The Gaza War and Threats to Jordan’s Domestic and Regional Stability

Jordanians of all walks of life have watched the relentless war in Gaza with deepening alarm. By latest count, at least 38,000 Palestinians have been killed, most of whom were civilians. As Israel’s assault continues, Jordanian government officials fear a further deterioration in Jordan’s own security, especially as a broader regional struggle between Israel and Iran seems to put Jordan too in its crosshairs. But the pressing issue for Jordanians, many of whom are of Palestinian descent, is not just a worry about traditional notions of security and defense. Rather, it is about the psychological toll on Jordanians of the heart-wrenching scenes in Gaza that amount to a daily and even hourly emotional strain. Despite the outrage Jordanians feel over the horrific events, there is a pervasive sense of inefficacy, of being unable to do anything to stop them.

Jordan’s government has been consistent in opposing the war since it began, but like all other governments, it has so far been unable to affect the outcome. In Jordanian streets, meanwhile, the Gaza war has revived Jordan’s diverse opposition movements, bringing protesters out in large numbers, at times clashing with authorities but at others aligning with the demands of the state itself for an end to the conflict. But many Jordanian opposition groups now operate in a setting that simultaneously involves more confrontation with the state through protests, while also attempting to maneuver within a new set of rules for parties and elections in advance of the September 2024 parliamentary vote.

Increasing Domestic and Regional Insecurity

The Israel-Hamas war in Gaza threatens to undermine Jordan’s domestic and regional goals, including intensifying the kingdom’s concerns over its control of its own borders. And the threats appear to be multiplying. Especially since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, Jordan has been worried about border insecurity, including drug smuggling rings (especially of Captagon), arms trafficking, and jihadist threats. But the Gaza war has deepened longstanding regime concerns about Iranian machinations in the region including the influence of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and of Hezbollah forces operating in Syria.

The January drone attack by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq on Tower 22, a US military base strategically close to both the Syrian and Iraqi borders, killed three US soldiers and alarmed Jordan. In April, concerns increased when Jordanian forces shot down a barrage of missiles and drones that Israel fired toward Israel. In response to these events, opposition forces and regime critics blasted the state for what they regarded as Jordanian aid for Israel’s defense. For Jordan’s military and government, the missile and drone intercepts aimed to eliminate threats to Jordanian airspace and hence to protect Jordan, not Israel. The Israeli-Iranian conflict, in short, affected Jordanian domestic politics, expanding the rift between government and opposition.

The Israeli-Iranian conflict affected Jordanian domestic politics, expanding the rift between government and opposition.

Even as the debate over Jordan’s role continued to rage internally, in May the government announced that it had foiled a plot by Hamas-sympathizing members of Jordan’s own Muslim Brotherhood to smuggle Iranian arms from Syria to Hamas. The Brotherhood vehemently denied any organizational role or disloyal intentions, claiming that only individual members may have engaged in this plot on their own with the intent of getting arms to Gaza, not to use them against Jordan. Last month, Jordanian authorities claimed to have foiled a bomb plot after they uncovered at least two caches of explosives near an American air base in the kingdom. Jordanian authorities charged that foreign actors, such as Hamas and Iran and its regional proxies were attempting to destabilize Jordan and threaten its national security. Even as each new event or crisis has seemed to push the state to clamp down in the name of security, new protests and new chants have emerged in the streets, challenging Jordan to change its policies and its international alliances.

Jordanian Policy Options and Relations with the United States

While Jordan and the United States remain close allies, they have differed profoundly in their approaches to the Gaza war. The Biden administration appears to see the war mostly in the context of supporting and defending Israel but is also keen to preserve its close relations with Jordan. Jordanians have seen the war in the context of the devastating impact on Palestinian civilians. The Gaza war has been an unmitigated disaster and represents an existential threat to the kingdom. This is not just a difference in tone, and it has yielded dramatically divergent policies toward the crisis.

Since the very start of the war, Jordan has consistently condemned the bombings of civilians as war crimes and the tragically high death toll in Gaza while calling for a ceasefire and civilian access to humanitarian aid. US officials tend to blame Hamas for the continued failure to reach a ceasefire, while Jordanian officials believe that Israel should also agree to a speedy truce. And as US policymakers talk about various “day after” scenarios for post-war Gaza, Jordan has consistently noted that is has no interest in any role that is detached from a clear pathway to Palestinian statehood—something the United States seems uninclined to pursue, despite the Biden administration’s rhetoric supporting a two-state solution. While the United States has focused on resolving the Gaza crisis, Jordan seeks a more comprehensive approach to a wider peace that would include Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem, and ending Israeli occupation.

Despite his differences with President Biden on Gaza, Jordan’s King Abdullah II has already visited Washington twice in 2024, most recently to gain US support in thwarting an Israeli military offensive against Rafah. Official statements from the foreign minister, the prime minister, and the king himself have been unusually strident for a kingdom whose pro-American orientation the United States and other Western powers often take for granted. Jordan has developed such a regional reputation for moderation that the same powers seem inclined to disregard its genuine outrage, mistaking it for mere political posturing. But Jordan surprised many by also denouncing Israeli actions as war crimes and by supporting South Africa’s genocide case against Israel in the International Court of Justice.

The kingdom also has condemned Israel’s attempts to undermine and defund the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA), the main aid organization for Palestinian refugees, calling on all donor states to restore funding. For Jordan, the UNRWA crisis is both a domestic and a regional matter, as UNRWA aids more than 2 million registered Palestinian refugees in Jordan itself (as well as Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, and Lebanon). Jordan has maintained field hospitals in Gaza and its military has conducted aid drops there. In June 2024, the kingdom hosted an international aid conference, in an effort to coordinate international aid to Gaza and to end Israel’s repeated blockages of the besieged enclave. The government has also vehemently opposed any forced transfers of Palestinians to Jordan or anywhere else.

Jordan seeks a more comprehensive approach to a wider peace that would include ending Israeli occupation.

But despite agreement between the state and the protest movement on Gaza, the war revived a broad-based protest coalition called the National Assembly for the Support of the Resistance and Protection of the Country. Protesters agree with most of the government’s policies regarding Gaza, but they want the regime to go much further, and to make more dramatic policy changes. Specifically, they demand the abrogation of the 1994 Wadi Araba peace treaty with Israel, the termination of the controversial gas deal between Jordan and Israel, stopping what they see as a “land bridge” in Jordan to transporting goods from Gulf countries to Israel, and finally, an end to the current (and extensive) defense agreements between Jordan and the United States.

While the Jordanian regime sees US military aid and presence in the kingdom as vital to national security, protesters argue quite the opposite. They see the American military presence as a direct threat to Jordanian security and sovereignty. While government and opposition are to some extent unified in their overall vehement opposition to the war on Gaza, they differ profoundly on what Jordan’s policy options are, or what they should be. In short, the political temperature and both domestic and regional pressures seem to be steadily rising in the Hashemite Kingdom.

Opposition in the Streets and in Electoral Politics

Many in the opposition are now attempting to balance between the informal politics of street activism and protests, and the formal politics of parties and elections in advance of the September elections. The government’s reform program is but the latest in a long line of such projects as Jordan has oscillated between liberalization and de-liberalization during the last several decades. Parliament remains a weak institution, with most power invested in the monarchy. Most Jordanians do not belong to or identify with any political party.

The newest reform plans emerged from a royally appointed but fairly ideologically diverse set of committees attempting to “modernize” Jordan’s parties, elections, and overall political life. The new electoral rules call for Jordanians to vote for both district representatives and party lists, with 30 percent of seats going to party lists. Each list is required to include at least 20 percent women candidates and 20 percent youth. Many opposition parties are taking this very seriously, seeing the first real opportunity for electoral gains in many years. But given the level of political apathy in the kingdom, the challenge is to convince citizens to vote at all, in a country with low turnout, weak institutions, and low levels of political participation.

The wildcard, of course, is how the Gaza war and the revived protest movements will affect all of this. Jordan’s largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, immediately announced that it would contest the September elections because it believes the time is opportune for returning en force to Parliament. But the recent arms smuggling scandal and foiled bomb plots have led state authorities to blame Iran and Hamas while putting Jordan’s own Islamists on the defensive. The Brotherhood’s leader, Murad Adaylah, attempted to straddle the line between confrontation and accommodation, demanding that the state not interfere in the parliamentary elections (and presumed Islamist participation), while trying not to alienate the regime or cause further backlash against the movement.

A regional shadow hangs over Jordan’s Islamist movement in this regard, as the country’s Muslim Brotherhood fears following in the footstep of its regional counterparts who were repressed in Egypt and Tunisia. They are well aware that the Brotherhood is banned in Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—all regional allies of Jordan—so their difficulty is in pressuring the state, through street protests and the ballot box and perhaps in parliament, without provoking a similar crackdown within Jordan itself.

The Jordanian state has a contentious relationship with Hamas, even banning the movement from the kingdom in 1999.

Here too, the Gaza war has added tension over the question of Hamas itself. The Jordanian state has long had a contentious relationship with Hamas, even banning the movement from the kingdom as far back as 1999. But recent protests have included demands by opposition activists for a rapprochement between Jordan and the organization. This may constitute yet another red-line in tensions between Jordanian authorities and street protesters supporting Hamas. Preventing demonstrators from accessing the Israeli or American embassies is a longstanding red-line enforced by the regime’s gendarmerie, or darak, and in the past several months such attempts led to a crackdown and arrests. Regime tolerance seemed to vanish when chants turned toward Hamas or its spokesperson Abu Ubayda.

The Gaza war has clearly affected Jordan’s domestic politics, with Jordanians deeply angry about the suffering in Gaza. Such concerns can be expected to dominate upcoming electoral campaigns. Jordan is meanwhile also deeply worried about rising regional tensions, including threats of war between Israel and Hezbollah.

Both Jordan’s government and its opposition have also been seized with fears of fresh Palestinian displacement. Jordanian policymakers and street activists alike have been attempting to call global attention to the deteriorating situation in the West Bank. The long-feared Israeli expulsion of West Bank Palestinians to Jordan—to establish al-watan al-badil (the ‘alternative homeland’) scenario advocated by many Israeli leadermay not yet be underway, but Jordanians across society argue that the displacement of Palestinians already is. They fear that this development is not given enough credence internationally or is even being ignored, while for many in Jordan, it represents an early stage in what they see as an existential threat to the Palestinian people and to Jordan itself.

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.