Palestinians in Jordan, 1948-1967

Palestinians in Jordan, 1948-1967
The Making of the “Jordanians of Palestinian Origin”

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Refugee Conditions / Palestinians in Jordan, 1948-1967

With the influx of thousands of refugees after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Amman faced an acute housing crisis as the city's population grew from 30000 in 1948 to more than 200000 within ten years. Two camps for Palestine refugees were established at the edge of the city, but thousands of other Palestine refugees were still living in makeshift dwellings such as these in 1958.

UNRWA Archive

After the 1948 Palestine War, the geographic and demographic structures of Jordan were entwined with those of Palestine. In April 1950 the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan formally annexed the former Palestinian districts of Jenin, Nablus, Tulkarm, Ramallah, (east) Jerusalem, and Hebron (thereafter grouped under the label of “West Bank”) that had fallen under its control during the conflict. Unlike the other Arab countries that hosted Palestinian refugees, Jordan granted citizenship to both indigenous West Bankers and Palestinian refugees. The 1954 Nationality Law stipulated that citizenship would be granted to “any person who, not being Jewish, possessed Palestinian nationality before 15 May 1948 and resides ordinarily in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan on the publication date of this law.”

In May 1946, the Emirate of Transjordan (i.e. the East Bank of the Jordan River) had gained independence from Great Britain and was named the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. As a result of the “unification of the two Banks,” Jordan’s land mass grew by 5,640 km2  (a mere 1/16th of the Transjordan territory). The demographic and political impacts of the unification were more significant, however: In 1949, the West Bank had a population of 740,000, including 280,000 refugees, and the East Bank had a population of 470,000, including 70,000 refugees. Taken together, the population of Jordan exceeded 1.2 million inhabitants, two-thirds of whom were of Palestinian origin (Jordanian-Palestinians).

The annexation of the West Bank by Jordan was supported by some Palestinians, who were coopted into abandoning the nationalist stream of Palestinian politics led by the Mufti of Palestine. The union materialized through the “gentlemen’s agreement” concluded between King Abdullah I and pro-Hashemite Palestinian notables in a series of conferences. During the Jericho conference held on 1 December 1948, which was attended by mayors of several West Bank towns, the conference participants asked Jordan to annex the regions of Palestine it actually administered.  

The assimilation of the Palestinians within Jordan was facilitated by their integration in the country’s political system. After the general elections of April 1950, a parliament was created whose 40 seats were divided equally between elected deputies from both banks regardless of their origin. An Upper House comprised twenty members selected by the King (twelve Jordanians from the East Bank and eight from the West Bank). In January 1952, a new constitution enacted by the Parliament promoted the equality of all Jordanians before the law, regardless of their race, language or religion. The “Jordanization” process was reinforced through a “de-Palestinization” policy: the term “Palestine” was banned from all official documents in May 1950, and Jordan's official school curriculum promoted the idea of the unified Kingdom as a “little Arab homeland.”

A Qualified Assimilation

Yet, from the outset the Palestinian refugees were politically singled out as persons claiming a “right of return” to their original homes. UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (December 1948) resolved “that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property … .”  Until the mid-1960s, references to Palestine were coupled with the principle of the right of return, which rapidly became a rallying cry within the entire Arab world that all Arab states, including Jordan, were compelled to endorse publicly.

This also entailed espousing the Palestinian refugees’ view of UNRWA, the UN agency established in 1949 ”to carry out direct relief and works programmes” for registered Palestinian refugees, most of whom were farmers and unskilled workers, while promoting their socioeconomic reintegration in the local economies. Conceived by the United Nations as a humanitarian agency, UNRWA soon came to symbolize the international community’s commitment to solve the refugee issue along the guidelines of Resolution 194.

Because of the politicization of UNRWA’s mandate, a sizeable segment of Jordan’s population was thus granted two potentially conflictual sources of identification: Jordan, as a (temporary) state; and Palestine, the homeland to which they aspired to return. The resulting ambiguity has been most palpable among camp refugees (18 percent of the refugee population in Jordan): categorized as the neediest refugees, they are often regarded as the guardians of the memory of the “lost Palestine” and of Palestinian identity in exile, and the ultimate custodians of the “right of return.” As a result, although they hold full Jordanian citizenship, their socioeconomic status as structurally underprivileged people has brought Jordanian observers to deny them the Jordanian-Palestinian label in favor of the “Palestinian” or “Palestinian refugee” labels.

A Durable Coexistence

The hybrid political status of the “Jordanian-Palestinians” neither prevented their integration nor genuinely destabilized the Kingdom. Nationalist Palestinians resented Jordan’s annexation of the West Bank and the ensuing naturalization of the Palestinian refugees and of West Bank residents. This resentment was reflected in the assassination of King Abdullah I in Jerusalem in 1951. But protests by Islamist and leftist opposition parties against  Jordan’s pro-Western policies  assumed growing importance; after a failed coup in 1957,  King Hussein (the grandson of the assassinated King) imposed martial law.

Despite these tensions, the key objectives of Jordan’s assimilatory policies were fulfilled. One of them aimed at the Palestinians’ full involvement in the country’s development, and more particularly that of the East Bank that benefitted from the bulk of public investments in the 1950s and 1960s. Demographic data illustrate the steady migration of the West Bankers toward the East Bank, mainly Amman: between 1950 and 1961, the proportion of Jordan’s population residing on the East Bank jumped from 40 percent to 53 percent. In Amman itself, Jordanian-Palestinians are believed to form more than 80 percent of the population today.

After the 1967 war, Jordan lost control of the West Bank, and some 380,000 West Bankers (including about 140,000 Palestinians who became refugees in 1948) and 40,000 Gazans were displaced toward the East Bank. The neediest displaced people (including a significant proportion of Gazans, who were not granted the Jordanian citizenship) were assisted by UNRWA and host institutions, and the other displaced persons/refugees, be they teachers, merchants, entrepreneurs, civil service employees, also contributed to the economic, administrative, and political development of the country.

Selected Bibliography: 

Ababsa, Myriam, ed.  Atlas of Jordan – History, Territories and Society. Beirut: Presses de l’IFPO, 2013.

Abu-Odeh, Adnan.  Jordanians, Palestinians and The Hashemite Kingdom in the Middle East Peace Process. Washington, DC:  United States Institute of Peace, 1999.

Brand, Laurie A. Palestinians in the Arab World:  Institution Building and the Search for State. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Brand, Laurie A. “Palestinians and Jordanians:  A Crisis of Identity.Journal of Palestine Studies 24, no.4 (Summer 1995): 46-61.

George, Alan. Jordan. London: Zed Books, 2005.

King Hussein. Address to the Nation, 31 July 1988; at kinghussein.gov.jo

Mattar, Philip, ed. Encyclopedia of the Palestinians New York: Facts on File, 2005.