Amman hopes for land, water, money Big population of Palestinians poses problems ISRAELI-PLO PEACE TALKS


September 15, 1993|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

AMMAN, Jordan -- For Jordan, the path to peace could lead to more land, water and money. It could also lead straight into an engulfing sea of Palestinians.

Jordan is already waist-deep in that sea, being the most popular destination for Palestinians fleeing the four Arab-Israeli wars between 1948 and 1973. The nation's population of 3.7 million is roughly half Palestinian, with about one-quarter of them living in crowded, impoverished refugee camps.

"One of Jordan's roles for the past 50 years has been as a shock absorber for the Palestinian refugee problem," said Rami Khoury, a writer and political analyst.

Many of those refugees have obtained Jordanian citizenship, and while most have become productive -- some are among the country's wealthiest citizens -- the lagging quarter has helped hold Jordan's economy in a slump that began when Persian Gulf war sanctions curtailed Jordan's ties to Iraq, its No. 1 trading partner.

Jordan's unemployment rate has dropped recently, but it is still hovering near 20 percent. Poverty rates remain high. And now, with the possibility that further peace agreements would open tTC the border between Jordan and the West Bank -- Palestinian territory now occupied by Israel -- the worry is that refugee burdens will increase, either through unfortunate departures or new arrivals.

"What the people are really worried about is that either a lot of Palestinians might leave and take their money with them or that there will be an influx of poor, angry Palestinians if the peace process doesn't work," Mr. Khoury said.

That's why, as peace talks with Israel move beyond yesterday's agreement in Washington, Jordan may stress refugee questions even more than questions of regaining lost land and water rights.

In a news conference here yesterday, Prime Minister Abdul-Salam Al-Majali, who also heads the ministries of foreign affairs and defense, said that Jordan will seek compensation from Israel for all Palestinian refugees since 1948.

That, he admitted, will take some pretty tough bargaining on some pretty tough questions.

Matar Saqer, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, said, "These are huge questions. Who is a refugee and who is not? Who would be entitled to compensation and who would not? Is compensation for governments, or for groups, or for individuals?"

The refugees themselves are grappling also with tough questions on a more personal level. Even if Jordan avoids economic and political upheaval, the peace process already has stirred a minor identity crisis among some of the nation's Palestinians.

In U.N. refugee camps, some occupants who have railed against Israel for years for seizing their land now wonder whether they'd actually return to their homeland if given the chance.

"I would stay here," concluded Ahmed Ali, a resident of the Baqaa refugee camp who was moved from his home as an infant in 1948 and then as a 20-year-old living on the West Bank in 1967. "It would be best for me if there was a confederation between Jordan and Palestine, and it became one state. That is our hope."

The debate goes on at higher income levels as well.

"My friends and I, we have talked about this many times, and I think maybe 70 percent of the Palestinians wouldn't go back," said Jamil Qasim, who runs a tourist agency. "Jordan is a friendly country. It has all the amenities you need. The king is a good man. And besides, it would be too hard to get a job on the West Bank."

When Mr. Majali was asked how many refugees Jordan would like to see leave the country, he said, "This question is like asking, 'How much money do you want to have? One million? Two million? Ten million? . . . If there are enough incentives [on the West Bank] -- security, freedom and work -- then certainly there are people who will want to go."

In the grand strategy for Jordan's future, compensation and repatriation of refugees may only calm short-term worries. In the long term, Jordan's sovereignty could be threatened even if the peace process works out profitably.

Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat already has mentioned the possibility of someday forming a Palestinian-Jordanian confederation if the peace process goes smoothly, and Mr. Majali acknowledged that possibility.

"I predict that the majority [on the West Bank] will ask for a confederation," he said. "But we have to ask the same thing of the Jordanians. Do they want it?"

The wild card in these developments is King Hussein, the popular leader who has slowly nudged Jordan toward democracy while surviving coup attempts and assassination plots during his 41-year reign.

Lately he has been preoccupied with keeping Muslim fundamentalist political parties under control, changing election laws in an effort to reduce their 40 percent hold on the elected seats in Joran's parliament.

The worry is that the king might not be around much longer. Although he will only turn 58 in November, he had cancer surgery a year ago, and speculation about his health continues.

In the king's absence, Jordan's move toward democracy might accelerate, and that in turn might accelerate the transition toward a Palestinian-dominated democracy in a future confederation.

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