History of Legal Challenges in Jordan in the 1950s

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Kimberly Katz was an ACOR-CAORC post-doctoral fellow for summer 2019, and she will return in summer 2020 to complete her fellowship. She was also awarded the ACOR-MESA Travel Award for 2019. She is the Professor of Middle East History at Towson University in Maryland. Her research interests focus on legal history in Jordan and the West Bank. She analyzed the transition from the British Mandate-era Penal Code to the Jordanian Penal Code that followed the Unification of the East Bank and the West Bank in 1950. 

Kimberley Katz at ACOR, Summer 2019. Photo: Barbara Porter

Following a 10-month Fulbright Fellowship in Amman, I spent two months in residence at ACOR in summer 2019, where I began a Council of American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC) Fellowship. For much of the year leading up to my arrival at ACOR, I scoured the libraries and archives around Amman gathering documentary sources to complement archival records I had located documenting legal matters in the post-1948 period. The CAORC Fellowship allowed me to settle into ACOR’s library for a period of pause and reflection on the volume of materials I had collected. I worked simultaneously on two distinct goals: one, to write a paper for the August 2019 Nordic Middle East Studies conference in Helsinki, with its thematic focus on “Borders and Borderlands,” and, two, to prepare a more in-depth presentation for an ACOR audience prior to returning to teaching at Towson University at the end of the summer. A period of concentrated writing time in ACOR Library allowed for the completion of both. Not only does ACOR Library serve modernists well, due to its excellent collection on modern Jordan and Palestine, but the collegiality from fellows and visitors to the library furthered introspection and analysis of my work.

My research examines the broad topic of law in the Jordanian West Bank. I have been exploring the ways that the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan’s legal system developed in a precarious historical moment. The post-1948 war period brought central Palestine under Jordanian rule. For the Palestinians, who had not realized an independent state of their own and been displaced from their homes, United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 (III), adopted in December 1948, seemed to come to their aid with its calls for the return of Palestinians to their home. Jordan’s leaders worked on the politics of the post-war situation and reached an armistice agreement in 1949 with the new state of Israel, established on the land Palestinians had fled or from which they were exiled. Israel defied Resolution 194 blocking Palestinians’ right and desire to return to their homes. The armistice line, offering little precision for human settlement and agricultural stability for people’s lives, defined a new border previously unknown in the history of the region and marked an obstacle to life returning to normal for Palestinians. Yet, many still set out for their homes and lands, effectively transgressing the new and very long border.

The Jordanian government and monarchy experienced a period of turmoil, both politically and legislatively, in the years following the geographical expansion of the country. The “Unification of the Two Banks,” namely the East Bank and the West Bank, followed elections in 1950. The government then launched a Judicial Committee to draft laws for the whole of Jordan. Following heated deliberations, Jordan’s parliament enacted a new Penal Code to be implemented in August 1951. The assassination of King Abdullah in July 1951 briefly halted the implementation of the new law. In September 1951, following a tense few weeks regarding the succession process, King Abdullah’s eldest son, Talal, succeeded his father to the throne. His younger son, Nayyif, acting as Regent in Talal’s absence, had signed the law postponing the implementation of the new criminal code, which took effect in October 1951, amidst additional legislative and constitutional change. On 1 January 1952, King Talal signed the new constitution.

Required to police the new and expansive border after the signing of the Armistice Agreement, the Jordanian Arab Legion became stretched beyond capacity despite efforts to adapt. The enlarged kingdom faced the limitations of its existing legal system, as Transjordan had relied on Ottoman law for its Penal Code. A different Penal code had prevailed over the newly added territory, as the British Mandate Government in Palestine had legislated to meet colonial goals. Jordan maintained a dual system in its application of Penal law for more than two years after the signing of the armistice agreement: Ottoman law persisted in the East Bank while British Mandate law persisted in the West Bank. The latter had no statute for border crossings, yet that seemed to be the most frequently violation, particularly for the Hebron District whose villages lost substantial agricultural lands along with prospects for trading along the Palestinian coast now part of Israel.

The Jordan-Israel Mixed Armistice Commission, an organization of United Nations Observers, could not adequately attend to the many cases of border crossings that occurred in the early 1950s. With two Jordanian members, two Israeli members, and one foreign member, who usually served as the deciding vote on the committee, the Commission failed by not gaining trust from either side. The Jordanian newspapers from the period, particularly the ones that had roots in pre-Mandate and Mandate Palestine, published frequently on the Commission, both reportage and opinion pieces. Continued research will delve into the Commission’s role and its perception by Jordanians on both banks of the country.

Contextualized by these post-war changes, my research traced the legal and legislative developments particularly for the period of the early 1950s in the Hebron District. I will return to ACOR in summer 2020 to continue research and writing, examining a range of topics within the context of the law. New legislation affected the “crime of border crossings,” undertaken in particular by Palestinian men and younger boys according to the historical records. This topic must engage with the growing literature on borders, and from a legal perspective must consider the types of people, including juveniles who crossed, along with the punishments meted out to transgressors. Juveniles’ punishments differed significantly from their elders, as did the punishment for women though records do not indicate that they frequently crossed the border. Analyzing the punishments for various crimes must consider the socio-economic context for Palestinians, as many struggled to restore their livelihoods in light of the scarcity of work and available agricultural land after the war. During this time, Jordan’s legislative body continued to produce new laws to adapt the legal system to the new historical reality. While this research addresses a concise historical time period, it will illuminate our understanding of the legal challenges that both the kingdom and its new citizens faced in the post-war period.

I gratefully acknowledge my ACOR-MESA Travel Award, which will support my travel to New Orleans for the annual 2019 Middle East Studies Association conference. I am particularly looking forward to receiving feedback from colleagues in the field at this early state of my project, as it will go a long way to enhancing analysis of the legal system, border issues, and other criminal contexts.

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