Jordan’s Balancing Act

Annie Sakkab/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Protesters filming an evening prayer dedicated to Gaza during a pro-Palestine demonstration in Amman, October 18, 2023

We are at day forty-one of the Israeli retaliation against the Gaza Strip, following Hamas’s surprise attack on October 7. In response to the killing of 1,200 and the kidnapping of about 240 Israelis, Israel has now killed more than 11,000 residents of Gaza—most of them women, children, and the elderly. Thousands more are presumed dead under collapsed buildings; tens of thousands have suffered life-altering injuries. According to the UN, 1.6 million residents of Gaza have been displaced from their homes; 42 percent of all housing has been damaged or destroyed. Hospitals in Gaza are now—as their staff and humanitarian agencies predicted from the start—collapsing, running out of fuel and supplies; patients, including premature babies on incubators, are dying.

I have watched the destruction of Gaza and the unspeakable suffering of its people from my home in Amman, less than a hundred miles away. Two million registered Palestinian refugees live in Jordan, and more than half the country’s population is of Palestinian origin. The first wave of refugees arrived in 1948 during the Arab–Israeli war, or nakba (“catastrophe”), driven in fear from homes to which they would never be allowed to return. It is hard to overstate the degree to which images circulating today of Palestinians being pushed out of their homes in Gaza City by the Israeli ground invasion, carrying their belongings and walking through the rubble, are reverberating with the children and grandchildren of those earlier refugees.

As in all Arab countries, most forms of public assembly, political mobilization, and civil society activity are tightly limited here. But bowing to public opinion, the Jordanian security services have tolerated large pro-Palestinian demonstrations, although they have prevented protesters from gathering in front of the American embassy, breaking into the evacuated Israeli one, or reaching the long border that Jordan shares with the West Bank (as convoys have attempted to do).   

In my neighborhood in Amman kids have spray-painted “Gaza” and “Palestine” on the walls (and a star of David on a trash can). People don keffiyehs and fly Palestinian flags from their cars. All cultural events that are not Palestine-related and all celebrations have been indefinitely postponed. (Jordan’s Christian congregations have canceled Christmas festivities; the oldest church in Gaza was bombed on October 19.) As I’ve written elsewhere, there’s been a wave of cultural activities featuring Palestinian literature, art, and film. Businesses display their solidarity with Palestine in their advertising and packaging. Customers are boycotting US chains, such as Starbucks, that are accused of abetting the Israeli occupation. Coca-Cola and Pepsi have disappeared from shops and restaurants, replaced with locally made sodas. McDonald’s is also on the boycott list, after its Israeli branch donated meals to the IDF, and despite the fact that franchises here and in other Arab countries responded by raising $3 million for relief efforts in Gaza.


Jordan signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1994; it is a US ally and depends heavily on US and other international aid. The monarchy stakes its legitimacy to a significant degree on representing the Palestinian people in the pursuit of a two-state solution. But it also views mobilization around Palestinian issues as a potential threat to its stability. Jordan almost had a civil war in 1970 when Palestinian militias based here tried to overthrow King Hussein (they were defeated and forced to relocate to Lebanon). More recent threats have come from other sources: in 2021 the monarchy faced an alleged coup attempt from the king’s half-brother; it has also had to contend with terrorist attacks and extremist movements. Several thousand Jordanians joined ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  

The monarchy’s balancing act is now under great tension. It is trying to both channel popular outrage and keep it in check. At the Cairo Summit for Peace last month, King Abdullah II denounced both the killing of Israeli civilians and “the relentless bombing campaign underway in Gaza,” rebuking the West’s hypocrisy in letting it go on:

Anywhere else, attacking civilian infrastructure and deliberately starving an entire population of food, water, electricity, and basic necessities would be condemned. Accountability would be enforced, immediately, unequivocally. And it has been done before—recently, in another conflict. But not in Gaza.

Jordan’s photogenic, English-speaking, unveiled Queen Rania has been deployed to act as a remarkably forthright advocate of Palestinian rights. “If you manage to eliminate all of Hamas,” she told CNN on November 5, “what next? The root cause of this conflict is an illegal occupation. It is routine human rights abuses, illegal settlements, a disregard to UN resolutions and international law.”

There is no doubt that the violence of the last month has already had a radicalizing effect here. When the attacks took place, Hamas’s ability to shock, harm, and terrify Israel was celebrated in some quarters; but as the details of the killings and kidnappings emerged, my acquaintances in Amman—Jordanians, Palestinians, and foreign residents familiar with the region—immediately reacted with dread and consternation. We expected that Israel would take terrible punitive measures and that the imbalance in power, impunity, and Western support would be violently reestablished. Yet no one could have imagined how far Israel would go in insisting that Palestinians be made to pay, many times over, for what Hamas did. Israel’s brutality to the captive population of Gaza has reinvigorated a traditional rhetoric of unconditional support for the Palestinian cause. The atrocities committed on October 7 (on which Arab media have not focused extensively) are passed over in silence, denied as exaggerations or fabrications, or viewed against the background of long-standing Israeli aggression and dispossession, and of the inhumane conditions in the Gaza Strip itself.



The anger here is directed at the US and Western Europe as much as at Israel. Many Arab citizens are indignant at the West’s double standards and humiliated that their governments are powerless bystanders to the bloodshed in Gaza. Those governments have long been most focused on and efficient at repressing their own people; they have been largely unable or unwilling to take any significant actions to end the siege and repeated bombings of Gaza or to protect the rights of Palestinians in the West Bank. In recent years many have embarked on unpopular normalizations of relations with Israel; after Morocco, Sudan, the UAE, and Bahrain, Saudi Arabia was clearly intent on doing so soon (although those plans have now been put on hold).

Egypt has participated in the blockade of the Gaza Strip since Hamas won elections and took control there in 2007. Nominally it controls the Rafah crossing, but its ability to let in fuel or anywhere near a sufficient amount of medical aid, food, and water is currently limited by both Israeli threats—Israel bombed the crossing repeatedly at the beginning of its military operations—and US pressure. Access to Gaza through Rafah is becoming a flashpoint for dissent within Egypt. The Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate has called for a convoy to travel to the crossing soon—journalists, doctors, and anyone else who would like to participate in delivering aid are welcome.  

Israel has meanwhile reportedly suggested that if Rafah is opened it should also be used to relocate residents of Gaza to the Sinai Peninsula. Egypt has adamantly rejected that scenario, which would constitute a betrayal of Palestinian self-determination and an extraordinary threat to Egypt’s own security and stability, opening a new front for militancy on the Egypt–Israel border. Jordan is almost as alarmed. It fears that if Palestinians are ethnically cleansed from Gaza into Sinai, the West Bank, which the kingdom ruled from 1948 to 1967, could be next. Over the years various Israeli leaders have invoked the possibility of relocating more West Bank Palestinians to Jordan, and since October 7 Israeli settlers there have been given free rein to terrorize Palestinian communities and drive them off their land at an accelerated pace. The Jordanian prime minister recently said that attempts on Israel’s part to expel Palestinians into neighboring countries would be considered “a declaration of war.” Jordan has already struggled to absorb millions of Palestinian, Iraqi, and Syrian refugees. The country has a weak economy and few natural resources; it is also one of the most water-scarce nations in the world.

The Jordanian government’s worries are serious, but its options are limited. It has made calibrated diplomatic and humanitarian gestures, such as recalling its ambassador to Israel, sponsoring a UN resolution calling for a ceasefire, and trumpeting air deliveries to a Jordanian field hospital in Gaza. It continues to warn the West that irresponsibly backing Israel’s worst impulses will have devastating consequences for the entire region’s future. The king had to cancel a meeting with Biden in Amman after the bombing of the al-Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza on October 17—which Israel and the US attribute to a misfired rocket from Gaza but everyone here believes was Israel’s doing, given that Israel has attacked many other medical facilities—sparked protests and a public outcry.  

The al-Ahli hospital was first established by the Anglican church in Gaza in 1882. It has been in operation ever since. The church also established a school in Amman; I have friends whose children go there. Every week, mothers and children from that school and others have been holding vigils for mothers and children in Gaza. Beyond the calls for an immediate ceasefire, all of Jordan seems to have come together in the last month to reaffirm Palestinian history, identity, and full political rights. The question, here as elsewhere, is whether this mobilization could be grounds for hope or the source of further disappointment.

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