From Gaza to the Syrian Border, Jordan Is Increasingly in the Line of Fire  

Since Israel launched its current war on Gaza last October, Jordanians have been closely watching the enclave, and the rising tensions in the region, with deep concern and anxiety. But in recent weeks the war and related regional conflicts have hit Jordan more literally, in the form of Israeli artillery strikes on a Jordanian Army field hospital in Gaza and drone strikes by Iran-backed militias on a US base inside the Hashemite Kingdom. Even the latest crisis over funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has profound implications for Jordan and its people. And all of these challenges have helped to revive a protest movement in Jordan that is demanding major changes to the kingdom’s domestic and foreign policies, even as the state is trying to make itself heard in the international din and to bring about an end to the Gaza war. King Abdullah II is indeed embarking on an international tour to the United States, Canada, France, and Germany to advocate for a ceasefire in Gaza and protection of civilians there.

Many Jordanians get their news not from newspapers or television, but through social media. Like so many others around the world, they find themselves too often ‘doom scrolling’ through posts and videos about the Gaza war and its staggering civilian death count. It is not an exaggeration to say that the war may be taking a psychological toll on a country whose citizens deeply identity with, and care about the suffering of, the Palestinian people. This is true across Jordanian society—not just among Jordanians of Palestinian descent, but also among East Jordanians of tribal backgrounds, Chechens, and Circassians, as well as among Muslims and Christians. According to recent polling, the cause of Palestine is close to the hearts of almost all Jordanians and Arabs, and the relentlessly negative news cycle is taking its toll. And unfortunately, the news just keeps getting worse.

An UNRWA Crisis…Again

On January 26, the Biden administration abruptly announced it was pausing US funding for UNRWA—the main international organization supporting Palestinian refugees—following accusations by the Israeli government that several of its employees were connected in some way to the October 7 Hamas attack on southern Israel. Many European funders promptly followed the American lead. Jordanian officials quickly scrambled to press donors to restore funding, an exercise that felt very similar to one that followed the Trump administration’s 2018 decision to cut US funding for the agency. In 2021, the Biden administration resumed funding for UNRWA, but now it too has suspended aid.

As Jordanian officials and UNRWA itself were quick to point out, Israel leveled its accusations at 12 employees out of a staff of 13,000. UNRWA has long been controversial in Israel, and successive Israeli governments have at times sought ways to bring it down. But UNRWA, in addition to condemning the Hamas attack and firing the accused, stressed its key role as the main source of aid for Palestinians in Gaza. UNRWA is needed even more now with the massive death toll, levels of displacement, destruction of hospitals, restrictions on aid, and emerging fears over the spread of famine and disease.

UNRWA provides key services to more than 2 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan.

These are all, of course, urgent concerns for Gaza. But UNRWA’s work extends well beyond the Strip, as the agency delivers similar services in the occupied West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, and very importantly, Jordan. Specifically, UNRWA in Jordan provides key services to more than 2 million registered Palestinian refugees in the kingdom. This includes services in ten refugee camps, in 169 schools serving 119,000 students, and in 25 medical clinics and other health centers. Jordanian officials therefore have urged the United States and other countries to reverse their funding freezes, especially now in the heat of the ongoing war in Gaza and the broader regional crises. The links between the Gaza war and other regional crises were already clear with the Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping. They became clearer still on January 28 when Iran-backed Shia militias professing solidarity with Gaza attacked a US base in Jordan itself, for the first time killing American military personnel in the Hashemite Kingdom.

Tensions Over Border Security and US Forces in Jordan

The attack killed three US soldiers at Tower 22, an American base in Jordan located close to the Syrian border and not far from the US Tanf base in Syria, which was also attacked. The Islamic Resistance in Iraq, a grouping of Iran-backed Shia militias, claimed responsibility. Such pro-Iranian militia attacks on US forces in Syria or Iraq are not uncommon. The deadly attack in Jordan, however, was a significant escalation amidst the mounting violence and chaos across the Middle East. The attack has also shed unwelcome light on Jordan’s increasing regional insecurity and on its position in the crossfire between conflicts from Gaza to its own northern borders.

In addition to being a violation of Jordanian sovereignty, the attack on US troops stationed in Jordan appeared to be retaliation against the United States for its support for the Israeli bombardment of Gaza. The ramifications of the Gaza war, in short, risk destabilizing the kingdom itself, even as it tries not to be dragged into a broader regional war.

The ramifications of the Gaza war risk destabilizing the kingdom itself, even as it tries not to be dragged into a broader regional war.

The Jordanian government condemned the attack on US forces, noting that their presence is meant to secure the kingdom’s borders and to help Jordan fight terrorism. The foreign military presence also underscores the kingdom’s broader concerns with securing the border against the Islamic State and against Iran-backed militias—long a concern for the Jordanian government. Border security issues in recent years have also included the plight of Syrian refugees and, especially at present, concerns with drug smuggling, most notably of Captagon pills into the kingdom.

But the US military presence is a double-edged sword. It is intended to support Jordan’s borders, its territorial integrity, and the security of the state and the Hashemite regime, a close ally of the United States. Yet the unpopularity of the US military presence threatens to undermine the regime’s domestic security and legitimacy. There may be an increasing disconnect between state and society on this issue, as the question of the US military presence has become ever more controversial in Jordanian domestic politics, even as US-Jordanian relations and military cooperation grow steadily closer.

Controversial Security Cooperation Between Jordan and the United States

In September 2022, the United States and Jordan signed their fourth Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on the US-Jordan ‘Strategic Partnership.’ The MOU pledged $1.45 billion in US annual economic and military aid to Jordan from 2023 through 2029, which represents the largest-ever American aid commitment to the already aid-dependent kingdom. Cooperation between the two countries has been extensive for decades—ranging from trade and aid to military and intelligence cooperation. In 1996, the United States and Jordan signed a Status of Forces agreement allowing US forces to operate in the country and in the same year the United States designated Jordan a “major non-NATO ally.” This was followed in 2001 by a free trade agreement between Jordan and the United States. Underscoring the extensive level of military cooperation, Jordan has since 2010 hosted US and other international military forces for two weeks of annual military exercises known as “Eager Lion.”

In 2021, Jordan and the United States added a defense cooperation agreement that became law by royal decree, bypassing parliament and generating considerable public backlash. Opposition members of parliament denounced the agreement as a violation of Jordanian sovereignty and as a national humiliation. While the backlash in no way changed the agreement, or US-Jordanian relations for that matter, the indignant tone was a harbinger of things to come, as domestic opposition to the US military presence has grown since then. With US support for the Israeli bombing of Gaza, that opposition has gotten even louder.

The US-Jordanian relationship has at times been bumpy, most recently during the Trump years, when bilateral economic and military ties remained expansive, but there was a widespread perception at both the state and society levels that Jordan was being marginalized and neglected. That changed as the Biden administration took office and restored a more active diplomatic partnership. But the two countries have diverged significantly over the Gaza conflict, with King Abdullah II and Jordanian officials at all levels consistently decrying Israel’s use of force as excessive and calling for a ceasefire.

Jordanian Prime Minister Bishr Khasawneh warned Israel against any attempt to forcibly displace Palestinians from Gaza, saying that such a move would cross a “red line” for Jordan and amount to a “fundamental violation” of the 1994 peace treaty. In November 2023, Jordan recalled its ambassador from Israel, and told the Israeli ambassador not to return to Amman. Jordan also supported South Africa as it took Israel to the International Court of Justice, accusing it of committing genocide in Gaza. Jordan’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi accused Israel of committing war crimes, while warning the international community of the threat of a broader regional war.

At the state level, the king, the prime minister, foreign minister, and other officials—none of whom are fans of Hamas—have been consistent in their harsh criticisms of Israeli policy and their demands for a ceasefire and the defense of Palestinian civilian lives. Yet at the grassroots level, Jordanian activists have gone further, as a revived protest movement has demanded more radical levels of change. The Gaza war has reinvigorated many of Jordan’s opposition forces and its protest movements, even leading to the rise of an increasingly populist politics at the street level.

A Resurgent Protest Movement

As the scholar Jillian Schwedler has noted, “Jordan’s government and citizens alike fear that Israel and the United States will pressure the country to accept another large wave of Palestinian refugees.” She also points out that “the issue of Palestine has, for decades, driven Jordanians to push the limits of permissible protest.” Some worry about another Nakba against Palestinians, while others focus on a longstanding fear in some Jordanian political circles: that Israel and the United States might try to “solve” the Palestinian issue at Jordan’s expense.

Historically, countless ideological and identity issues have been used to drive wedges in Jordanian opposition movements, dividing and weakening them. But the Israeli use of force against Palestinians has long been a unifying issue within Jordan, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has seemed uniquely disposed to have inadvertently unified Jordan’s grassroots protest movements. This unity may turn out to be especially important in Jordan’s new electoral and party systems, with general elections expected to take place by November 2024.

The post-October 7 protest coalition brings together diverse ideological groups from leftists to Islamists to nationalists.

The post-October 7 protest coalition brings together diverse ideological groups from leftists to Islamists to nationalists. This new coalition builds on the existing Jordanian movement against the gas agreement with Israel. That movement followed an earlier anti-normalization campaign begun after Jordan signed the 1994 peace treaty with the State of Israel. Since October 2023, activists have been marching in Amman and elsewhere in increasingly large demonstrations that sometimes number in the thousands. The protestors echo the harsh criticisms of Israeli policy already coming from state officials and from the king himself—and call for far more extensive measures.

A January 2024 communiqué issued by the protest movement refers to the 1994 peace treaty as “the treaty of shame” and demands that Jordan cancel it. The communique also calls on the Jordanian government to end all relations with Israel, to close each country’s embassies, and to annul the 2017 gas deal. It demands that Israel open Gaza’s borders to deliver food, fuel, water, and medical supplies, and calls on other states in the region to cease participating in trade with Israel.

But the protest coalition is not just making demands regarding Jordanian relations with Israel. It also seeks to dramatically change Jordanian relations with the United States. Protestors are targeting the US military presence by calling for an end to the US-Jordanian military agreements and the withdrawal of all foreign forces from the kingdom. This latter demand has especially been audible in the various slogans and chants in demonstrations across the country. For these increasingly active and vocal movements, the US military presence does not strengthen Jordanian security but undermines it. As one Jordanian activist noted to this author, “a majority of Jordanians think that the US military presence is a threat to the country, may involve it in war if hostilities expand, and might be directed against Palestinians or other Arab and neighboring nations.”

Even for the many Jordanians who do not attend protests or belong to any opposition movement, these seem to be increasingly widespread sentiments. The Gaza war has also hurt Jordan’s already struggling economy, causing tourism revenues to plummet just after they had revived post-COVID-19 pandemic. Aside from taking part in demonstrations, many ordinary Jordanians have joined boycotts of US and European companies and products, while worrying that Jordan’s geographic location and its international ties may drag it into a broader regional war.

“Jordan is not in a position to start any wider conflict,” a Jordanian journalist told this author, adding that “Jordan wants this nightmare to end. After the Palestinians, Jordan has the most to lose with war in the region.” This is likely a majority sentiment in Jordan right now. From state to society, Jordanians are deeply and increasingly worried about the fate of the people of Gaza, of the occupied West Bank, and of Jordan itself as the Gaza war continues. It would be wise for decision-makers in Washington and other capitals to pay closer attention.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Twitter