Interview: Jordan revoking citizenship from Palestinian refugees

Anis Kassim

Palestinians in Jordan constitute both the majority of the kingdom’s population, and the largest Palestinian refugee community in the world. In the 1960s, Jordan was the main area of operation for militant Palestinian factions who used it as both a recruiting and training ground for guerrillas, as well as a launching ground for most commando operations into occupied Palestine. After the 1967 war, the largest of these factions joined the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which grew so strong within the kingdom that it was described as a state within the state. The Jordanian regime and its military launched an 11-day war against the PLO in September of 1970, expelling the fighters from the kingdom’s urban centers, and dealt a final blow to the Palestinian resistance in July 1971, expelling the fighters that remained to Lebanon and Syria.

Despite the size of the Palestinian population in Jordan, this community is largely absent from mainstream analysis. The fact that the Jordanian government granted Palestinian refugees Jordanian citizenship very early on, has played a significant role in presenting this community’s needs as less urgent than those of Palestinians elsewhere. In recent years, however, rumors and reports about the revocation of Palestinians’ Jordanian citizenship have circulated, but it has been far from clear what is really happening.

Hazem  Jamjoum spoke to Anis F. Kassim, an international law expert and practicing lawyer in Jordan to clarify what is known about the situation of Palestinian citizenship rights in Jordan. Kassim was a member of the Palestinian legal defense team before the International Court of Justice in the 2004 landmark case on Israel’s wall in the occupied West Bank.

Hazem  Jamjoum: What legal status was afforded Palestinians who came under Jordanian control after the 1948 dispossession, what Palestinians refer to as the Nakba or catastrophe?

Anis F. 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 hand, 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 Israel’s 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 [and] 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. This enabled the Jordanian authorities to know how many Palestinian West Bankers had crossed into Jordan, and to ensure that they returned – these cards were 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: 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, more than 1.5 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 Palestinian 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 (the UN agency for Palestine refugees), 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. 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-mutabaa 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 – so if you were a green card-holder in the West Bank, your citizenship was revoked. 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 recent Jordanian parliamentary elections [in 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 are from the 2010 Human Rights Watch report that stated that more than 2,700 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, [these statistics] are not to be taken as authoritative.

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.

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: Do you see any way that this situation can be reversed?

AK: The January 2010 report of Human Rights Watch that I mentioned before 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 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.

Hazem Jamjoum is the former communications officer of the Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights and editor of al-Majdal.

The full transcript of this interview will be published in the upcoming issue of al-Majdal.