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Jordan and Palestinian Refugees

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An interesting development is taking places in Jordan: Forty years after the Rabat Summit, which declared the PLO as the "sole legitimate representative" of the Palestinian people, one aspect of representation is being challenged.

Jordanian officials, including the prime minister, the speaker of the Parliament and the foreign minister, were recently quoted as demanding a greater role for Jordan in the peace talks.

In addition to insistence on a role on the future of Jerusalem, Jordanian officials are saying that no final status agreement regarding refugees can be finalised without Jordan's say.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has over two million registered Palestinian refugees, and many more unregistered.

According to the Parliament Speaker Atef Tarawneh, since Jordan gave these Palestinian refugees citizenship, it should have a say in their future, whether in terms of return or compensation, or both.

Jordan also insists that as a host country to 42 per cent of the world's Palestinian refugees, its decades old effort must be recognised and compensated.

Perhaps the official Jordanian position on the Palestinian refugees was best summarised by Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh's statement when he chaired the UN Security Council this week: "Most of the refugees on our territory are Jordanian citizens in addition to their status as refugees, and it lies at the heart of our responsibilities to protect and restore their legitimate rights recognised by the international terms of reference pertaining to the peace process. As a host country, we, in turn, have rights for the burdens we have shouldered."

A closer look at the profile of Palestinian refugees produces a much more complicated picture.

They include Palestinians who came to Jordan before the 1949 armistice agreement, refugees after 1948, Palestinians who came from the West Bank to the East Bank in 1967 and finally Gazan refugees.

The first three groups are Jordanian citizens, the latter, who came from a territory that was not part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (said to be around half a million) are not Jordanian citizen although they carry a temporary Jordanian passport.

The heightened Jordanian interest specifically in the refugee issue is more financial than political.

The repeated visits by US Secretary of State John Kerry and the narrowing of the gap on many issues between Israelis and Palestinians exposed Jordan's isolation in the talks.

While Jordan can claim a direct role in talks about Jerusalem, in accordance to Article 9 of the peace treaty with Israel, there is no avenue for Jordan to seek its national interests when it comes to resolving the Palestinian refugee problem.

The Palestinian refugee issue has been widely written about.

Perhaps the most consistent and comprehensive coverage was carried out by a group of Canadian academics and former diplomats, which is generally referred to as the Ottawa group. A website, http://prnn.org, has collected all relevant documents, ideas and suggestions for solving the refugee conflict.

Included is a political solution between the parties, and individual solutions.

Palestinians insist that Israel should recognise its historical and moral responsibility for causing the Palestinian refugee problem and allowing a good number of Palestinians (especially those from Lebanon) to exercise their right of return as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

Israel has so far refused to accept responsibility, but previous governments agreed to support any international fund to compensate refugees and to accept a small number of returning refugees, based on humanitarian needs, possibly within a gradual process of family reunification.

The Ottawa experts, who base their work on historical experience with cases of refugees, recommend dealing with the Palestinian refugees on the basis of a two-step approach: initially, a commitment from the refugees that they agree with the process and then, choosing one of four locations where they agree to be permanently settled.

These include staying in the country they already are in, moving to a third country, returning to live in the Palestinian state and, a smaller group, returning to live in Israel.

The Ottawa group recommends cash infusion for the initial step and a comprehensive compensation based on international standards for the second.

While generally acknowledged, the financial benefits of host countries have been least discussed.

Jordanian officials are said to be working privately on documenting the investment and cost that Jordan has incurred by accommodating the largest group of Palestinian refugees in the world.

These numbers and the formula upon which they are based have been kept under wraps.

The current more intense interest in Jordan in the refugee issue is perhaps a reflection of a high level of confidence that the current US-led peace efforts might produce a lasting agreement.

Jordan wants to make sure that its interests on all front (Jerusalem, borders and refugees) will be given proper airing and attention.