1 December 2023

6 min read

Vol 9, 2023 | Jordan’s tough balancing act amid the Israel-Hamas conflict

Global Risk Bulletin
Concrete buildings in Amman with Jordan flag

The Israeli offensive against Hamas following the group’s 7 October attack on Israel has prompted mass protests throughout Jordan. While the frequency and intensity of demonstrations have decreased recently, Jordanian leaders remain wary of the impact of Israeli-Palestinian tensions on the country’s internal stability, writes Emma Johnston and Saif Islam


We are going to Jerusalem,” chanted thousands of people as they marched from Amman to areas near the Jordan-West Bank border on 13 October, defying a government ban on demonstrations in the Jordan Valley. Security forces used tear gas and other riot-control measures to disperse hundreds of protesters trying to approach the border in solidarity with Palestinians in the wake of Israel’s intensified airstrikes on Gaza and increased security raids across the West Bank in response to the Hamas attack. A week later, more than 6,000 people protested in downtown Amman in response to a disputed explosion that killed and injured hundreds of people in Gaza’s Al Ahli Arab Hospital. While anti-Israel protests are not new in a country in which the majority of the population are of Palestinian origin, the intensity of the October protests in Jordan is reflective of the unprecedented escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Should the humanitarian and security situation in Gaza and the West Bank continue to worsen, demonstrations are likely to reignite. This, in turn, will make the Hashemite Kingdom’s tricky balancing act – between echoing the pro-Palestine sentiments of its population and limiting the impact of the crisis on the home front – even more difficult.

Balancing protest freedom with order

The Jordanian government has attempted to reflect popular support for Palestinians, allowing numerous pro-Palestine protests while routinely criticising Israel’s handling of the conflict. Senior leaders including King Abdullah II and Queen Rania, who herself is of Palestinian origin, have repeatedly called for a ceasefire in Gaza, and have rejected any potential Israeli plan to transfer Gazans to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, or West Bank residents to Jordan. On 1 November, the Jordanian government recalled its ambassador to Israel, citing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Despite these measures, the authorities have been containing pro-Palestine protests to ensure they do not destabilise the country’s internal security or international relations. The government’s prohibition and clampdown on protests in the Jordan Valley are meant to thwart radical elements who have been urging the government to allow them to enter the West Bank to fight Israeli forces. And in mid-October, riot police dispersed thousands of people who had intended to march to the Israeli embassy in Amman; some protesters, armed with Molotov cocktails, wanted to storm the embassy. These measures are not only driven by Jordan’s determination to preserve its peace treaty with Israel (signed in 1994) and maintain close ties with the US, but also to ensure that pro-Palestine activism does not translate into wider anti-government protests. However, the government’s attempt to carefully calibrate pro-Palestine demonstrations will remain a difficult task, considering such protests tend to fluctuate in response to developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.




Concerns over refugee influx from the West Bank

The Gaza conflict has rekindled Jordan's longstanding fear that Israel could use the turmoil as an opportunity to force Palestinians out of the West Bank and into Jordan. Historically, some Israeli politicians, including former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, have suggested Jordan as an alternative homeland for Palestinians. Recently, some members of Israel's current right-wing government coalition have called for the expulsion of Palestinians from their lands. These statements, in addition to an uptick in Israeli settler violence in the West Bank since 7 October – with some Palestinians being threatened with forced removal if they do not flee to Jordan – explain Jordan’s growing apprehension regarding this issue. Jordan’s persistent refusal to accept Palestinian refugees, as a protest against Israeli policy, has wide support domestically and throughout the Arab world.

As Israel threatens to continue its offensive from northern Gaza to the south, Egypt will be under greater pressure to accept Palestinian refugees through its Rafah border crossing than Jordan from the West Bank. Nevertheless, images of large numbers of Gazans fleeing to Egypt, or a major escalation in violence in the West Bank, will almost certainly result in an uptick in anti-Israel protests in Jordan, including in border areas where the government is trying to maintain order.

Timeline: Jordan-Israel relations

1950 – During the 1948-9 Arab-Israeli war following the establishment of Israel, Jordan captures the majority of what would become known as the West Bank, formally annexing it in 1950.

1967 – Israel captures the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the Six-Day War; c. 300,000 Palestinians flee to Jordan.

1970 – Jordan expels the Palestinian Liberation Organisation following a civil conflict between the PLO and other Palestinian militant groups and the Jordanian military.

1988 – Jordan renounces claims to the West Bank, following the beginning of the First Intifada.

1994 – Israel and Jordan negotiate a peace treaty.

1999 – Jordan expels formerly jailed Hamas leaders to Qatar.

2000 – The Second Intifada strains Jordan-Israel relations as public sentiment in Jordan turns against Israel.

2017 – A shooting incident at the Israeli Embassy in Amman leads to a diplomatic standoff.

2023 – Jordan recalls its ambassador to Israel amid the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Macroeconomic pressure points

Economic implications of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict represent an additional concern for the Hashemite Kingdom. Even before the current crisis, there was popular dissatisfaction with the government's handling of the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war. These crises worsened unemployment, inflation, and public debt, while exacerbating socio-economic inequalities. While Jordanian leaders recognise these challenges, any new economic agreements with Israel are likely to attract significant public resistance. For example, the government recently announced that in solidarity with Palestinians, Jordan will back out of the proposed water-for-energy deal with Israel, which was going to be signed at the upcoming COP28 summit in the United Arab Emirates in November-December this year. This mainly appears to be an attempt to appease pro-Palestine protesters rather than to demonstrate any serious intent to cut existing trade links with Israel, which remains a major energy exporter to Jordan. Considering previous bilateral economic deals – such as the USD 10 billion agreement signed in 2016 for Israel to sell natural gas to Jordan for 15 years – have prompted large and regular protests, any future deals are likely to inspire greater unrest in the country. This leaves the government with no choice but to become more discreet regarding trade links with Israel, like several Gulf countries before they normalised relations with Israel, or simply to avoid them altogether.

Looking ahead

Being Israel’s neighbour, with a majority of the population supportive of the Palestinian cause, and as the custodian of key holy sites in Jerusalem, Jordan is never far away from the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Should the conflict in Gaza continue for months and tensions keep escalating in the West Bank, the risk of spillovers to Jordan will grow. The government has few policy options and limited resources to deal with economic and security challenges that will come with those spillovers. This will leave the Hashemite Kingdom with no choice but to continue walking a tightrope, while many of its residents continue walking the streets in protest.

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