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Jordan bid for own identity fraught with risk. Withdrawing from Palestinian issue could spur internal dissension

``Jordan is not Palestine'' is a slogan much used by officials in Amman these days. King Hussein's July 31 announcement cutting links with Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank pleased Jordanian nationalists. These Jordanians have long argued that Jordan should stop identifying itself with the ``Palestinian question,'' and concentrate on building up its own identity.

For the moment at least, senior officials here do not seem inclined toward forming a ``confederation'' with the 1.5 million Palestinians of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza. Such a confederation has for years been held up as a compromise solution granting the Palestinians autonomy without statehood.

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``When we accepted the idea of a confederal relationship, it was to overcome political hurdles set up by Israel and the US,'' says one official. ``Now we say to the PLO: `Enjoy the fruits of independence.'''

But demographic and economic factors prevent an easy divorce between Jordanians and Palestinians. More than 1 million of the estimated 2.3 million people living in the area east of the Jordan River are of Palestinian origin. Many of them have family ties across the river, on the West Bank.

``The King tells me I'm Jordanian, but my family across the river is Palestinian,'' says one East Bank resident of Palestinian background.

Jordanians include ethnic Bedouins who, today, are as likely to be professors and doctors as nomads, but still retain strong tribal loyalties. A small but influential segment of this group are ``Jordan-firsters.'' They are jealous of their position and care little for the ethnic Palestinians, most of whom arrived in Jordan as refugees from the Arab-Israeli wars of in 1948 and 1967.

Palestinians in Jordan are afraid that their loyalties may be put to the test, and that they may be harassed by security services if their allegiance to the crown is found wanting.

Many Palestinians on both banks of the Jordan River voice fears that restrictions may be imposed on their movement across the two bridges linking Jordan and the West Bank, despite assurances from King Hussein.

Hussein has already stopped paying salaries to 20,000 West Bank civil servants. Government officials say more measures are to come, as the King carries hands over responsibility for all aspects of the Palestinian question to the Palestine Liberation Organization.

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Uncertainty prevails among Palestinians and Jordanians as they await the new measures. Those who might affected adversely ``are waiting in apprehension that borders on fear,'' said the Jordan Times in an editorial.

PLO chairman Yasser Arafat has criticized Jordan for failing to notify him before its decision, but says the PLO is capable of taking over Jordan's administrative role.

The PLO continues to insist that only it should represent the Palestinians and that an independent Palestinian state should be set up. Nevertheless, many PLO activists are believed to view some kind of confederation between the East and West Banks as inevitable. But to ensure that such a confederation is made up of equal halves, the PLO first wants to attain Palestinian independence.

``You cannot deny the ties between the two banks,'' says an ardent Palestinian nationalist in Amman. ``There has to be a form of confederation, and the PLO will have to stress this, or it will alienate the East Bankers and Palestinians here, too.''

In trying to detach Jordan from the West Bank and the Palestinian issue, Hussein, for his part, diplomats and observers say, will have to tread a careful line.

``The King will have to be very careful to be fair,'' says one well-placed Arab observer. ``Extremist East Bank Jordanians are delighted with what has happened. They are influential, vocal, and ignorant.

``If he gives the wrong signals, these people will be encouraged to push [the King] ... to crack down on Palestinians and harass them. If [he] tilts too far, it could lead to civil strife.''

The King and his advisers are clearly aware of the dangers of civil dissension, and have stressed the need for ``national unity'' - implicitly, between East Bank Jordanians and citizens of Palestinian origin.

Their fear is that right-wing Israelis might exploit such dissension to promote their argument that Jordan should be the Palestinian state, since, they say, some 65 percent of Jordan's population is Palestinian.

Something of a numbers game has developed. Officials here say the true figure is less than 40 percent, and they accuse Israelis of deliberately circulating higher estimates. This, said Hussein on Sunday, is an attempt by some Israelis to suggest ``that the Palestinians do not have a problem on Palestinian soil, but that they could form their state elsewhere. And elsewhere obviously has meant, in their minds, Jordan.''

Some Western diplomats say economic ties make it a mistake to sever the East and West Banks.

``There are people who would like to isolate the Palestinian question and shut it off on the West Bank,'' says one diplomat. ``It's not on, ... If you start looking at the economics of it, it's disastrous - it simply doesn't make sense in economic terms.''

Apart from trade and economic links between the two banks, Palestinians play a major role in Jordan's economy. Many who work overseas also make substantial remittances.

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