Jordanians Buy Israeli
Abdullah Omar & TML Staff, The Media Line: [Amman] A hero’s welcome for four Jordanian prisoners released from Israeli custody, where they were serving life sentences for killing Israelis, highlights the wide gap between Jordan and Israel, which signed a peace treaty in 1994.
"The only way to free the remaining prisoners is resistance," beams Zaki Bani Rusheid, secretary general of the Islamic Action Front (IAF) party in front of a jubilant crowd at the Professional Association complex, who are gathered to welcome Sultan Al-‘Ajlouni, Salim and Khalid Abu Ghalyoun and Amin A-‘Sani’.
The four men, including three policemen, were serving sentences in Israel for killing Israelis before the peace treaty was reached. They were immediately provided with jobs to help them make a living after spending 17 years in jail.
Located in the heart of Western Amman, the Professional Association complex houses within its four-story building associations for doctors, lawyers, engineers, and 11 other professional associations.
The Professional Association has for years served as a platform for thousands of activists who have donated time and money to fight normalization with Israel.
From this complex, numerous campaigns have been launched to help Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank by sending parcels of food and medicine during decades of confrontation with Israel.
The association’s anti-normalization committee has won respect and admiration from many Jordanians, who do not hesitate to show how much they detest Israel and its people.
The feeling of enmity towards Israel is not exclusive to Jordanians, only the second country in the Middle East to sign a peace treaty with Israel after Egypt, where attempts of normalization were also stillborn.
Unionists in Amman have joined with activists in Egypt to fight all forms of normalization with Israel.
Jordanian businessmen remain reluctant to do business with their Israeli counterparts, some out of personal ideology and others for fear of being exposed to the public as "friends of the enemy."
Anti-normalization activists often run campaigns against companies that deal with Israel and urge the public to boycott their products.
"Why should I feed the soldiers who kill Palestinian children by selling them food from Jordan," says Khalil Haj Tawfiq, an influential businessman, who is also president of the Foodstuff Traders Association.
Tawfiq recalls that a local businessman attempted to gain his help by allowing food items to enter the kingdom after they failed a quality test.
"When I realized it was an Israeli product, I vehemently refused to help him," says Tawfiq.
Many Jordanian officials, particularly from the government, refuse to give their opinion about trade with Israel, knowing their personal points of view contradict what the government in Amman is trying to reflect.
Earlier this summer, Israeli diplomats in Amman sent a letter of protest to the government after Tourism Minister Maha Khatib was quoted as describing Israel as "the enemy."
The minister's statement was provoked by a national campaign to boycott a Jordan festival because the organizing company was in charge of an "Israel Independence" celebration, better known here as the Nakba, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lost their homes after the 1948 war.
Officials from the Israeli Embassy in Amman said they were shocked to hear such remarks from a member of the government.
‘Abd A-Rahman Gheith, head of Jordan's union for agriculture exporters, says businessmen who deal with Israeli counterparts often work clandestinely.
"Nobody in Jordan wants to be stigmatized as a normalizer," says Gheith, noting that Israel’s hostile policy towards its neighbors helped feed feelings of hatred.
"I call on all businessmen to stop dealing with Israel," says Gheith, whose view is shared by many businesspeople in this desert kingdom.
Despite the political feelings, Gheith concedes that trade exchange between the two sides remains active, particularly in the agricultural and textile sectors.
Jordan imports from Israel exotic fruits including mango and pineapple. It also imports tomato and carrots at certain times of the year.
But Gheith insists most Jordanians are oblivious to the source of these fruits.
Figures from Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture, however, indicate that bilateral trade is in fact on the rise, with the volume of exchange jumping from $1.6 million in 2003 to $14 million in 2007, representing a nine-fold increase.
Jordan exports also increased from $5.3 million in 2003 to around $13 million.
The main products imported to Israel from Jordan are fresh vegetables, which top off the local Israeli produce when there’s a shortage, and olive oil.
Businessmen in Israel say they are keen to boost economic ties, but concede that "relations have run into obstacles and regrettably they’re not developing enough," according to Dan Catarivas, director of international relations at the Federation of Israeli Economic Organizations.
"Unfortunately, in Jordan there are parties that are not interested in boosting relations with Israel, but on the other hand we know there are also bureaucratic problems that don’t make things any easier.
“There are problems in issuing visas and there’s a lot of bureaucratic sluggishness in these relations. The crossings are not smooth. At the Sheikh Hussein crossing there is an improvement but it’s still not smooth. We’re constantly asking for improvement of passage of both cargo and people," he says.
According to the Israel Export and International Cooperation Institute, the extent of trade between Israel and Jordan during the period of January until July 2008, including both export and import, was $247 million. This marked an increase of 59 percent compared to the same period last year.
In 2007 total trade was $305 million, which is 75% more than the previous year, with the Israeli side exporting precious stones (not including diamonds), paper- and wood-related products, plant-related products, chemicals, plastics and rubbers, textile, machinery, electric equipment and vehicles.
Exports from Jordan amounted to $51 million from January to July 2008, which is 92% more than for the same period last year.
Jordan’s main exports to Israel include chemicals, mineral products, plant-related products, metals, oils and fats from plants and animals, precious stones (not including diamonds), plastics and rubbers, machinery and electric equipment.
But according to Jordanian activists such figures are misleading.
Badi Rafaya, who heads Jordan's anti-normalization, says most of Jordan's trade exchange does not enter the Jordanian market.
The Qualified Industrial Zone (QIZ), which exports tax-free products to the U.S. market, has the biggest share in trade volume.
The QIZ was established as an incentive from the U.S. after the Wadi ‘Araba peace treaty, allowing businesses in the northern city of Irbid to export textiles, chemicals and precious stones to the U.S.
He also points out that Israel uses Jordanian territory as a transit point to export products to Iraq after the American-led war in 2003.
"Jordanians continue to refuse to deal with Israel on the popular level and we see that from the refusal of hotels to host Israeli officials and Jordanian officials’ reluctance in taking part in activities that Israelis participate in," said Rafaya.
With the peace process in limbo ties between the two sides are expected to continue below the levels officials from both countries would like.