The Other Side of the River

Rania Abouzeid / The New Yorker
The Other Side of the River Jordan has seen pro-Palestinian protests since the war in Gaza began, last October. (photo: Alaa Al Sukhni/Reuters)

Millions of Palestinians live in Jordan, where rage about the suffering in Gaza has reached a boiling point. Can the country’s leaders, who have a long-standing peace agreement with Israel, keep things under control?

Four men stood precariously, supported by outstretched hands, on a rickety metal barricade. All around them, a sea of protesters squeezed shoulder to shoulder. They were gathered near al-Kalouty Mosque, in Amman. It was the closest that Jordanian security forces would allow demonstrators to get to the Israeli Embassy, which was about a kilometre away.

The four took turns using a megaphone to lead the evening’s chants:

“To the Embassy!”

“Open the borders!”

“God, rid us of America’s slaves!”

“They said Hamas were terrorists. All of Jordan is Hamas!”

There have been Pro-Palestinian protests in Jordan since the eruption of the conflict in Gaza, last October. But this was different. It was Friday, March 29th, the sixth consecutive night of vigorous demonstrations near the Embassy after the evening Tarawih prayers that are held during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Palestinian and Jordanian flags swayed above an eclectic crowd of several thousand. There were families with young children, some in strollers; men young and old; gray-haired women; and teen-age girls. The people filled the space adjacent to the mosque and flowed into the street. Black-and-white Palestinian kaffiyehs were draped around shoulders and necks or wrapped around heads. There were also many in attendance who wore red-and-white-checkered Jordanian shemagh scarves.

A wall of Jordanian security forces in navy-blue uniforms and red berets blocked all the roads leading to Israel’s heavily guarded Embassy. On October 17th, ten days after the surprise Hamas offensive that killed nearly twelve hundred Israelis, more than half of whom were civilians, a group of Jordanian protesters broke through a security cordon and tried to storm and set fire to the Embassy. They were met with tear gas and batons. Israel’s Ambassador had already left, and hasn’t returned since.

Now, despite the provocative chants, the crowd was festive and peaceful. They knew that plainclothes security officers moved among them. Hundreds of protesters in Jordan have been arrested—some after speaking with the media—as have at least three journalists covering the demonstrations, according to Reporters Without Borders. Phones held high lit up the space like fireflies as people clapped and followed the lead of the four men on the metal barricade. “Raise your voices from Amman. We are part of the Al-Aqsa Flood,” they said, referring to the name of the Hamas operation.

Flares bathed the crowd in a red glow. The chanters denounced the “land bridge to the occupiers,” referring to the Sheikh Hussein Bridge, one of Jordan’s three border crossings with Israel. Rumors had spread that the bridge was being used as a conduit for Israel to continue importing goods through Arab countries, despite the war. In November, Yemen’s Houthis had launched a blockade of Israel-bound ships travelling in the Red Sea, the region’s main commercial corridor. The protesters believed that Jordan was allowing Israel to circumvent the blockade. Bisher al-Khasawneh, Jordan’s Prime Minister, has called such claims “fabrications.”

One of the four men on the barricade, a twenty-four-year-old whom I’ll call Adam, told me that he’d recently skirted almost two dozen temporary checkpoints, set up to prevent protesters, on the hundred-and-twenty-kilometre journey from Amman to the bridge. When he got there, he watched, stricken, as trucks loaded with vegetables entered Israel. (In December, on a news program, the agriculture minister had acknowledged that some Jordanian traders were selling produce to Israel, and told them to “have some shame.”) “Our people are dying of hunger in Gaza,” Adam said. “I feel guilty for sleeping on a bed, for eating while people in Gaza starve. I can’t focus on anything.” Like many other protesters, he had lost faith in international law and human-rights institutions. “Human rights aren’t neutral—they are biased toward some people,” he said.

Near the barricade, I met a middle-aged woman, a Jordanian Palestinian whom I’ll call Zeina, who was smaller and louder than most people around her, repeating the chants with gusto, her short, curly hair bouncing as she punched out the words. She berated a random group of men nearby: “Why are you standing here if you don’t want to chant?” She was on the streets, she told me, for the same reasons I heard repeated by many other protesters: because she wanted her country to cut ties with Israel entirely, and because she feared that Jordan, where half the population is of Palestinian heritage, could become the next Gaza. She cited a speech delivered in March, 2023, by Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s finance minister, who said that there was “no such thing as a Palestinian” because “there is no such thing as the Palestinian people.” He was standing behind a lectern with a banner that depicted a map of “Greater Israel”—which included all of Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, and also parts of Saudi Arabia and Syria.

Zeina was a secular political independent; the pro-Hamas chants, she told me, were “not about Hamas per se but about anyone who is in a resistance movement. International law says that, if you’re under occupation, fighting is resistance.” Some Jordanians had been claiming that Islamists were behind the protests. Zeina disagreed. They were present, she said, but “the Islamists aren’t pushing us or moving us. Our humanity is moving us.”

During the so-called Arab Spring, in 2011, protesters across the Middle East were propelled by a lack of freedom, dignity, and economic opportunities—and by their resentment of the repressive regimes that ruled them. Today, those same factors are present, and, in some cases, have worsened. Add to that an anguished and suppressed rage about Palestinian suffering, not only in Gaza but also in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, owing to increased violence by Israeli settlers, and the silence, if not complicity, of many Arab leaders. “The West thinks that Arab public opinion doesn’t matter,” Marwan Muasher, the vice-president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me. “No, it does matter. Even in authoritarian states, and particularly in Jordan, where the public mood is boiling. Boiling.”

In January, the Doha Institute’s Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies released the findings of what it called the first survey to gauge public opinion about the Gaza conflict across the Arab world. Ninety-two per cent of respondents said that the Palestinian cause was not solely the concern of Palestinians but of all Arabs, the highest proportion since polling began, more than a decade ago. More than seventy-five per cent considered the U.S. and Israel “the biggest threat to the security and stability of the region.” Two-thirds described the Hamas attack as a legitimate resistance operation. Muasher told me, “Support for Hamas is not out of religious grounds. Today, most Christians in Jordan support Hamas. It is out of a feeling that they are the only ones standing up to the Israelis.”

Following the Trump Administration’s much touted Abraham Accords, in 2020, many pundits and politicos suggested that the Palestinian cause had been forgotten in the Middle East. “New, friendly relations are flowering,” Jared Kushner, a key architect of the accords, wrote in the Wall Street Journal the next year. “We are witnessing the last vestiges of what has been known as the Arab-Israeli conflict.” But the bilateral agreements to normalize relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan were never more than economic deals, quid pro quos inked by autocrats. Well before October 7th, Arab public sentiment rarely aligned with the views of the ruling élites who stood to benefit from the diplomatic concessions, defense contracts, and transfers of military equipment, worth many billions of dollars, that resulted from the accords.

Jordan finds itself in a uniquely vulnerable position. In 1994, it became the second Arab country, after Egypt, to sign a peace agreement with Israel. The Wadi Araba Treaty established close coöperation between the two countries on matters of intelligence and security, and set the table for economic arrangements in areas including water, electricity, and natural gas. (Jordan has an arid climate and a dearth of natural resources.) Jordan is also one of the most pro-Western Arab states. It hosts thousands of American troops and is the second-largest recipient of U.S. assistance in the region, after Israel. In mid-April, when Iran launched hundreds of missiles and drones at Israel, Jordan’s air force intercepted and shot down many of them.

At the same time, Jordan, led by King Abdullah II and Queen Rania, has issued some of the strongest Arab condemnations to date of Israel’s conduct during the war in Gaza. In March, Rania told CNN that Israel was engaged in the “slow-motion mass murder of children.” Abdullah has denounced Israel’s “war crimes” in Gaza and the West’s double standards. “The message the Arab world is hearing is that Palestinian lives matter less than Israeli ones,” he said, at the Cairo Peace Summit, soon after the war began. (Jordan recalled its Ambassador to Israel shortly afterward.) In February, standing next to President Biden in the White House, Abdullah, who is also the custodian of Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque, called for a “lasting ceasefire now” and warned that “continued escalations by extremist settlers in the West Bank and Jerusalem’s holy sites and the expansion of illegal settlements will unleash chaos on the entire region.” Last month, in a letter sent to Jordanian officials, Hamas thanked Abdullah for his support of Palestinian rights.

At the demonstrations near the Embassy, the protesters’ main demand has been for Jordan to rip up the Wadi Araba Treaty. Late last year, Ayman al-Safadi, the foreign minister, announced that Jordan would withdraw from a planned water-for-solar-energy deal with Israel because of the war. “Israel has created an environment of hatred and enmity with its actions,” he told Al Jazeera.

Muasher, at Carnegie, who is a former Jordanian foreign minister and Deputy Prime Minister, told me that, although Jordan cannot afford to sever ties with Israel because of the harm such a move would inflict on its relationship with the United States and the West, that doesn’t mean the relationship is immutable. “The question today is not whether to sever the peace treaty—that’s not on the table,” Muasher said. “The question today is: What kind of a relationship is Jordan going to have in the future with Israel? And most likely it is going to be a cold relationship.” After October 7th, he went on, Jordanian officials have grown “concerned that Israel’s real objective is not just to destroy the military capability of Hamas but also to effect the mass transfer of Palestinians from Gaza to Egypt and from the West Bank to Jordan.”

Calls by fringe, right-wing Israelis to expel Palestinians from the West Bank and push them into Jordan, and to turn Jordan into an “alternative homeland” for Palestinians, are decades old. For just as long, King Abdullah has warned that any such displacement is a red line. But the right-wingers are now in power in the Knesset. In late March, the Israeli government announced the largest land grab in the West Bank since the 1993 Oslo Accords. Since October 7th, at least four hundred and sixty Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank, according to the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, as have thirteen Israelis. The U.N. has said that last year there were three incidents of settler-related harassment and violence there per day.

In Amman, I met with Senator Mohammad al-Momani, a former government spokesperson and the secretary-general of the centrist Charter Party, in his office. He likened Israel driving Palestinians into Jordan to “Israel sending F-16s. It’s an act of war.” Although protesters had been calling for Jordan to open its borders—a huge swath of Jordan’s population has watched as friends and relatives have starved or been killed, displaced, or injured—Momani suggested that doing so would only accelerate Israel’s quest to remove Palestinians from their ancestral lands. He also invoked Jordan’s own national security. The peace agreement between Israel and Jordan should endure, he said, because it “can help us in different ways to advance our interests, be it pressuring Israel politically and diplomatically, sending aid to Gazans, or speaking to the international community about what should be done politically.”

A short walk away, at the House of Representatives, Saleh al-Armouti, an M.P. and a former lawyer, has long railed against Jordan’s relationship with Israel. (Armouti defended the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, whom he considers a martyr, during his 2005 trial.) Aligned with the Islamic Action Front, Armouti says that severing diplomatic relations is now “urgently necessary,” and his bloc and its allies have enough votes in the legislature to try to revive a long-dormant draft law to do so. He knows it’s a long shot, in part, he said, because “some of the Arab regimes are more Zionist than the Zionists.” He added that he was proud of Jordan’s official stance on the war, which “was way ahead of any other Arab state,” and pointed out that King Abdullah had travelled on board a plane that was making an aid drop in Gaza. Armouti considered Gaza a mask-off moment for America’s rules-based order. “There is no international law anymore,” he said. “Strength is what matters.”

On a recent Wednesday morning, I arrived at the King Abdullah II Air Base, in al-Ghabawi, a patch of arid moonscape, toasted beige. Four military transport aircraft, one each from Germany, Indonesia, the United States, and Egypt, were parked on a tarmac. A single flatbed truck with sixteen pallets of aid supplies, each topped with a square green parachute, waited to be offloaded as a lone forklift maneuvered between the planes. Indonesian flight crew in olive jumpsuits milled about, near a half-dozen blond Germans. A short drive away, on an airstrip opposite the foreign planes, two Jordanian Air Force C-130 transport planes were loaded and ready to take off.

Since the war began, the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization, the sole body in the kingdom responsible for assembling and preparing aid for Gaza, has participated in nearly three hundred airdrops, each flight holding four or five tons of aid. The drops, Marwan al-Hennawy, the J.H.C.O.’s director of planning and programs, told me, were used to reach difficult-to-access zones, such as northern Gaza, where more than seventy per cent of residential buildings have been destroyed.

The U.N. and other humanitarian groups consider these airdrops ineffectual, costly, and more of a photo opportunity than a genuine effort. Jordan’s royals have acknowledged these limitations, with Rania calling the airdrops “just drops in an ocean of unmet needs.” They’re also dangerous. At least twenty Palestinians have been crushed to death after parachutes failed to open. Others have drowned trying to retrieve pallets that plunged into the sea. Hundreds have also been killed or injured by Israeli fire while waiting for aid, or been trampled in stampedes of people rushing to get it.

A few days later, I visited a sprawling warehouse depot in Zarqa, about thirty kilometres outside Amman. The site, which is run by the J.H.C.O., bustled with activity, even though it was still Ramadan, when the dawn-to-dusk fast usually slows things down. Ibrahim al-Momani, the head of the warehouse division, had supervised a team of laborers through the weekend and overnight to prepare a hundred and five flatbed trucks, each loaded with twenty pallets of food aid. (According to the U.N., a single truck can deliver “about ten times the amount of one aircraft conducting an aid drop.”) It was the largest J.H.C.O. convoy of the war so far. The week before, the organization, along with its partners at the World Food Programme and other international groups, had managed to send only sixty-six trucks total. The U.N. estimates that between five hundred and six hundred are needed each day to meet Gaza’s needs.

The trucks were stopped at the King Hussein Bridge, the border crossing that connects Amman to Jerusalem via the West Bank. Although the J.H.C.O. had received Israeli permission to prepare the aid, the convoy required further Israeli approvals to cross the border. Gaza was just three or four hours by road from Amman. Now it regularly took aid convoys a week or more to make the drive. (The convoy managed to cross several days later.)

Abu Obaida, the spokesman for Hamas’s Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, has mocked the inability of Arab states to push through Israeli restrictions to get aid into Gaza. “We are not asking you to defend Arab and Muslim children in Gaza by, God forbid, moving your armies and tanks,” Abu Obaida said, in a video statement. “But are you so weak that you are unable to move relief trucks of humanitarian aid? This is what we can’t understand.”

Even before October 7th, Israel tightly restricted the aid allowed into Gaza, which has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since 2007, when Hamas came to power. Donated goods are repackaged in the J.H.C.O.’s warehouses to meet Israeli requirements. Tents, for instance, must be below a certain height, Momani explained. Around us, there were stacks of generators and solar-power systems, all rejected by the Israelis. Dates with pits were forbidden, though crushed dates were allowed. “I don’t know why,” Momani said. “Maybe they think the pit is like a bullet.”

X-ray and anesthesia machines, and even anesthesia itself, have also been blocked. Ratib al-Shboul, the manager responsible for the medical-goods warehouse, had to think hard about the last time Israel permitted medical equipment into Gaza from Jordan. “About a month ago,” he said. Behind him were plastic-wrapped pallets of gauze, syringes, and oxygen machines. “We have more than three hundred and sixty trucks of aid ready to go,” Hennawy told me. “We feel handcuffed. We are seeing hungry people, and we have food, but we can’t deliver it. A regular person might see the images from Gaza and feel sadness, but be unable to help. I can help and I am not able to, so I have double the sadness.”

Jordan is one of two main conduits for humanitarian assistance entering Gaza—the other is Egypt, which borders the territory to the south and sends aid through its Rafah crossing. In December, Israel opened another crossing, at Kerem Shalom, but most Israeli channels have been closed. On May 1st, Israel opened the Erez crossing, in the north. Two Jordanian aid convoys passing through it were attacked by Israeli citizens, who could be seen on video tossing bags of flour from the trucks. (Safadi, Jordan’s foreign minister, called the attack “despicable.”) According to the U.N., in April, an average of a hundred and ninety trucks entered Gaza each day, less than half the minimum required, and those trucks were only half full, per Israeli inspection requirements. In the first seven months of the war, the J.H.C.O. has managed to send eleven hundred trucks, each loaded with about twenty tons of aid.

The World Food Programme recently said that the hunger crisis has become a “full-blown famine” in Gaza’s north. At least thirty-one children in Gaza have died of malnutrition and dehydration, according to the local health ministry. Human Rights Watch has accused Israel of using starvation as a weapon of war, and urged governments to impose sanctions on Israel and to suspend arms transfers. Israel denies blocking aid, an assertion that the United States has echoed. (On Tuesday, Israel seized and closed the Rafah crossing. The following day, President Biden announced that he had halted some arms shipments, which he didn’t want Israel to use in a major military offensive in Rafah, where more than a million Palestinians, including many displaced from other parts of Gaza, are under bombardment.)

Meanwhile, the prospects for aid delivery have been deteriorating for months. In January, Israel hobbled UNRWA, the main body responsible for distributing aid inside Gaza, claiming that a significant percentage of its workers had links to Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The U.S. and other Western donor states immediately cut UNRWA’s funding. (The U.N. fired a handful of workers whom Israel said took part in the October 7th attack, though an independent review found no evidence to support the claim of widespread affiliation with Hamas or other armed groups. Some countries—though not the U.S.—have since restored funding.) In February, the Biden Administration told Israel to stop killing local police officers who escort aid trucks in Gaza, warning against a “total breakdown of law and order.” Many more officers have subsequently been killed. An I.D.F. strike on a World Central Kitchen convoy, in April, which killed seven aid workers, has caused other humanitarian groups to suspend their Gaza operations, although some have resumed work. (The I.D.F. said in a statement that it “has never, and will never, deliberately target aid convoys and workers.”)

Back at the military airport, no interviews were permitted or questions answered about the type of aid on board, the quantity in tons, or where exactly it was going to be offloaded. And there was a warning, issued before and after the flight, not to take or publish images of the destruction of Gaza, but only of the airdrop itself. When I asked why, an officer shrugged and said he was following orders. (I was referred to a military spokesman, who declined an interview. Questions e-mailed to the General Command Office also went unanswered.) Although the Jordanian military is famously tight-lipped, one senior political figure told me that the restrictions on information about Gaza are also likely Israeli conditions.

It was nearly 11:30 A.M. when the rear door of the C-130 closed. The six crewmen inside the hull placed stickers of the Jordanian flag on each pallet, checked the parachutes, and made last-minute adjustments. Within thirty minutes, Gaza’s coast, and the sea beyond it, came into view. The rear paratrooper door opened, and the pallets were released, their mustard-yellow parachutes floating down toward the wasteland below.

From the air, Gaza looked like pulverized, dusty-gray rubble—hollowed-out, pummelled buildings abutting vast stretches of flat, sandy earth where the destruction has been cleared. The emptiness was striking in what was one of the most densely populated places on earth. Little more than an hour after takeoff, the drop was complete, and the plane headed back to base. A statement later issued by the Jordanian Armed Forces declared that the flight was one of seven airdrops that day. As the plane pulled away from the shores of Gaza, two Israeli patrol boats cut through the still, blue waters, enforcing the maritime siege of the devastated Strip.

The seventh consecutive night of protests outside al-Kalouty Mosque began like every other, although the chants were decidedly more anti-American:

“America is the head of the snake! America is the head of terror!”

“Death to Israel! Death to America!”

Some slogans were directed closer to home. “Normalization,” a young man yelled. “Treasonous!” the crowd replied.

Half an hour before midnight, the street lights were switched off. Fifteen minutes later, two armored police vehicles—sirens blaring, red and blue lights flashing, an armed, balaclava-clad security official standing atop each one—suddenly and aggressively pushed into the edge of the crowd, riling protesters, who stood their ground. A policeman urged people to empty the square, his message amplified by a megaphone that was drowned out by chants. Then security forces that had been stationed around the perimeter, some armed with batons, charged the crowd, sending demonstrators scrambling. A young woman whose friend had fallen in the melee screamed, “We are the daughters of the nation! Shame on you!” An officer replied politely, “We are with you.” A video of a young woman being dragged away by police went viral. Officers slammed a young man against the hood of a car and held him down in a choke hold as nearby women screamed, “Leave him alone!” Several dozen diehard protesters regrouped at the top of the street. “Protecting the Embassy? Shame of shames!” they chanted. “Oh, Gaza, forgive us—we are also besieged.” (In an official statement, a police spokesman said that security forces “exercised maximum restraint.”)

The following evening, protesters returned to the square, but there weren’t enough of them to fill it. There were no megaphones, no placards. Bags were searched by police. “Raise your kaffiyehs because they won’t let us raise Palestinian flags!” a young woman yelled, as a trio of women around her hoisted their scarves into the air. Some in the crowd held up smartphones with images of the flag on their screens.

On al-Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day, held on the last Friday of Ramadan, protesters entering the space for the thirteenth consecutive night were asked for I.D.s. People under eighteen were no longer allowed to participate. Families with young children were turned away. I saw policemen tell those wearing kaffiyehs to take them off and return without them or to leave them with the authorities. (Some managed to get them in, however, and wore them without issue.)

I contacted Jordan’s Ministry of Government Communications to ask about the restrictions, and it responded in writing. It said that there was no security crackdown on the seventh night, that no orders were issued to confiscate Palestinian flags, and that security forces “did not ask any demonstrator to take off the kaffiyeh and did not deal with the symbols and personal appearance of demonstrators.” (Momani, the senator, later told me, “We allow Palestinian flags so long as there are also Jordanian flags.”)

Muasher, the former foreign minister, said, “I think the security services, in particular, are very worried that such protests might be redirected against Jordan, against the system itself.”

The protests continue.

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