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Jordan’s government struggles to contain unrest as Gaza protests grow

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Hundreds of protesters gathered in the Jordanian capital Tuesday for a third straight night to call for an end to Israel’s war in Gaza, clashing with baton-carrying riot police before tear gas rained down on them.

On Wednesday night, demonstrators were back on the streets. “Open the borders,” they chanted.

Though there have been regular protests in Amman, Jordan, throughout the nearly six-month war, the government has largely managed to contain the situation by aligning itself with public sentiment — harshly criticizing Israel’s conduct of the war and championing the Palestinian cause. But the scenes this week appeared more spontaneous, the crowds larger and the anger more raw, sending shock waves through the country’s powerful security establishment.

“Jordan is in an unenviable position,” said Saud al-Sharafat, a former Brig. Gen. in the Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate and founder of the Sharafat ِCenter for the Study of Globalization and Terrorism. The grinding conflict in Gaza, and the soaring Palestinian death toll, are testing the state’s “ability to maintain the tempo that exists now, so that [things] do not get out of control.”

The Kingdom of Jordan occupies a unique position in the Middle East. It is a close and longtime ally of the United States, receiving more than $1 billion annually in economic and military aid. In 1994, Jordan signed a peace treaty with neighboring Israel. But the mass displacement of Palestinians during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war — known to Arabs as the “nakba,” or catastrophe — forever altered the country’s demographics.

Jordan is home to more than 2 million Palestinian refugees, most of whom have Jordanian citizenship. Analysts estimate half of the population is of Palestinian descent. For many here, geographically and emotionally, the war in Gaza feels very close.

Jordanian authorities — who typically show little tolerance for public demonstrations — have sanctioned weekly protests after Friday prayers.

“It seems, over time, government institutions learned their lessons and started giving space [for people] to relieve tension,” said Sharafat.

Yet the government has also tried to contain the unrest, forbidding any crowding near, or storming of, the border zone with Israel. Several attempts by protesters in early October to reach the country’s border with the West Bank were thwarted by riot police.

That same month, Jordan’s Public Security Directorate said protesters assaulted and injured public security personnel, threw molotov cocktails and damaged public and private property.

Jordanian lawyers representing detainees told Human Rights Watch this month that hundreds of people have likely been arrested for their involvement in protests or online Palestinian advocacy.

“Jordanian authorities are trampling the right to free expression and assembly in an effort to tamp down Gaza-related activism,” said Lama Fakih, the group’s Middle East director.

The government’s public advocacy for war-battered Gaza has also helped keep a lid on public anger.

Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi was one of the first Arab officials to say that Israel’s war in Gaza met the “legal definition of genocide,” an accusation Israel called “outrageous.” In November, he announced the cancellation of a controversial economic pact with Israel, under which Jordan would have provided energy to its neighbor in exchange of water.

Such regional projects “will not proceed” while the war continues, he told Al Jazeera at the time, adding that Jordan was focused entirely on ending Israel’s “retaliatory barbarism” in Gaza.

But there are limits to how far the government is willing to go, having “tied its political and economic vision to close relations with the United States and Israel,” said Jillian Schwedler, a professor at Hunter College and author of a book on protests in Jordan. Those ties, she added, “are not easily untangled.”

After a meeting at the White House last month, Jordan’s King Abdullah was blunt: “We cannot stand by and let this continue,” he said, with President Biden at his side. “We need a lasting cease-fire now. This war must end.”

In the six weeks since, multiple rounds of shuttle diplomacy by American, Arab and Israeli officials have failed to produce even a temporary cease-fire.

As public discontent grows, Jordan’s security establishment is getting jittery. Unemployment was over 22 percent last year; many young men are out of work. There are fears that the Muslim Brotherhood, a long-suppressed opposition group and a Hamas ally, is playing a role in the protests, hoping to garner support ahead of general elections in August.

“We are your men, Sinwar,” some protesters chanted Tuesday night, a reference to Yehiya Sinwar, the Hamas leader who planned the Oct. 7 attack on Israel and remains at large in Gaza.

On Saturday, Jordan’s Foreign Ministry announced that its embassy in Tel Aviv was following up on reports in Israeli media that two armed men were detained near al-Fasayil village in the West Bank, having allegedly crossed the Jordanian border.

The alarm is palpable among decision-makers in the government, Sharafat said. Regularly dispatching riot police is a financial drain on Jordan’s small and struggling economy, he said. And there is the emotional burden on police themselves, he added, many of whom are also Palestinian. After fasting from sunrise to sunset for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, their nights are now spent clashing with protesters.

As the war has worn on, demonstrators have gotten bolder: the cancellation of the water for energy deal was followed by growing public demands for annulling Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel. With the Israeli military now threatening an invasion of Rafah, home to some 1.4 million displaced Palestinians, Sharafat said popular pressure will only increase.

“The Jordanian position is currently in crisis … in figuring out how to deal with the next stage, how to deal with the protests,” he said. “The space the government has to maneuver is very tight.”

Schwedler said she expects “more of the same” — “sharp condemnation of Israel, strained formal diplomatic relations for a while, but little change in policy or ties with Israel.”

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