Jordan has long betrayed the Palestinians

20 April 2024
Mick Armstrong
The Jordanian and Israeli flags

There is no shortage of sympathy for the besieged people of Gaza among the mass of people of Jordan, 50 to 60 percent of whom have Palestinian heritage. This is reflected in the substantially revived street protest movement.

Since 24 March, there have been nightly marches on the Israeli embassy in the capital, Amman, and ongoing protests elsewhere demanding the breaking of ties with the Zionist state and an end to the peace treaty that Jordan signed with Israel in 1994. However, this support for Palestinians facing genocide does not come from the rich and powerful who rule the Jordanian state.

The authorities denounced the protests as the work of “foreign agents” and instructed the security forces to attack them and to make widespread arrests of protest leaders. A previous round of protests in October and November was broken by mass arrests and police violence.

The Jordanian government has maintained a multi-billion-dollar gas deal with Israel and even opened a land bridge to allow trade to bypass the Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea. No wonder that Joe Biden praised the Jordanian King for his “critical leadership” and pledged “unwavering” US support for Jordan.

In its most explicit military backing for Israel, Jordan this month allied with the US to help repel Iran’s drone and missile barrage. Other Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, participated in this military defence of Israel. But Jordan was the most brazen about it, mobilising its air force to shoot down Iranian drones.

To cover their tracks, Jordan’s rulers have called for a ceasefire and for more food aid for Gaza. King Abdullah engaged in a grandstanding photo opportunity, airdropping food into Gaza in an operation co-ordinated with the Israeli military, while Queen Rania has sought to use her Palestinian origins to deflect criticism.

None of this grandstanding has in the least upset US officials, who know that they can count on the government in Amman as a “reliable partner during regional crises”. It is precisely for this reason that Jordan was one of the first countries to obtain a free trade agreement with the US back in 2000.

Jordan is a leading recipient of US financial aid, currently worth US$1.45 billion a year. Its military expenditure is well above the world average, as a percentage of GDP, and is based on US supplied weaponry.

Indeed, the Jordanian monarchy has a long history of collaboration with Israel and the major imperialist powers, first Britain and then the US, and of repressing its own Palestinian population—most notoriously in the 1970 Black September massacre.

The Jordanian state had its origins in the carve up of the Ottoman Empire by the imperialist powers at the end of World War One. However, the British did not even send troops to occupy their new possession of Transjordan, as it was overwhelmingly desert and had a population of only 200,000. Its only strategic value was as a link between Britain’s more important colonies of Palestine and Iraq.

After initial hesitation, Britain handed Transjordan to Abdullah Hussein, a Hashemite prince from the area around Mecca in current day Saudi Arabia. His brother Faisal, who the British regarded as a more accomplished figure, was installed as king of Iraq after he had been dethroned by the French as king of Syria.

Abdullah badly needed British backing. He had arrived in Maan, southern Jordan, in November 1920 with a mere 300 followers and six machine guns. As an outsider, Abdullah had no developed base of support in an area beset by rival Bedouin tribes. And he faced the threat of invasion by the Saudis who, in October 1924, had defeated Abdullah’s Hashemite relatives and captured Mecca.

Britain’s air force secured Abdullah’s position. The British also built a local army initially drawn from Palestinians, Syrians and Circassians. Though, by the 1930s, it was dominated by local Bedouin recruits with British officers in command.

While Abdullah relied on British financial support and military backing, he was not content to be a mere lackey in control of a Jordanian backwater. He had his own expansionist ambitions with his eyes set on becoming king of Syria and Lebanon.

When that ambition was blocked by the French imperialists, he turned his attention to acquiring Palestine. By the early 1930s, Abdullah and the Zionist leaders in Palestine were allies and the Jewish Agency, a branch of the World Zionist Organization, was providing him with money. Abdullah also supported proposed Zionist settlements in Jordan and land sales to Zionists. This was blocked by a British veto.

Abdullah opposed the Palestinian popular revolt of 1936-39 against the British, the Zionist settlers and the wealthy Palestinian landlords, and took concerted measures to prevent it spreading to Jordan.

In May 1946, Jordan was proclaimed an independent kingdom. But without the oil wealth of other Arab states, Abdullah still relied on a British subsidy and British officers remained in command of his army. He continued to hold regular secret meetings with the Zionist leaders and backed the proposal for the partition of Palestine. He saw it as an opportunity to grab territory.

In the 1948 war with Israel, the small British officered Jordanian army was the most effective fighting force of the Arab armies. This had nothing to do with liberating the Palestinian people. It was all about seizing as much territory as possible on the West Bank for the Jordanian ruling class.

It was a very profitable operation as the West Bank was more economically advanced and agriculturally fertile than Jordan. The 458,000 refugees fleeing Zionist atrocities also provided a readily exploitable workforce. New refugee camps were tightly policed by Jordanians drawn from elite families. Wages fell by 50 percent on the West Bank.

To provide a charade of democracy, Abdullah allowed lower house elections in April 1950. But while the West Bank contained two-thirds of the population, it was allocated just half the seats. And the unelected upper house was stacked with wealthy Bedouin notables loyal to the king.

Sections of the regime fomented chauvinist hostility against Palestinian “outsiders” with calls for “Jordan for the Jordanians”. In July 1951, when Abdullah was assassinated by a Palestinian gunman, Amman was rocked by anti-Palestinian riots.

By the 1960s, the Palestinian population was recovering from the defeat of 1948 and a new national liberation movement was on the rise. Fatah, headed by Yasser Arafat, was the dominant force in the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). But more radical groups like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine also gained support.

Jordan, which was swelled by a further wave of Palestinian refugees after Israel seized the West Bank in 1967, became the main base for the Palestinian guerrilla forces. But the Arafat leadership of the PLO pledged to not intervene in the internal affairs of Arab states such as Jordan. Nonetheless, discontent among the refugees was surging and there were repeated clashes with the Jordanian Army. The refugee camps around Amman became no-go areas for the Jordanian police.

King Hussein, who ascended the throne in 1952, was vulnerable. But despite calls by radical Palestinian groups and Jordanian leftists for a revolt against the regime, Arafat refused to take decisive action. This gave Hussein time to regroup and to obtain US arms.

In September 1970, the Bedouin dominated army, whose salaries had been substantially raised, attacked the refugee camps near Amman where the guerrillas had their main bases. Intense fighting went on for days.

The Israeli air force intervened to back Jordan and counter any Arab support for the PLO. It took ten months for the Jordanian army to defeat the Palestinian forces. A final action occurred in July 1971 in the country’s north, where 5,000 remaining guerrillas made a concerted stand.

The Palestinians had suffered a serious defeat not at the hands of the Israelis but at the hands of an Arab state. This was to be a recurring pattern.

In 1976, the Syrian regime, with Jordan’s backing, invaded Lebanon to prevent the allied Lebanese leftists and Palestinian forces from winning the civil against right-wing Lebanese forces. The Arab rulers feared that the overthrow of the Lebanese regime would spark revolts throughout the region, threatening their own wealth and power.

By the late 1980s, King Hussein, who was a great admirer of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was facing growing discontent at home over his right-wing economic policies. In 1989, rioting against social spending cuts broke out among his traditional base of support in the non-Palestinian population in the south of the country.

Between 1988 and 1991, the standard of living fell by about one-third and unemployment climbed above 30 percent. In this context, the regime was terrified that the Intifada sweeping occupied Palestine might spread to Jordan.

In the hope of stabilising the situation, Jordan backed the 1993 Oslo Accord between Israel and the PLO and the 1994 Cairo Agreement that established the Palestinian Authority to police the occupied territories on behalf of the US and Israel. Jordan concluded its own peace agreement with Israel later that year.

To reward Jordan, the US provided US$950 million in debt relief and new military equipment to modernise the Jordanian armed forces. By 2003, Jordan was the fourth largest recipient of US aid after Israel, Egypt and Colombia.

The Jordanian business class hoped that the normalisation of relations with Israel would lead to increased Israeli investment and a surge of Israeli tourists. Meanwhile, the king was avidly courting right-wing Israeli politician Binyamin Netanyahu even before he won the country’s national election in May 1996.

But a growing gap opened between the pro-US and pro-Israel opinions of the Jordanian ruling class and the opinions of the mass of workers and the poor. To curb growing opposition to the government, there was a crackdown on democratic rights and press freedom.

The repression was stepped up further under the new King Abdullah II, who ascended the throne in 1999. More than 100 emergency laws were introduced. To divide the population between “Jordanians” and “Palestinian outsiders”, Abdullah promulgated a “Jordanian first” ideology with loyalty to Jordan coming before everything else.

The king maintained tight security cooperation with Israel, including joint military training exercises. Mass protests in Amman in support of the Second Intifada in September 2000 were “contained” by an authoritarian crackdown by the intelligence service, the army and the police.

Yet strikes and riots occurred regularly during the 2000s against austerity measures. Importantly, these actions did not just involve Palestinians, but also rocked the public service, which primarily employed non-Palestinians, and cities in the south such as Maan.

Substantial protests swept the country in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring and discontent has remained high in subsequent years. There were revived protests in 2018 after cuts to food subsidies and increases in sales taxes. In 2020, the regime broke up protests in support of higher teachers’ pay, arresting more than 1,000 teachers.

Jordan remained a close US ally backing the so-called war on terror, even sending Jordanian troops to support the US in Afghanistan.

The cynical pro-imperialist policies of the Jordanian regime are typical of the rulers of country after country in the Arab world. These regimes are all about advancing their own wealth and power and maximising the profits of their capitalist classes. King Abdullah alone has a net worth of more than a billion dollars and the royal family owns a global network of real estate.

The Arab ruling classes are going to have to be overthrown if there is to be any hope for both the Palestinian people and the broader masses of the Arab world. There is no shortage of combustible material. While the rulers of Jordan continue to flaunt their wealth alongside the super rich of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, unemployment stood at 22 per cent at the start of this year and 40 percent among young people.

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