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Palestinian Refugees in Jordan and the Revocation of Citizenship: An Interview with Anis F. Kassim

[Palestinian Refugees, 1948. Public Domain. From Wikimedia Commons.] [Palestinian Refugees, 1948. Public Domain. From Wikimedia Commons.]

[Anis F. Kassim is an international law expert and practicing lawyer in Jordan. He was a member of the Palestinian legal defense team before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the 2004 landmark case on Israel’s separation wall, and that led to the ICJ’s Advisory Opinion on the Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.  The following interview was originally published by BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights in their quarterly magazine al-Majdal.]

Hazem Jamjoum: What legal status was afforded Palestinians who came under Jordanian control after the 1948 Nakba?
 
Anis Kassim: On 19 May 1948, the Jordanian army entered the area of central Palestine that the Zionist forces were unable to occupy, and began the process of legally incorporating central Palestine into the Jordanian Kingdom. As part of this process, on 20 December 1949, the Jordanian Council of Ministries amended the 1928 Citizenship Law such that all Palestinians who took refuge in Jordan, or who remained in the western areas controlled by Jordan at the time of the law’s entry into force, became full Jordanian citizens for all legal purposes. The law did not discriminate between Palestinian refugees displaced from the areas that Israel occupied in 1948 and those of the area that the Jordanian authorities renamed the “West Bank” in 1950.

On one hand, this citizenship was forced upon the Palestinians who did not really have much of a say in the matter. On the other, this was a welcome move because it saved those Palestinians the hardship of living without citizenship.
 
HJ: How was the process for the revocation of citizenship complex?
 
AK: First of all, I should note that the law itself has not been officially amended, so what I am about to describe is still what is officially in effect today. First of all, the Jordanian Constitution, adopted in 1952, states that citizenship is a matter to be regulated by a law, and the Jordanian Citizenship Law was indeed adopted in 1954, replacing that of 1928 and its amendment. According to this law, it is possible to revoke the citizenship of a Jordanian citizen who is in the civil service of a foreign authority or government. The citizen must  be notified by the Jordanian government to leave that service and, if the citizen does not comply, the Council of Ministries is the body with the authority that is able to decide to revoke his citizenship. Even if the Council does decide to revoke the citizenship, this decision must then be ratified by the King, and even then, the citizen whose citizenship was revoked has the right to challenge the Council of Ministries’ decision in the Jordanian High Court, and it is this court’s decision that is binding and final. These procedures are being completely ignored when the citizenship of a Jordanian of Palestinian origin is revoked.
 
HJ: Did the status of Palestinians in Jordan change after the 1967 War with the Israeli occupation of the West Bank?
 
AK: No. their status remained as Jordanian citizens.
 
HJ: When did the differentiation between Palestinian citizens of Jordan begin? 
 
AK: Today we can speak of five kinds of Palestinian citizens of Jordan. The first differentiation came in the early 1980s, when the Jordanian government was concerned that Israeli policies and practices aimed to squeeze out the Palestinian inhabitants of the occupied West Bank; to empty out the Palestinian territories to replace them with Jewish settlers. The Jordanian government then created the first real differentiation between its Palestinian citizens by issuing differentiated cards.
 
Those who lived habitually in the West Bank were issued green cards, while those who habitually lived in Jordan but had material and/or family connections in the West Bank were issued yellow cards. The sole purpose of these cards at the time was so that the Jordanian authorities at the King Hussein (Allenby) Bridge—the only crossing point between Jordan and the occupied West Bank—could monitor the movement of these card holders, enabling the Jordanian authorities to know how many Palestinian West Bankers had crossed into Jordan, and to ensure that they returned, essentially a kind of statistical device. Indeed, this was a wise policy in terms of countering the Zionist plans to continue the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
The major turning point came with the Jordanian disengagement (fak al-irtibat) from the West Bank on 31 July 1988.
 
HJ: What was the disengagement?
 
AK: Since 1948, when central Palestine came under Jordanian control, the Jordanian government has claimed the West Bank as part of the kingdom. By 1988, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had come to be recognized on an Arab and, to some extent, international level as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, but the Israelis and Americans were still refusing to recognize the PLO, let alone to officially communicate with it. Jordan’s King Hussein shrewdly took the decision to disengage from the West Bank as a message to the United States and Israel that if they were going to negotiate with anyone over the fate of Palestinians in the West Bank, it should be with the PLO. In the famous speech he delivered on 31 July 1988 [1] in which he declared the disengagement—and we have to remember that this was during the most intense period of the first Intifada— King Hussein stated that the purpose of the disengagement was to support the Palestinians’ struggle for self determination by relinquishing his claim to that territory.
 
HJ: How was the disengagement a “turning point” for Palestinians’ status as Jordanian citizens?
 
AK: When the disengagement was declared, the color of the cards (yellow and green), that had been used as a statistical device, became the criteria for determining the citizenship status of a citizen. The government issued instructions to the effect that those who habitually lived in the West Bank, that is green card holders, on 31 July 1988 were “Palestinian citizens,” while those who were living in Jordan or abroad were Jordanian. Put another way, over one-and-a-half million Palestinians went to bed on 31 July 1988 as Jordanian citizens, and woke up on 1 August 1988 as stateless persons.
 
HJ: You previously mentioned that we can speak of five kinds of Palestinian citizens of Jordan. What are the different kinds of status among Palestinians citizen of Jordan currently?
 
AK: The first category we can call hyphenated Palestinian-Jordanians. These are Palestinians who were in Jordan on the date of the disengagement with no material connection to the West Bank or Gaza Strip, or who were Jordanian citizenship holders abroad. These are regarded as Jordanians for all legal purposes.
 
The Palestinians in the second category are the green card holders whose citizenship was revoked by the government orders that I described earlier.
 
The Palestinians in the third category are the yellow card holders, who kept their citizenship after the disengagement, but many of whom have more recently faced the revocation of their Jordanian citizenship rights.
 
The fourth category is that of blue card holders. These are 1967 Palestinians refugees from the occupied Gaza Strip who are in Jordan and who were never given citizenship rights. They are in a very miserable position because, since they are not Jordanian, they cannot enjoy any of the benefits of citizenship in this country: they cannot access public schools or health services, they cannot get driving licenses, they cannot open bank accounts, or purchase land. They are mostly concentrated in the refugee camps in the Jerash area, specifically the one called “Gaza Refugee Camp,” which is generally known as the worst of the refugee camps in Jordan in terms of living conditions. To build a tiny house in the camp, they need to get several permits from several government departments. While they receive some modest support from UNRWA, any support that comes from the rest of the society has to be approved by Jordanian security authorities.
 
The fifth, and newest, of the categories is that of Jerusalem residents. These have always been a special case: the Israelis consider them permanent residents of Israel without any citizenship rights, while for Jordan they are citizens whose status was not affected by the disengagement. The problem now is that the Israelis, as part of their ongoing ethnic cleansing project, are revoking the residency rights of Palestinians in Jerusalem who cannot prove that their “center of life” is in that city, to use the terms of the Israeli High Court. The Jordanian government has yet to officially take a position on the Jordanian citizenship rights of these Jerusalemite Palestinian citizens of Jordan whose residency in Jerusalem has been revoked by Israel. This is now another emerging problem.
 
HJ: You mentioned that yellow card holders have been facing the revocation of their Jordanian citizenship in recent years. Can you expand on this?
 
AK: The main institution that handles this issue is the Follow-up and Inspection Department (al-mutaba’a wa al-taftish) of the Jordanian Ministry of Interior. To understand what’s happening you need to understand that the way Jordanian citizenship works since 1992 is that every citizen must have a “national number” (raqam watani). Anyone who does not have this number is not a citizen.
 
In recent years, the Follow-up and Inspection Department has been expanding on the scope of its authority in interpreting the 1988 government regulations dealing with the revocation of Palestinians’ Jordanian citizenship. We need to keep in mind also that these regulations were never made public, and that in fact no policy, let alone law, dealing with the revocation of Palestinians’ citizenship in Jordan has ever officially been made public. Originally, as I described, 31 July 1988 was treated as a cut-off date, if you were a green card holder in the West Bank, your citizenship was revoked, and otherwise you remained a citizen. The Department has since expanded to the revocation of citizenship from others under other pretexts.
 
For instance, many Palestinian citizens of Jordan were able to acquire Israeli-issued West Bank residency permits through such procedures as family reunification since 1967. Of course, part of Israel’s ethnic cleansing policies manifested as revocation of West Bank residency permits over the years under various pretexts. For example, at one point West Bank residency permit holders who were away from the West Bank for more than three years had their residency revoked by the Israelis. The Follow-up and Inspection Department of the Jordanian Interior Ministry has revoked national numbers (i.e. citizenship) from many Palestinians who had their West Bank residency permits revoked by the Israelis under the pretext that these people should have kept these residency permits, and that the Palestinian should go and get the Israelis to reissue them their West Bank residency permits.
 
Another example is that of PLO or Palestinian Authority (PA) employees. Even though a Jordanian citizen can work for any other government, many Palestinian citizens of Jordan who have taken jobs in PA institutions have been stripped of their national numbers. A more recent example is that of the Jordanian parliamentary elections [November 2010]. Many of the Palestinians who went to register as voters were sent to the Follow-up and Inspection Department, where they had their national numbers revoked.
 
Ultimately, however, it is difficult to discern a particular logic to the post-1988 revocations. In some cases, one person or group within the family has their citizenship revoked, while others in the same family remain citizens. With regards to employment in the PLO or PA, there are PA parliamentarians and ministers with Jordanian national numbers, while some Palestinian citizens of Jordan, for example, have had their citizenship revoked for working for a PA-owned company or civil institution. We can only say that so far it seems very arbitrary. I should also add that this wave of citizenship revocation means that yellow card holders live with the perpetual fear of any interaction with the government bureaucracy, since this could result in being sent to the Follow-up and Inspection Department and having their citizenship revoked.
 
HJ: Is there a way to know how many Palestinians have had their Jordanian citizenship revoked since 1988?
 
AK: No, these numbers are kept secret by the Jordanian Ministry of Interior and are not made public. There are various estimates, but these numbers vary. The most well-known of these is that of the Human Rights Watch report that stated that over 2700 Palestinians citizens of Jordan had their citizenship revoked between 2004 and 2008, but this number is based on a journalistic article in a Jordanian newspaper, and so, in addition to not giving information on the years before or after the period, are not to be taken as authoritative.
 
HJ: What is the effect of the revocation of citizenship on the people involved?
 
AK: They become like the blue-card holders from the Gaza Strip that I talked about before without the ability to access any government services, open bank accounts, etc. It should be mentioned though that there is a potentially very dangerous situation for Jordan; if this trend continues it will become a “ghetto state.” When you forfeit a Jordanian’s citizenship and keep him in Jordan because you don’t have the power to send him to Palestine—because the Israelis of course refuse—you will end up with over a million stateless Palestinians within your borders, and who have nowhere to go.
 
HJ: Earlier you described the Jordanian law of citizenship and the various levels of government and judiciary through which the revocation of citizenship must pass to become final. Can Palestinians who have had their Jordanian citizenship revoked make use of what you described as an advanced citizenship law to challenge the Follow-up and Inspection Department’s actions?
 
AK: As I described above, there is no question that the revocations of citizenship that the Jordanian authorities have carried out since 1988 contradict the written law and indeed the constitution. Under the law, the revocation of citizenship must follow the procedures I spoke about earlier, and are not the subject to such things as the color of your card or regulations. As it stands, however, a junior officer of the Follow-up and Inspection Department can decide the fate of a citizen’s citizenship rights. It is now a more simple matter to revoke a yellow card-carrying citizen from his citizenship than it is to revoke their driving license! With the revocation of a driving license, the citizen has the right to challenge the revocation in a court. The Inspection and Follow-up Department is indeed the only government department that is not subject to judicial review.
 
The government justifies this by stating that the revocation of citizenship by this Department is an “act of state.” There is one judge, Justice Farouq Kilani, who was president of the Jordanian High Court of Justice who did challenge the government’s position, and stated that citizenship is a matter regulated by law and not regulations, and that therefore the actions of the Department are null and void. As a result of his ruling—this was in 1998—the Minister of Justice demanded his resignation, and Kilani resigned. He subsequently gave two public lectures on the topic, and wrote a book called Independence of the Judiciary, an excellent treatise in which he describes in detail both his landmark ruling and his encounter with the Justice Minister. His ruling was very correct, constitutionally sound and legally unchallenged. The Jordanian judiciary has a long tradition of reviewing administrative decisions, including decisions involving citizenship. As it stands now, the situation in Jordan is very suffocating on this issue of citizenship revocation because there is no right to appeal since the government treats these decisions as “acts of state,” and it is practically impossible to take these issues to an international court.
 
It is also important to mention that there is no refugee law in Jordan. As such, once the citizenship is revoked, the Palestinian refugee is left with no political, civil, or economic rights.
 
HJ: Besides the position that citizenship revocation is an “act of state,” how does the Jordanian government justify stripping its Palestinian citizens of their citizenship rights and rendering them stateless?
 
AK: There have been several justifications or excuses given. Jordanian officials maintain, for example, that the revocations are designed to force Palestinians to stay in Palestine, to stop the Zionist leadership from implementing its ethnic cleansing project. This argument is usually framed within the paradigm of the “alternative homeland” project, the Israeli right-wing’s position that Palestinians have a homeland, and this homeland is Jordan. We do not debate the importance of these goals, and of full-fledged rejection of the “alternative homeland” project on all fronts. Mixing this in with the issue of Palestinian citizenship rights in Jordan is like mixing apples and pears. The “alternative homeland” is a national issue, and thus should not be treated solely at the Jordanian level, but through Jordanian-Palestinian-Arab coordination as an Arab summit item. Such a political issue should not and cannot be mixed with a human rights issue such as the rights of Palestinian citizens of Jordan. Moreover, the people who are fighting the “alternative homeland” project are the Palestinians themselves who have fought it with their own bodies in these decades of spilled Palestinian blood. Actually, if Jordanian officials are sincere about their political position, they should take more credible action against the Israelis to force them to leave the Palestinians in peace and to allow the refugees to return, as is their internationally recognized right.
 
Furthermore, as a sovereign state, the Jordanian government could have taken steps during the negotiation of the Wadi Araba Israeli-Jordanian peace settlement to insist on such things as allowing Jordanian citizens to maintain their West Bank residency permits, and to restore those that had been stripped. As it stands now, the Jordanian government does not have the power to push for such a residency permit to be issued to an individual, and so by stripping them of their Jordanian citizenship, these individuals are left stranded with nowhere to go. But also as it stands, the Jordanian government can stop security coordination with Israel, and can stop the marketing of Israeli products in Jordan. Lately, the Jordanian Ministry of Industry has allowed the entry of 2500 types of Israeli products into the Jordanian market.
 
Another justification that Jordanian officials forward is that they are not revoking citizenship, rather they are “correcting the situation” of certain individuals who were wrongly classified, that all they are doing is simply dropping the national number. “Correcting the situation” is the new catch-phrase you see. They say this to avoid contradiction of the Follow-up and Inspection Department’s actions with the law and constitution, but the fact remains that simply dropping the national number is in effect the total revocation of citizenship.
 
HJ: Do you see any way that this situation can be reversed?
 
AK: The January 2010 report of Human Rights Watch [2] about the citizenship revocation raised some awareness both locally, on an Arab level as well as internationally, but this was short-lived and has not alleviated the situation. This issue requires an international campaign of human rights organizations because there is no venue left to air your grievances. Ultimately, the situation would best be alleviated by addressing the root-cause of the situation of these Palestinians, which is the implementation of Palestinians’ right to return to the lands from which they were displaced. Until then however, more attention needs to be given to this thus far largely-ignored issue, and the Jordanian laws and constitution need to be respected and implemented by restoring the citizenship of those whose rights were revoked, and ensuring that the law is followed in any future case of citizenship revocation.

_______________________

[1] See the text of the speech at: http://www.kinghussein.gov.jo/88_july31.html

[2] Human Rights Watch, “Stateless Again: Palestinian-Origin Jordanians Deprived of their Nationality,” Human, January 2010: http://www.hrw.org/node/87906

 

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