Sunday, March 14, 2010

Some Palestinian Jordanians Lose Citizenship

NY Times


The authorities effectively told him they were doing it for his own good. They said that like thousands of other Jordanians of Palestinian descent, he was being stripped of his citizenship to preserve his right to someday return to the occupied West Bank or East Jerusalem.

“They gave me a paper that said, ‘You are now Palestinian,’ ” he said, recalling the day three years ago that his life changed.

In a report titled “Stateless Again,” issued last month, Human Rights Watch said that 2,700 people in Jordan lost their citizenship from 2004 to 2008, and that at least another 200,000 remained vulnerable, largely those who moved abroad at some point in search of work.

The government says it is trying to help by requiring Jordanians of Palestinian descent who fled the West Bank or Jerusalem after the war in 1967 to keep their Israeli documents valid. This has become a more urgent matter recently, political analysts and government officials said, with the accession of a right-wing Israeli government and its ultraconservative foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

“It is no secret that some elements in Israel would like to see the Palestinian areas without the people,” said Nabil Sharif, Jordan’s minister of state and a government spokesman. “We do not want to be party to this.”

Critics and human rights advocates, however, see a different motivation. They said the Jordanian government acted to preserve its own interest, trying to appease non-Palestinian Jordanians concerned about the growing economic and political influence of citizens of Palestinian descent, a charge Mr. Sharif denied. They say it also appears that Jordan is frightened by talk of declaring Jordan a Palestinian homeland as an alternative to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

The critics accuse the government of acting in an arbitrary manner, frequently dividing families between citizens and noncitizens, sometimes based on the timing of their birth, and for not offering effective avenues to appeal of decisions on citizenship.

For years now, Jordanian officials have expressed concern for preserving the demographic balance in a nation of six million people, divided about evenly between those from the East Bank of the Jordan River — considered original Jordanians — and those from the West Bank.

“The government is not doing this to support the Palestinians in their right of return,” said Fawzi Samhouri, director of a human rights organization in Amman, Jordan’s capital. Rather, he said, the government is responding to domestic political pressures because “some people think these procedures will reduce the percentage of the population that is of Palestinian origin.”

In interviews, seven Palestinian men who lost their citizenship described a similar chain of events. They said it was during a routine interaction with the state — renewing a driver’s license, a passport or a document that proved one’s military service. In each case, they said, a clerk typed the person’s name, or a family member’s name, into a computer and told the applicant that there was a problem and that he needed to go to the Interior Ministry’s Follow-up and Inspection Office.

Jordanians of Palestinian descent know what it means to be sent to that office. It is almost never good.

Amran al-Tarsha, 29, said the agent in the office took all his documents, put them in a drawer and closed it.

“He told me to go home,” Mr. Tarsha said.

Muhammad Ramadan, 23, said everyone in his family lost their citizenship when his father applied for identification card for his sister. For her, he said, that meant that a university education was no longer affordable because noncitizens pay higher tuition fees. His brother now cannot work in his profession, as a pharmacist, because only citizens are allowed into the professional union. And he said he could not get a job with the government because only citizens could work for the government.

“I’m Palestinian-Jordanian,” he said. “I have never been to Palestine, neither me nor my siblings.”

Like the others, Mr. Haddad’s family history is linked to the years of turbulence in the region. His father fled his home in 1948 when Israel was created, became a Jordanian citizen and traveled to Jerusalem, where he met his future wife. The two made a home in Amman.

In 1980, however, his mother returned to Jerusalem to be near her family and to give birth to a son, Muhannad. She had him registered under her Israeli documents and returned home, where her son grew up.

Amran al-Tarsha said a government official confiscated all of his Jordanian documents.

When he turned 16, and was no longer on his mother’s identity card, he went to Israel to have one of his own issued. He said they refused to give him one so he eventually returned to Amman. Then last year, he tried to renew a driver’s license and was told to go to the dreaded office in the Interior Ministry.

Mr. Haddad’s aunt, Hitaf Barakat, confirmed the details of her nephew’s circumstances. “He cannot go back, he cannot work here, he cannot go abroad, yet his mother, his father, his brother all retain their nationality here,” said Ms. Barakat, who works with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in Jordan.

The government says that this has nothing to do with demographic balance, that the numbers are too small and that only a fraction of its Palestinian population is subject to this kind of review. It says that the process has been going on since shortly after July 31, 1988, when King Hussein delivered a speech in which he gave up any claim of sovereignty to the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Jordan annexed those lands in 1950 and provided all the residents with Jordanian citizenship. When Israel occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem after the 1967 war, Jordan maintained some administrative control and financial responsibility.

But in 1988, as the first intifada, or uprising, raged, King Hussein announced that the Palestine Liberation Organization would serve as the sole representative of the Palestinian people. He announced that all Palestinians living in Jordan would preserve their Jordanian citizenship while those living in the occupied territories were Palestinian. He did not mention those Palestinians who had moved abroad, including the hundreds of thousands living and working in the Persian Gulf.

Jordan’s rulers were shaken in 1991, after President Saddam Hussein of Iraq occupied Kuwait and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians with Jordanian citizenship fled to Jordan.

“The Jordanians felt this was a very dangerous situation,” said Ali Mahafzah, a history professor at Jordan University. “The Palestinians might become a majority in the country.”

That fear, however, was not enough to prompt the authorities to turn them away. “We were in need of them economically,” Mr. Mahafzah said. “It was against our economic interest at the time to throw them to the West Bank.”

It appears that many of these people are the ones at risk now, though not exclusively. The government says that it issued directives that required all Palestinians who had once been issued Israeli documents after the occupation of 1967 to preserve those documents to maintain their citizenship.

The authorities said that it was incumbent upon each Palestinian to return to Israel every three years — to preserve their right to return to the occupied land and as a condition for keeping their Jordanian citizenship.

An Israeli military spokesman who refused to be identified said that under military law imposed on the West Bank, Palestinian citizens who left the area after 1967 and before 1988 could lose their citizenship after three years, but then they had an additional three years to claim it.

The spokesman said decisions could be appealed to a joint Israeli-Palestinian committee, though the spokesman acknowledged that the committee had not met in years.