The ‘tricky balancing act’: Jordan’s dilemma on Israel and Gaza

On a Friday afternoon, under the blazing summer sun, a crowd marched through central Amman, waving placards and flags.

Watched carefully by a double row of police officers, the several hundred protesters chanted slogans and repeated the words crackling through the microphones mounted on the truck leading the procession. “We will burn Israel! We want the head of Netanyahu! The resistance is humiliating the supposed strongest army in the world! God is Great!” Then, after an hour, the protest quietly dispersed.

Not far away, the same sun beat down on the pavements of Rainbow Street, once the bustling tourist centre of the capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Eight months into the war in Gaza, and with no end to the conflict in sight, there were no visitors to be seen.

“It’s the worst I’ve known … Nothing will improve until the war stops in Gaza,” said Usra Qadr, a 38-year-old trader.

Such sentiments are widespread across Jordan: in the shady compounds of the Royal Palaces, the five-star hotels where the elite drink and dance, the crowded poorer neighbourhoods of the capital and dusty provincial towns alike.

Since the 7 October Hamas attack in Israel and the subsequent Israeli invasion of Gaza, few regional states have faced challenges as acute as those confronting Jordan, with its substantial Palestinian-origin population, prominent roles within the Arab and Muslim worlds, economic difficulties and war-racked neighbours.

King Abdullah II of Jordan. The country has long sought to have a regional moderating and mediating role. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Overseas observers routinely refer to the kingdom’s “tricky balancing act” as the monarch, Abdullah II, and his advisers seek to juggle the demands of millions of his citizens for tough action on the Gaza war with the kingdom’s close ties to Washington and a 30-year-old peace treaty with Israel.

As casualties have mounted in Gaza, outrage in Jordan, as elsewhere in the region, has grown “white hot”, one European embassy official in Amman said.

A key moment came in April when Iran retaliated to an Israeli strike on its consular buildings in Syria that killed senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders. Jordan, with the help of the US, shot down many of the more than 300 Iranian missiles and drones launched at targets in Israel as they flew over the kingdom. Officials in Amman said Jordan was defending its sovereignty and keeping its population of 12 million safe.

Though lauded by western powers, the kingdom’s actions led to accusations at home that it was protecting Israel.

The regular Friday protests are dominated by the kingdom’s Islamists, where at one recent protest some participants came close to rare public criticism of the king, who has ruled Jordan since 1999.

Demonstrators in Amman, Jordan at a protest in support of Palestinians in Gaza on 5 July. Photograph: Asmahan Bkerat/The Guardian

“The government is not doing anything … They are on Israel’s side and they need to stop,” said Abeer, a 46-year-old teacher, who did not want to give her full name.

Others said “every” Muslim and Arab leader had failed to act against Israel, pointedly failing to exclude their own.

Jordan’s rulers are well aware of domestic popular anger. They are also aware of the importance of the kingdom’s ties with the west, especially now the kingdom has become a target for Iran.

In the corridors of power in Amman, there are debates over whether the relationship with US, which has thousands of troops in Jordan and sends $1.5bn of economic aid annually, should be downgraded or reinforced.

“You have different views within the system,” said Mohammad Abu Rumman, of the Politics and Society Institute in Amman.

King Abdullah has repeatedly called for international action to halt the conflict in Gaza, and accused Israel of war crimes, while Queen Rania has criticised the west’s “complicity”.

The kingdom’s diplomats have presented multiple plans for the government of Gaza for “the day after” the conflict, while its military has opened field hospitals in the territory and airdropped aid.

Officials say such statements and initiatives reflect the genuine sentiments of decision-makers. But observers point out they also help insulate the monarchy from domestic criticism.

Katrina Sammour, a political analyst in Amman, said: “Since the beginning the government has predicted where the narrative was going and got ahead of it. But I don’t think anyone thought it would go on so long.

“Jordan is balancing a lot of different pressures, but that may not be to its disadvantage. The kingdom has always positioned itself as a moderator and mediator.”

Though Jordan remains relatively liberal compared with many other states in the region, media workers in the city said the “regime’s red lines” on what could be published without repercussions had tightened “dramatically” since the war began.

Adam Coogle, the deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at the campaign group Human Rights Watch, said: “There is a more and more limited space for any expression, tight policing of social media, arrests of journalists.”

At least 1,000 protesters were detained in Amman in the first month of the conflict, particularly at demonstrations near the Israeli embassy, which some tried to storm. Activists told the Guardian they had been arrested after being identified as organisers or giving speeches. One told the Guardian that they had spent weeks in prison earlier this year before being acquitted of all charges.

The activist, who had not been involved in protests before 7 October, said that the prospect of almost certain arrest had not been a deterrent, and would not be in the future either.

“I saw a lot of my friends getting detained, and the arrests were pretty brutal. I knew my time would come. But Jordan is very important in this conflict [in Gaza] and I still feel I have to do something,” they said.

The crisis has brought economic challenges, with widespread complaints about soaring inflation and startling inequality.

“There is a lot of precarity, a feeling that there are no political hopes and a very high rate of youth unemployment,” said Rumman.

Official statistics claim just a 6% drop in tourism revenue so far this year, but anecdotal evidence suggests this is an understatement. Qadr, the trader on Rainbow Street, said sales of her health products made with salt and mud from the Dead Sea were a tenth of what they were a year ago, making it hard to put food on the table for her extended family of seven.

Yostena Fared, another trader on Rainbow Street, said on some days no one even entered to browse the ceramics, scarves and miniature camels that line her shelves, let alone bought anything. “The only thing people want is the Palestinan keffiyeh,” the 27-year-old told the Guardian.

“We are all just praying for the end of the war.”

The Guardian