Reconciliation with Hamas prompts easier rules, but East Bankers are nervous
AMMAN — Jordan is reportedly taking steps toward easing restrictions on Palestinians from the Gaza Strip looking for work in the kingdom, but progress has been slow amid controversy over its impact on the unemployment rate and the country’s sensitive demographics.
But even as progress has been slow, Gazans living in the kingdom like Ahmed Abdel Munim, who lives in a refugee camp near the Roman-era city of Jerash and is one of the beneficiaries, say they are already feeling the change.
Sharing a small house with his wife and eight children, Ahmed said that until recently he was prohibited from owning property, despite earning and saving enough from his small construction company to afford a home. He is looking forward to his eldest son, now studying pharmacy at a nearby university, joining the pharmacists association, which like other such bodies is barred to non-Jordanians.
“For decades I wanted a house of my own outside the congested life in camp, but I couldn’t because I’m not allowed to own property. Things have changed now that we were given the green light to buy. I feel more human,” he told The Media Line. “I’m happy that my son will be able to work in Jordan. When he enrolled in university, I thought he would go to work in the Gulf because Gazans were not allowed to work in this line.”
Until recently, Gazans were restricted to working in manual labor and farming, and the ban on owning property included apartments for their own use.
Now, said Interior Ministry officials, more Gazans are being allowed into the kingdom after the security apparatus was given the nod to approve family reunification applications. Additionally, officials said security permission is no longer required for Gazans wishing to marry Jordanians.
“Last year, all names in the list were refused entry by the Mukhabrat [the general intelligence department], but you see, now they changed, some names are being accepted,” said Issam Arabiat, an official in the Sharia Court.
Officials from the umbrella organization of Jordan’s 14 labor syndicates say the government has hinted it will no longer stand in the way of Gazans joining unions.
Letting Gazans into the workforce isn’t an easy decision for the kingdom, whose economy has been battered by unrest in Syria and disruption in the supply of natural gas from Egypt. Unemployment reached 12.1% in the final quarter of 2011. The turmoil of the Arab Spring has also spilled over into politics, leaving the king struggling to balance pressure from reformists for more freedom and less corruption and from tribal leaders to keep the status quo.
Pointing to the sensitivity of the issue of employing Gazans, an official from the Prime Minister’s Office, who requested anonymity, insisted there has been no shift in official policy, but rather an easing of once stringent rules.
“Jordan is home to all the Arabs, not only Gazans,” he told The Media Line. “Libyans are coming in the thousands, Syrians and Iraqis. There is no difference between them and the Gazans.”
But absorbing Gazans, like West Bank Palestinians, into the kingdom’s economy touches on deep sensitivities about national identity; both for Jordanians and Palestinians.
Jordan is home to the largest number of Palestinian refugees in the world, with more than two million officially registered as refugees. The majority have been naturalized as Jordanian citizens.
Palestinians with a Jordanian passport enjoy nearly full rights, apart from working in sensitive security posts. The kingdom is also home to more than quarter of a million Gazans with temporary passports.
For the country’s native East Bankers, rising numbers of Palestinians threatens to upset a political order that has left them the dominant factor in local politics even if Palestinians have generally led the business sphere.
Indeed, activists in the Islamist movement and leftist parties blame a hard line faction of East Bankers for putting sticks in wheels of reconciliation between Hamas and Jordan amid fear of a further upset in the demographic balance.
For Palestinians integration into Jordanian society opens them to accusations that they have surrendered their aspirations to return to their homes in what is now Israel. Ahmed, the Gazan contractor, expresses those conflicts even as he celebrates his new rights in Jordan.
“We know where our country is and who occupies it.. But at the same time this doesn’t mean that we have to live a difficult life in Jordan or anywhere in exile,” he said, referring to the large Palestinian refugee populations in Syria and Lebanon. Lebanon places more onerous restrictions on its Palestinians than Jordan, although Syria has traditionally been more welcoming.
Government officials in Amman say the new policy aims to alleviate hardship in Gaza, whose economy has shrunk in the face of mismanagement by Hamas and an Israeli blockade. But conditions in the enclave have improved in the past year, and the change is probably more due to efforts King Abdallah II to end a decade of hostility with Hamas, the Islamic movement that rules Gaza.
Hamas leader Khalid Meshaal was received at the royal palace last month amid unconfirmed reports that Jordan might agree to host the movement’s diaspora headquarters in Amman.
Nevertheless, activists say no practical steps have been taken to accommodate more Gazans in the labor market. They say official procedures for things such as employment, health care, education and residency remain complicated.
Officials from Jordan’s professional associations also say there has been little progress toward admitting Gazans. By law, Jordanians must be members of the professional associations to work as doctors, engineers, lawyers, dentists and other key professions.
“As an association, we amended our regulations to absorb Gazans in the market, but it remains up to Health Ministry and other government bodies to give those dentists licenses,” said Barakat Al-Jaabari, president of the dentists association.