspects to try and create de facto issues on the ground. No refugees in Jordan, no refugees in Egypt.’
The title of Hussein’s memoir comes from one of Shakespeare’s many famous lines, and indeed that heaviness weighs on world leaders right now; on the one hand, it is clear that Israel cannot continue to live side by side with Hamas, a group dedicated to genocide against its people; on the other, a war would not just involve immense human suffering, but potentially destabilise the region (as well as causing carnage on the streets of western Europe). If King Abdullah can somehow help bring some sort of just peace then he really will have been a blessing not just to his father but to the entire world.
But if the war escalates, there will be growing demands for Europe to take in Gazans, something Scotland’s first minister has already called on Britain to do. This would be extremely unpopular across the continent. The admission of unvetted Libyan refugees after 2011 led to multiple murders in Manchester and Reading, and there is a risk of the same thing happening again. On top of this, Europe already faces a migrant surge potentially larger than 2015, one that caused problems across the continent, including the rise of the AfD in Germany and arguably playing a role in Brexit.
It is generally a good idea for refugees to be housed in neighbouring countries rather than on different continents, for a number of reasons, but we should be wary of casually stating that Arab states should house Gazans. In a difficult region many of these countries have already put themselves under enormous strain through acts of immense generosity, and none more so than Jordan.
King Abdullah’s parents met on the set of Lawrence of Arabia, where his mother was a secretarial assistant (or because her father was a military advisor, the stories differ). King Hussein had allowed the great epic to be filmed in his country and was known to be friendly to the cast and crew, part of a now-long tradition of film-making in Jordan (Dune is the most recent, although Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is perhaps the best).
David Lean’s epic told the story of the Arab revolt against the Ottomans and the British role in it, which ended with both the bitterness over the Balfour Declaration and the establishment of Hashemite dynasties in Iraq and Transjordan. Only one still remains.
The survival of Jordan’s monarchy has been one of the more surprising outcomes of the past few decades, and experts have repeatedly bet against it. The country has an unusually bad hand in many ways. Situated beside the disputed Holy Land, it lacks the natural resources of neighbouring Saudi Arabia and Iraq, while also being more remote than Lebanon or Syria, which had long been at the heart of Mediterranean trading networks and far more plugged into European markets.
But most of all it has suffered the destabilising effect of refugees. Abdullah is named after his great-grandfather, the first King of Jordan, whose assassination in 1951 forms the opening of Hussein’s autobiography; indeed he calls it ‘the most profound influence of my life’. He was just 15 year-old when he travelled with his grandfather to Jerusalem to perform Friday prayers, where the monarch was shot dead by a Palestinian. The gunman then fired at Hussein but the bullet struck a medal his grandfather had given him.
Abdullah I had ruled the new kingdom for just five years, and it endured an incredibly bad start with defeat in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, which led to a surge of refugees. Estimates of exact numbers seem to vary hugely, but in Lion of Jordan, Avi Shlaim writes that 700,000 Palestinians left in 1948, and of these ‘450,000 ended up in Jordan, which did more than any other Arab state to help them resettle and integrate with the rest of society’.
He wrote: ‘The refugees in Jordan wanted to preserve their separate Palestinian identity, but this ran counter to Abdullah’s policy of “Jordanization”.’ He gave them citizenship rights ‘but the refugees were a great burden on the weak Jordanian economy; it simply did not have the financial resources to cope with a humanitarian tragedy on such a vast scale.’ Many ended up in resentful poverty and ‘the Palestinians thus became an important factor in domestic Jordanian politics.’
Another source suggests that in 1949, ‘Jordan welcomed approximately 900,000 refugees by amending the country’s 1928 Law of Nationality to grant equal citizenship to Palestinians; the 1954 Law of Jordanian Nationality later extended citizenship to Palestinians who arrived in Jordan after the 1949 addendum.’
After another defeat against Israel in 1967, up to 300,000 displaced Palestinians in the West Bank retained Jordanian citizenship, and today around 40% of the Jordanian population descend from Palestinian refugees, although the figure may be higher (again, they vary hugely). What seems certain is that about 40% of displaced Palestinians and their descendants live in Jordan, with another 10% in Syria (although many of those have since fled to Lebanon).
The Hashemites, unlike some Arab countries, were keen to integrate the newcomers and to avoid them having to endure a permanent refugee existence; that is why three-quarters of Palestinians in Jordan are Jordanian citizens, although Palestinians from Gaza aren’t, that area having been part of Egypt before the Six-Day War.
In contrast Palestinians who fled to Syria were not given citizenship, for all the talk of solidarity, and often remained in refugee camp-cities for decades (many of which were heavily affected by the Syrian war).
In Lebanon it was even worse; there the Palestinians could neither gain citizenship, nor in many cases access things like healthcare, education or work. The situation here was uniquely dangerous, because their arrival tipped the country’s incredibly delicate balance between Christians, Shia, Sunni and Druze; in 1975 the country descended into civil war, a horror that saw a modern example of shibboleths where Christian militiamen would present tomatoes to suspected Palestinians and ask them to pronounce the name.
This refugee surge had a destabilising effect on Jordan. Already in 1958 things were so bad that Hussein hoped to form a tripartite union with Saudi Arabia and Iraq to counter the influence of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt. Neither neighbour was too keen on the idea, and Saudi prince Abd al-Ilah remarked that ‘Hussein’s trouble stemmed from the fact that 70 per cent of his subjects were Palestinians with no loyalty to the throne’.
But in 1970, three years after the Six-Day War, it reached a crisis point, with the British ambassador commenting that ‘the mixture became so volatile that the container exploded’. There now came full civil war in Jordan between the army and the Palestinian fedayeen.
Jordan had become home to the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, but this umbrella group was itself split into different factions, Fatah being the largest and most moderate. They were reluctant to get involved in the internal affairs of other Arab states, but this was not the case with the more extreme Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine led by Dr George Habash (who, as his name suggests, was a Christian) and the Marxist-Leninist Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (yes, it does get very Life of Brian).
There was also the Al-Saiqa, ‘the Storm’, which was linked to the Syrian Ba’ath Party, and also the Arab Liberation Front, associated with Iraqi Ba’athists. The PFLP even had a more extreme offshoot called PFLP-General Command, which openly called for the overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy.
‘Growing power and prestige were accompanied by growing arrogance, insolence and heavy-handedness,’ Shlaim wrote: ‘The fedayeen, regardless of what group they belonged to, were overbearing’, driving around with weapons on display ‘like an army of occupation’.
By the start of 1970 Habash and other radicals were calling for Hussein’s overthrow. ‘They wanted to transform Amman into an Arab Hanoi and proclaimed that the road to Tel Aviv passed through it,’ as Shlaim put it. Even Fatah’s Yasser Arafat declared: ‘We have decided to convert Jordan into a cemetery for all conspirators.’
Fighting broke out between the Jordanian Army and the fedayeen on 7 June, with Hussein the target of two assassination attempts. ‘On 9 June some fedayeen opened fire on the government’s intelligence headquarters in Amman, and Hussein insisted on rushing to the scene. His motorcade came under heavy machine-gun fire, and one of his guards was killed’. (Indeed another attempt was made on the king’s life in September, and Hussein perhaps holds the record for the number of failed assassination attempts, although Charles de Gaulle might also have the honour).
Things were so bad that the monarch’s uncle Sharif Nasser told his nephew that they should leave. ‘Those who knew Sharif Nasser would hardly have believed that he could advise without a fight,’ Shlaim writes: ‘In the army he was renowned for courage rather than cowardice.’
But Sharif had been part of the Baghdad branch of the Hashemite dynasty, which had been driven out in 1958, and so exile seemed like an option. ‘Hussein, on the other hand, was born in Jordan, grew up there and never suffered from any sense of being an outsider. His passionate identification with the country and its people was further reinforced by a strong sense that, as a Hashemite, it was his duty to rule and to lead from the front. He was absolutely determined to stand his ground and defend his dynasty. Abdication to him looked like an easy option, tantamount to cowardice and treason.’
The Jordanian army was much larger but contained many Palestinians and there was the ‘ever-present danger that it would fracture along Jordanian-Palestinian lines and that some Palestinian commanders might desert if ordered to shoot fellow Palestinians.’ While Egypt remained neutral, Syria, Iraq, Algeria and Libya all sided with the fedayeen — and there were still 17,000 Iraqi troops in the country left over from the 1967 war.
The Jordanians looked around for friends, but ‘in Britain there was virtually unanimous opposition to military intervention. The experts in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office believed that the Palestinians would eventually win the struggle against the king and that it would be damaging to British interests in the Arab world to take action to save the throne. Peter Tripp, who served on the Jordanian desk in the FCO, explained the British predicament: “You cannot just nail your colours to the mast and say well, we’ll go down with the ship. I mean, there’s a certain amount of self-interest in all this.”’ The Heath government agreed.
(Is there a more back-stabbing and untrustworthy organisation in the world than the British Foreign Office? Answers on a postcode.)
Yet Hussein did receive support from the Americans and, through them, the co-operation of Israel, which agreed not to take advantage of the situation. Henry Kissinger admired the king, who he described as ‘young, able, and courageous’.
The US secretary of state wrote that ‘Hussein had always advocated moderation, resisted the radical tide, and avoided fashionable anti-Western slogans. He was in difficulty because of his reluctance to permit the guerrillas free rein. His collapse would radicalize the entire Middle East. Israel would not acquiesce in the establishment of guerrilla bases all along its Jordanian frontier. Another Middle East war would be extremely likely. Thus, Jordan, in my view, was a test of our capacity to control events in the region. Nixon shared this perception.’
Yet a report to the president warned that ‘The authority and prestige of the Hashemite regime will continue to decline. The international credibility of Jordan will be further compromised…. Greater fedayeen freedom of action will inevitably result in more serious breaches of the ceasefire in the Jordan Valley… Hussein faces an uncertain political future.’
Despite these warnings, the Jordanians proved victorious, with Nasser serving as broker between King Hussein and Arafat — and then dying of a heart attack the next day.
Shlaim wrote that: ‘In victory Hussein displayed magnanimity. He invited Ahmad Toukan, a loyalist Palestinian, to form a government. In his letter of appointment Hussein urged the new prime minister to “bandage the wounds” and combat “regionalism” and Palestinian-Jordanian animosity.’
The Hashemites survived, and continued to be a moderating force as peace-brokers in the region. When King Hussein died of cancer at the end of the century, the flag at Buckingham Palace was placed at half-mast, a rare gesture of respect from the British Royal Family.
Jordan’s generosity did not end in 1967. After the 1991 Gulf War it took in another 300,000 Palestinian refugees from Kuwait, expelled for being seen as pro-Iraq (Britain also allowed in a few, including the family of future ‘ISIS Beatle’ Mohammed Emwazi).
More recently it has also welcomed an astounding 1.3 million Syrians escaping the civil war, a huge burden for a country which has no black gold and will never be rich enough to buy a Premier League club.
The potential issue of Palestinian refugees in Europe is going to be very tricky, and unpopular, but we should be wary of suggesting that Arab states simply take them in; history suggests that such an exodus could have a huge destabilising effect, and many Arab states have in fact shown a great deal of humanity to civilians fleeing the region’s numerous wars, but especially the Kingdom of Jordan. As with everything in this region, there are no easy answers.
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