The pressure is growing

Gaza Strip: a boy sits desperately in front of a pile of rubble
Gaza Strip: a boy sits in despair in front of a pile of rubble (image: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)

Israel's war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip has effectively put Jordan and Egypt on the frontline of any escalation. If the situation continues to deteriorate, masses of Palestinians could end up fleeing across their borders. A report from Amman and Cairo

By Birgit Svensson

Initially, it was unclear whether the drone attack on U.S. troops actually took place on Jordanian territory or whether it was still Syria. What was immediately clear, however, was that three Americans had been killed and over 30 injured. These were the first U.S. fatalities following months of attacks by Iranian-backed militias on American soldiers throughout the Middle East

An Iraqi militia claimed responsibility for the attack, saying they had attacked four U.S. military bases, three of them in Syria. The north-east of Jordan borders both Syria and Iraq. "Islamic Resistance" is the name given to an alliance of pro-Iranian militias targeting countries that are backing Israel in its fight against Hamas in Gaza.

So far, Jordan has managed to strike a balance between the hostile parties involved in this war. King Abdullah and Queen Rania are doing everything they can to prevent the situation in their country from escalating. The couple themselves reflect this balance: Abdullah is a native Jordanian, Rania is Palestinian

Jordanians protest in front of the Israeli and American embassies in Amman
Jordanians protest in front of the Israeli and American embassies in Amman against Israel's war of retaliation in the Gaza Strip (image: Alaal Al Sukhni/REUTERS)

King Abdullah lacks political acumen

Both U.S. and German troops are stationed in Jordan, operating from there in the fight against Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. 

The country has been largely spared terror and wars by its neighbours in the past. Al Qaida was never able to gain a foothold there and IS only committed one atrocity, when it burnt a young Jordanian army fighter pilot alive. 

Nothing more happened. If you ask in Amman how this remarkable balance is achieved, you will hear again and again that the Jordanian security forces have played a significant part in this. Their network is more comprehensive than in any other country in the region.

Amer Al Sabaileh is a conflict researcher, professor at Jordanian University and security expert. He attests to the king's extensive military knowledge. Abdullah's focus is on security and stability, says the pundit sought after by Jordanian and international media. Sabaileh is critical however of the king's lack of political acumen. The monarch has not visited Israel once, for example, even though Jordan was the second country after Egypt to sign a peace treaty with its neighbour in 1994. 

Only a few trucks carrying relief supplies are able to cross the border at Rafah every day
Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip: if the fighting in Khan Younis continues at its current intensity, there will only be one way for people there to escape: the border with Egypt. But what will Egypt do if a million Palestinians suddenly storm the border crossing? (image: Ahmed Gomaa/Xinhua/IMAGO)

The Emirates handle contact with Israel

This is why Jordan has not become involved in the search for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, says Sabaileh, even though the country should actually be included. "If the king wants to talk to someone from the Israeli government, he calls on the Emirates to mediate". 

Since the signing of the so-called Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco in September 2020, the Gulf Arabs have gained more and more influence over Israel. Jordan's influence is negligible. Yet the current situation is making Sabaileh nervous: "If things continue like this with Palestine, there will be chaos in Jordan."

Jordan is considered a frontline state in the war between Israel and Hamas. While media coverage is currently focused on Gaza, the situation in the West Bank continues to heat up with attacks by radical settler militias on Palestinian farmers on the rise. Jordan is understandably very concerned about a potential escalation on its doorstep. The pressure on its borders is growing as the situation in the West Bank escalates. 

The country, which has a population of ten million, has recently taken in over a million more Palestinians, having already seen hundreds of thousands flee to Jordan during the first expulsion in 1948. All of them now have Jordanian citizenship. 

Those who were forced to flee during the Six-Day War in 1967 have also been naturalised. But then that was it. Jordan could not and did not want to take any more. Those Palestinians who have arrived since are issued with temporary residence permits. "If the West Bank explodes, we will have an even bigger disaster than Gaza," Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said recently in interview with the BBC.

Here you can access external content. Click to view.

More violence in the West Bank

Ahmed Qatish has just arrived in Amman from Tulkarem via the Allenby Bridge over the Jordan River. The Israeli army had besieged the town for 44 hours, carrying out house to house raids. 

Soldiers have also moved into Bethlehem, Jenin, Nablus and Jericho – almost every town on the West Bank – and ransacked everything. Ahmed reports that seven people died in his town, but that no one had counted the injured. 

To reach Amman, the 25-year-old Palestinian had to pass through countless checkpoints run by the Israeli security forces, despite the fact that he was actually only travelling through Palestinian territory. 

"They torture us, arrest us arbitrarily, beat us, humiliate us as they please." He takes a sip of the Turkish mocha, served in tiny cups here, as in the rest of the Middle East, and either very sweet or completely sugar-free. 

"The settlers are the worst," says Ahmed, who graduated from the Technical University in Tulkarem. There is currently no work in the West Bank and most of the shops are closed. Social medium Telegram is the only safe way for Palestinians in the West Bank to communicate at the moment.

Everything else, such as Facebook or WhatsApp, is monitored by Israel. "The settlers intend to drive us out and are becoming increasingly aggressive," says Ahmed bitterly. "They attack us, often with weapons and live ammunition, while the security forces simply look on." 

The situation is also critical for Egypt

What Qatish reports is consistent with information gathered by the United Nations. Even before the Hamas massacre, 2023 was the bloodiest year in the West Bank since the Second Intifada (2000-2005). According to the UN Human Rights Office, the situation has worsened since the Hamas attacks. Thousands of Palestinians were driven from their homes in the West Bank when it was occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. 

Unlike in the Gaza Strip, from which Israel withdrew its troops in 2005, taking 9,000 settlers out of the coastal strip with it, the Israeli government has systematically pushed ahead with building settlements in the West Bank.

The situation is also becoming increasingly critical for Egypt. Egypt shares a border with Gaza and Rafah is the only crossing through which aid can now reach civilians in the Strip. 

While fighting at the onset of war took place in the north of the densely populated region of over two million people, the Israeli army is now increasingly bombing the south around the Khan Younis refugee camp. 

This is where Yahya Sinwar, the mastermind behind the Hamas massacre of over 1,200 Israelis on 7 October, is presumed to be. He is said to have given the order and also initiated the hostage-taking. If the fighting in Khan Younis continues at its current intensity, there will only be one way for people there to escape: the border with Egypt. But what will Egypt do if a million Palestinians suddenly storm the border crossing?

Here you can access external content. Click to view.

Cairo is stumped

In Cairo, people are either stumped or reluctant to give an answer. Shooting at the Palestinians would be out of the question for moral reasons. In Egypt, too, there have been repeated demonstrations in favour of our "brothers and sisters in the Gaza Strip". 

However, as soon as voices were heard during the protests calling for military ruler Abdul Fattah al-Sisi to step down, all demonstrations were banned without further ado. Since then, the Egyptian regime has been attempting to negotiate with Hamas and Israel to secure the exchange of hostages and prisoners. With a certain degree of success.

Meanwhile, a conference of Israeli politicians on the re-colonisation of the Gaza Strip has been held in Jerusalem. Among those in attendance was far-right security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who demanded the return of Jewish settlers to the Gaza Strip after the end of the war. 

He called for the Palestinian population to be "encouraged to emigrate to other countries in the world", following a similar call by his ultra-right cabinet colleague Bezalel Smotrich. 

The demands have met with criticism from Arab states and the USA, Israel's most important ally. Israel's Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, however, remains determined to ensure his army "freedom of action in the Gaza Strip" in order to nip any possible "threat" in the bud. 

So while the question of what to do with the Gaza Strip is still being debated, the army is getting down to business and pushing more and more Palestinians towards the border with Egypt.

Birgit Svensson

© 2024