Why Jordan is vital to the protection of the delicate balance in Jerusalem

The Hashemite Kingdom is both everywhere and nowhere in the disputed city

epa07478161 A view of Jerusalem's Old City as the sun hits the Dome of the Rock (R) on The Temple Mount, known in Arabic as Hareem el-Sharif (The Noble Sanctuary), during cloudy day, 01 April 2019. At left are the grey domes of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus Christ was crucified, buried and resurrected during Holy Week.  EPA/JIM HOLLANDER
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Jordan is both everywhere and nowhere in Jerusalem.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is crucial to keeping a hesitant balance between Jerusalem’s volatile nationalities and religions. Jordan is the custodian of Jerusalem’s waqf, or religious endowments, including one of the city’s most revered and contested sites, the Haram Al Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary. It’s also a source of refuge, education and travel documents for many of the city’s still stateless Palestinians.

“Jordan is deeply involved in Jerusalem in many ways,” explained Palestinian-Jordanian journalist Daoud Kuttab, because Palestinians in Jerusalem are “political orphans, as they have no one taking care of them.”

But you won’t see Jordanian flags waving about Jerusalem’s famed cobbled streets. In fact, there isn’t much physical presence of Jordan at all. Many Jerusalemites, moreover, are openly frustrated that Jordan, who ruled the east side of the city from 1948 to 1967, isn’t doing more to make room for Palestinian representation and end the now over fifty-year-old Israeli occupation.

Recent political events – like the Trump administration’s moving of the US Embassy to Jerusalem and the Israeli government’s continuous squeezing of the city’s Palestinian residents  – have renewed the spotlight on Jordan’s role, and where it’s going.

“On the one hand there is an appreciation [among Jerusalem Palestinians] for Jordan’s role in restraining Israeli policies,” said Ofer Zalzberg, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Israel/Palestine. “And on the other hand there is a dissatisfaction that Jordan is not doing more.”

Jordanians and Palestinians are historically and geographically linked. More than half of Jordanians are of Palestinian descent, their families having fled or been forced out of present day Israel in the 1948 and 1967 wars. Jordan also ruled the West Bank along with Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967, and some laws in the former are still based on Jordanian codes.

Today, the 350,000 Palestinians residents of Jerusalem, who make up more than a third of the city’s residents, are technically stateless. Israel offered them citizenship in 1967, but most rejected, expecting the occupation would soon after end. They can still apply for Israeli citizenship, and the numbers of people doing so are rising. However, it's socially stigmatised and those that do often have to wait years and can be denied for seemingly arbitrary reasons. Today most Palestinians live on the city's marginalised east. As permanent residents they have access to Israeli education and healthcare, among other services, but they can’t vote in national Israeli elections and risk losing their residency if they live outside of Jerusalem for too long.

As a holdover from the Jordanian era, most Palestinians living in East Jerusalem have Jordanian travel documents, and about 130,000 are citizens of Jordan, according to Mr Kuttab. (Many of the 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank also have Jordanian travel documents or citizenship. Their situation is different, however, as they are ruled by the semi-autonomous Palestinian Authority and cannot move around Israel freely.) Last year, Jordan made it easier for Palestinians to renew their passports and travel documents, lowering the fees and cutting the costly requirement that they travel to Amman to do so.

epa06108360 Israeli border police on duty as Palestinians pray at the Lion's Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem near the entrance to the Haram el-Sherif (Noble Sanctuary), or The Temple Mount to Jews, at the Old City of Jerusalem, 25 July 2017. During the night police removed the controversial metal detectors that were placed in the wake of a shooting of two Israeli police officers at this popular entrance to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, amid a diplomatic easing of recent tensions. The mufti of Jerusalem called on Muslims not to enter and  pray at the  Al-Aqsa Mosque, even though Israel had been dismantled metal detectors  EPA/ABIR SULTAN
Israeli border police stand on duty as Palestinians pray at the Lion's Gate entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem, near to Haram Al Sharif, on July 25, 2017. Abir Sultan / EPA

The most well known place to find Jordan is at the Haram Al Sharif Compound in the Old City, which Israeli Jews refer to as the Temple Mount. Jordan employs around 1,000 guards, staff, and other workers there. It also negotiates with the Israelis when this tentative status quo shakes, like in the summer of 2017 when Israel put metal detectors at the entrance to the compound and the Palestinian street erupted in protest. (Israel ultimately removed the gates.)

In February, Jordan created a new Jordanian Islamic Waqf Endowment Council, intentionally including some leaders from the 2017 protests and more Palestinian members. It's first move has already made headlines: the council tried to enter the Bab Al Rahmeh prayer Hall, which Israel made off-limits to Muslims in 2003 during the second Intifada, or uprising, setting off days of Palestinian protests and protest prayers after the Israelis refused.

As the custodian of Jerusalem’s waqf, Jordan also administers religious funded schools and overseas other tasks, like mosque renovations. In addition, the royal family legally and symbolically has to approve the heads of churches in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

While much of this work is intangible, inside a beautifully renovated Ottoman-era building perched above Al Aqsa in the heart of the windy Old City, is the office of Madrasati Palestine, a Jordanian initiative to rejuvenate schools and education in Jerusalem. Rami Moshasha, 38, is the Managing Director of the initiative, which Queen Rania spearheaded and opened in Jerusalem in 2010. Since then, the organisation has renovated more than 28 schools, conducted trainings for the waqf-school teachers, and organised activities for the more than 7,000 students in these schools, according to Mr Moshasha.

The Palestinian economy is extremely aid-dependent. But Mr Moshasha, who is from Jerusalem, described the initiative as an extension of Jordan and the royal family’s duty to Jerusalem.

“It’s not like Jordan is giving [it] to Jerusalem,” he said. “It’s part of their duty to give as much as we can to Jerusalem.”

He continued, “I think Jerusalemites understand that King Abdullah and Queen Rania and all of the Hashemites are doing their best for the people of Jerusalem. There will always be a need to do more…But they are doing their best, especially at Al Aqsa and at schools.”

Historically, Jordan has been in competition with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority (PA) over control and representation of Palestinians, Jerusalem included. In 1988, Jordan renounced its claim to represent Palestinians, making room for the PLO to take on that role and establish the PA through the Oslo Peace Accords with Israel.

Under Israel and Jordan’s 1994 peace treaty, the latter formally holds the role of custodian of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. In 2013, Jordan and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signed an agreement affirming this relationship of Jordan as custodian and Palestine, technically, retaining sovereignty.

Some Jerusalemite Palestinians see protecting Al Aqsa as an integral part of their identity. This also at times breeds tension with Jordan and the feeling “that their most holy site is managed above their heads by Jordanians and Israelis,” said Mr Zalzberg.

Jordan’s role in Jerusalem is consequently tied up with its relationship with Israel. Jordan, on the one hand, depends on Israel economically and politically in domains like water and energy, security cooperation and international aid. On the other hand, Jordan is a crucial intermediary for Israel with the Palestinians during times of tension in the city, particularly at the Haram Al Sharif.

“It’s not just a bilateral relationship between Israel and Palestinians,” said Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli expert on Jerusalem. “You have to triangulate and always include the Jordanians.”

Jordanians protest for the decision that Americam president took over Jerusalem, Tuesday, December 7, 2017 in front of the American embassy in Amman, Jordan. (Salah Malkawi for The National)
Jordanians protest for the decision that American president took over Jerusalem, Tuesday, December 7, 2017 in front of the American embassy in Amman, Jordan. Salah Malkawi

Still, during the metal detector protests in 2017, it was the Palestinian street and religious leaders who led the charge and kept up the momentum, with Jordan and the official Palestinian leadership taking a noticeably back seat.

Now, in the wake of the Trump administration undoing decades of a hesitant diplomatic status quo, Mr Kuttab said he expected Jordan’s role in Jerusalem to deepen amid the political uncertainty.

But Diana Buttu, a former spokesperson for the PLO, argued that with regional relations between Israel, America and Arab countries growing friendlier amid unpopular Palestinian leadership, she didn’t see Jordan being able to take on a more robust role.

“It’s [Jordan] never been unhelpful but never particularly overly helpful,” said Ms Buttu.

“It isn’t playing the heavyweight political role that it was once playing,” she said. “This is very much a problem… because no one else is doing it.”