Jordan: One Kingdom, Two Nations


We-map As Israelis and Palestinians continue to struggle towards a permanent peace, it is not uncommon these days to hear of altercations in the West Bank between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian inhabitants. Sometimes these altercations end in injury; other times in death. Frequently, they heighten tension and produce further resentment. But almost always (and unfortunately so) these incidents merely pass into the annals of history as a now “normal” consequence of the current Israeli-Palestinian status quo.

But what happens when an Israeli soldier kills a Palestinian-Jordanian at the Israeli-Jordanian border?

Well, truth be told, no such sense of “normalcy” exists.

On March 10, a Jordanian judge of Palestinian origin, Raed Zeiter, presumably attempted to cross from Jordan into the West Bank at an Israeli-Jordanian border crossing known as  the Allenby/ King Hussein Bridge. While at the border, an altercation ensued between him and an Israeli soldier; Did he try to reach for the soldier’s gun? Or was he standing at a distance? Details remain fuzzy about what exactly occurred, but Raed’s fate was absolute. He was shot dead by the Israeli border patrol.

What followed was a week of protests, finger-pointing, and public rage. The Israeli army released a statement denouncing Judge Zeiter as a “terrorist.” Thousands of Jordanian took the streets to demand the abrogation of the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty. Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, contacted King Abdullah to express his regrets and to promise an investigation into Raed’s death.

Nonetheless, Jordanian MPs voted to expel the Israeli ambassador from Amman, and demanded the release of a Jordanian citizen imprisoned in Israel after killing seven Israeli schoolgirls in 1997. Jordanian Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour asserted that Israel was “completely responsible” for the crime, and later stood before a no-confidence vote in parliament— in part born out of disgruntlement with the government’s inadequate response to Israel. And finally, on March 17, in a seeming act of closure, Israeli President Simon Peres expressed his “condolences” and “deep regret” on behalf of Israel while stressing the importance of the Israeli-Jordanian relations.

Amidst the height of this public, diplomatic, and political maelstrom, King Abdullah remained conspicuously silent. He did not make any grand remarks, nor assume a strong position in the ongoing debate. He visited the family of the deceased Judge to express his remorse for their loss, and remained in contact with Israeli officials. And while Palestinian media in Jordan asserted the need for a strong official response against Israel in the name of national honor and self-respect, government-owned media outlets quickly shifted their focus to other local, regional, and international issues. The King, undoubtedly aware of the widespread protest and parliamentary decrees at the time, refused to act or even acknowledge the incident. It is as if he just wanted the fire to burn down. It is as if he just wanted the issue to go away.

With the death of Judge Zeiter, Jordan relapsed into a condition that has plagued it for much of its history: a chronic identity crisis. With a Palestinians making up what is estimated to be nearly 60% of its total population, Jordan has been a crucial save-haven for Palestinians since the war in 1948. Unsurprisingly then, the recent uprising  has posed a challenge to Jordan’s leadership. Jordanian monarchs have struggled to appease their majority-Palestinian population and take advantage of its presence politically, while at the same time not  becoming handcuffed by its influence. The “Palestinian question” has thus emerged as a double-edged sword for Jordan, providing both added political and social stressors, on one hand, and a tool for regional and international relevance, on the other.

Raed Zeiter’s death at the Israeli border certainly appealed to the hearts of all Jordanians—regardless of ethnic or religious identity. But as battle cries echoed throughout the streets in his name, and silence echoed throughout the king’s palace, the paradox of a majority-Palestinian population in a Jordanian state became awkwardly apparent. On a social level, while most Palestinian-Jordanians demanded action against Israel, many of Jordan’s minority “Jordanian-Jordanian” population disagreed with such action; they did not support endangering an alliance with Israel deemed to be essential to their country’s interest.

King Abdullah

And on a political level, the balance that King Abdullah has attempted to strike between Palestinian demands and Jordanian priorities revealed itself to be no such thing, but rather a clearly delineated hierarchy of national objectives, one that relegates the Palestinian narrative to the margins of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. King Abdullah had no intention of punishing the Israelis for the incident, but his hand was forced in the face of majority outrage. But more importantly, Abdullah was unwilling to sympathize with the Palestinian population to such an extent that would empower the Palestinian voice in shaping state policy vis-à-vis Israel. What resulted was a profoundly uncomfortable silence with clear meaning. In remaining mute, Abdullah effectively screamed, “Jordan is not Palestine!”

To be fair, this is nothing new. Abdullah has traditionally supported the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and has condemned the idea that Jordan can be an “alternative state” for the Palestinians. In fact, just last month, he reportedly said,” Jordan is Jordan and Palestine is Palestine, and nothing but that, nothing in the past or the future.” Undoubtedly then, Abdullah supports a two-state solution.

Yet as peace talks continue to flounder between the Israeli and Palestinian delegations, and as Palestinian roots grow deeper in Jordan with each passing year, a transformation is taking hold: Jordan is Palestine. While most Palestinians yearn for the birth of a new Palestinian state,  and regardless of the fact that they do not enjoy the same privileges as their Jordanian counterparts, many Palestinians do not have any intention of migrating to a future “Palestine.” Even if  a segment of the population does leave, Palestinians will still likely constitute a majority, and at the very least a plurality, of Jordan’s population; in the event of a two-state solution, Abdullah may still find himself as king of a “Jordanian” state with a “Palestinian” identity.

How then does Abdullah plan to balance Jordan’s undeniably strong Palestinian identity with its extra-Palestinian objectives? How does this dynamic evolve in the case of greater democratization in Jordan—a democratization that will surely empower Palestinians, and that is seen by many to be inevitable? What happens if the lower house of parliament—the very house that unanimously voted to expel the Israeli ambassador from Amman, and whose members are popularly elected—is given the power to enact binding legislation? To what extent can Abdullah continue to contravene the popular will of his people, regardless of identity and background?

As the line between “Palestinian” and “Jordanian” continues to blur, these are all questions that Abdullah prefers to avoid. But as he remained silent amidst national uproar, I bet he considered them with profound anxiety.