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Jordan and the War in Gaza

At the Edge of the War

The recent escalation of violence in the Middle East conflict has also shaken neighboring Jordan. The people's spirit is boiling, the king is trying to mediate.

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Mid-September, United Nations General Assembly in New York: "Our region will continue to suffer until the world helps lift the shadow of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict—the central issue in the Middle East." Jordan's King Abdullah II. has been roaming for years with this message, advocating for a two-state solution, upholding UN resolutions, calling for self-determination and security for Israelis and Palestinians alike - and in the end, he seemed like he had fallen out of time.

 

The allies of Israel in the West wanted to have as little trouble as possible with the bulky dossier. Some Arab states such as the United Arab Emirates also saw a strategic advantage in cooperation with a militarily, economically, and technologically strong Israel, kind of ignoring the Palestinian issue. Instead of descending into the depths of a conflict that had been going on for decades, one could now dream of cross-border railway lines, of trade and cultural exchange, of everything that real peace in the region would indeed offer in terms of prosperity, security, and stability.

 

But with the terror attack of Hamas on Israel from the Gaza Strip on October 7th, the Middle East conflict catapulted itself back onto the world stage with all its brutality. Israel responded with a large-scale military push against the Gaza Strip, leading to humanitarian disaster, and neighboring Jordan is feeling the consequences too.

 

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been an existential question for the Hashemite Kingdom. It is closely linked to the West Bank historically, demographically, and culturally (and economically, if allowed by Israel, which controls the borders). To this day, the Islamic sites in East Jerusalem, especially the Al-Aqsa Mosque, are under Jordanian administration and under the custodianship of the Hashemite king of Jordan.

 

The strategic nightmare for Amman has always been a solution to the Middle East conflict without Jordanian participation, but at Jordanian expense: a fear of a mass exodus of Palestinians across the border, the Jordan River. This would not only completely overstretch the country's meager resources but would also upset the tricky demographic and power balance - and thus endanger the stability of the kingdom.

 

The Gaza war that has now started again will make it even more difficult to promote such cooperation projects to the Jordanian public.

 

Historically, Jordan's relationship with the Palestinians is anything but conflict-free (just remember "Black September" of 1970, when armed clashes took place between Palestinian militias and the Jordanian army in Jordan). But solidarity with their fate under Israeli occupation is particularly strong among the entire population in phases of violent escalation of the Middle East conflict, both among the descendants of the Palestinians who fled here in the Middle East wars of 1948 and 1967 (and who now make up much of the population), as well as among the long-established Transjordanian tribes.

 

This means a constant balancing act for the Jordanian king. Jordan is a traditional partner of the West. The USA and other Western countries, including Germany, maintain military bases in the country, which also relies on international development funds. The most important financier is the USA, Germany is in second place with 500 million euros per year. Beyond that, cooperation with Israel, for example in the areas of border security or water supply, is in Jordan's interest. The new Gaza war that has now begun will make it even more difficult to promote such cooperation projects to the Jordanian public.

 

Much more, populists and other forces interested in destabilization can take advantage of the situation to create sentiment against the West, which is now no longer just accused of double standards, but rather of actively supporting the expulsion and killing of Palestinians. And they can also use it to agitate against their own government and the royal family, which cooperates with the West. The gap between decision-makers and broad sections of society threatens to widen further, with possible negative consequences for the legitimacy of the political system.

 

Besides to the all-around recognized monarchy, the strong security system that is loyal to the state and to the king also guarantees Jordan's stability. It enjoys wide trust among the population and massive police violence against demonstrators has no tradition in Jordan. But angry protests against Israel's bombing of the Gaza Strip always carry a risk of domestic political escalation, which grows greater with every day of the ongoing escalation of violence beyond the Jordan River.

 

To understand the Middle East conflict not just from a German perspective, but to recognize the complex realities on the ground.

 

Last Friday already small clashes with security forces in the Jordan Valley occurred when hundreds of Jordanians wanted to demonstrate on the border with Israel despite ban. At the end of last year, when truck drivers and freight forwarders went on strike because of rising fuel prices, a jihadist terrorist cell took advantage of the hustle and bustle of the protests and deliberately shot a police officer.

 

Jordan traditionally pursues a foreign policy oriented towards dialogue and compromise and is also striving to play a moderating role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The first meeting of high-ranking representatives of the then-new right-wing national-religious government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority took place in February of this year in the southern Jordanian port city of Aqaba. Accordingly, Jordan is now involved in diplomatic attempts to de-escalate. US President Biden spoke on the phone with King Abdullah on the day of the Hamas attack, and US Secretary of State Blinken traveled directly to the Jordanian capital after his visit to Tel Aviv last week. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was also in Amman last week.

 

However, Jordan's options are currently limited. There are few trustworthy channels of communication with both Hamas and the current Israeli government. The domestic political pressure on the one hand and the alliance and foreign policy constraints on the other, combined with the country's limited resources, basically left King Abdullah little room for maneuver in this issue.

But one day this war, as terrible as it is, will be over. At some point and somehow a solution must be found to how the inhabitants of the area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River Israelis and Palestinians can live together. The old pseudo-certainties have finally vanished. The Israeli journalist Ofer Waldman aptly wrote a few days after the Hamas attack on his country took place: “we now must mold a new world out of the rubble.”

 

In Germany too, people should soon start thinking about what such a new world, a new regional order, could look like. It will be important not only to understand the Middle East conflict from a German perspective but also to recognize the complex realities on the ground. Jordan is a good interlocutor for this matter. Chancellor Scholz will have the opportunity to do so in the next few days when the Jordanian King Abdullah II. visits him in Berlin. 

 

This Article was first published on the Zenith-Magazin 14.10.2023 here

 

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Dr. Edmund Ratka

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Director Foundation Office Jordan

edmund.ratka@kas.de +962 6 5929777

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