Whether the Jordanian government likes it or not, the Jordanian-Palestinian agreement and the mood of the people regarding Jerusalem require it to take a new look at the situation in the holy city.
Forty-six years ago Israel occupied Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank. Since then much has happened on the issue of Palestinian nationalism, the PLO and the emergence of the need for an independent Palestinian state. But while it is accepted that Palestinian statehood will take place on Palestinian soil (and not in Jordan as right-wing Israelis at one time wanted), the final status of Jerusalem has remained in doubt. Israel insists in no uncertain terms that the unified city of Jerusalem will continue to be part of Israel while Palestinians talk about East Jerusalem being the capital, and therefore part and parcel, of the independent state of Palestine.
Since 1967, Israel has unilaterally annexed and expanded East Jerusalem, a move that has not been recognised by any country in the world. Politically, however, Israel has worked hard — and to a certain level succeeded — to isolate East Jerusalem and its Palestinian residents from their natural physical and political connections in Ramallah, Bethlehem and throughout Palestine. But while Israel has weakened Palestinian-Palestinian relations, it has not been as successful in stopping Jordan from playing a direct role in Jerusalem. The role of Jordan, especially in the Old City and in relation to the holy places, has continued, albeit at a low key. Employees of the Jerusalem Awqaf Department are paid directly by Jordan and the waqf guards continue to guard all but one of the gates leading to Al Aqsa Mosque. Israeli police also stand alongside the waqf guards and Israel has total control over Bab Al Magharbeh which is the closest gate to the Western Wall.
Jordan also strengthened its political presence in Jerusalem by inserting a clause in its peace treaty with Israel, under which the Kingdom will have a key role in any decision regarding the final status of Jerusalem’s holy sites.
Jordan also received a further boost to its legitimacy in talking about Jerusalem when His Majesty King Abdullah and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signed an agreement recently recognising the Hashemites’ historic custodianship of holy sites in the city.
This background is important to understand when reviewing the unprecedented decision by the Jordanian Parliament last Wednesday unanimously calling on the government to expel the Israeli ambassador in Amman and to recall Jordan’s ambassador from Tel Aviv. The MPs decision came after news that Israel allowed right-wing Israelis to visit Al Aqsa Mosque at the same time that Israeli security prevented Palestinians from entering the mosque for two days. Palestinian fears that Israel is trying to change the decades long ground rules on the third holiest site in Islam was the main source of concern for the Jordanian parliamentarians. Daily demonstrations have also been taking place near the Israeli embassy in Amman.
This grassroots anger at the Israeli actions requires the Jordanian leadership to review its policies in Jerusalem. It is no longer enough to make political statements; Jordan needs to adopt a holistic approach to this most sensitive of all cases. It needs to use its political connections both with Washington and Tel Aviv to work on de-escalating this political crisis and to reach workable agreements that will keep radicals from taking advantage of the situation. Sources in Jerusalem point out that in the aftermath of the 2000 Al Aqsa Intifada frictions between Palestinians and Israeli troops allowed Israel to turn Bab Al Magharbeh into a regular (rather than emergency) entrance to the mosque. Tourists, as well as Jewish fanatics, bypass the existing regulations on the entry to the mosque by using this gate. This deprives the Islamic waqf authority of the ability to regulate the entry of non-worshippers to the holy site, their dress, the time they enter as well as precious income that tourists entering from all regular gates are obliged to pay.
Jordan’s re-engagement in Jerusalem will also need to try and find a mechanism to empower the disenfranchised Jerusalemites. Anywhere between 250,000-350,000 Palestinian political orphans live in East Jerusalem but are not able to practice any nationalist political activity. Any attempt by Jerusalemites to organise is seen as a hostile act and an attempt to introduce the Palestinian Authority into Jerusalem, which Israel violently opposes. If Jordan can empower Jerusalemites this can go a long way in helping them stay steadfast in their city, in order to combat Israel’s constant attempts at ethnic cleansing, which is described by some Israelis as “bureaucratic slow transfer”.
The efforts of Jordan should also include an attempt to deal with the research, media and public relations war in which the Muslims and Arabs are losing badly, even though many of the facts are on their side. Jordanian waqf officials, many of them in their retirement and post-retirement age, are unable to match the Israeli public relations machine. Shifting the public relations file from the awqaf department to any other effective entity is needed to present the Muslim and Arab side of the issues. Compared to the hundreds of think tanks and lobbying groups that Israel and Jewish agencies are working on around the clock, the Arab side is being crushed in academic, research and media presence on issues related to Jerusalem.
The Hashemites’ relationship with Jerusalem is important and continuous for decades. Jordan’s unique political position and the authorisation it has received from the Palestinian leadership, plus the pressures from its own people, require it to do something of importance in Jerusalem. Jordan can no longer deal with the challenges facing Jerusalem using the old methods. A new and bold effort is needed.