by Neville Teller

Like his fellow national leaders, King Abdullah of Jordan is well aware of the danger that Iran – a non-Arab entity – poses to his nation and the Arab world generally.  Its aim to dominate the region, both politically and religiously, and its actions in support of these objectives, unites much of the Arab world, and gives it common cause with Israel.

 Ever since Hamas’s murderous assault into Israel on October 7, Jordan has been attempting to manage and curb widespread opposition to Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.  Perhaps that is not surprising given that around 60% of Jordan’s population, including the popular Queen Rania, is of Palestinian origin.  As in most other Arab countries, pro-Palestinian support has gone further.  A recent University of Jordan poll found that 66% of Jordanians actually defend the slaughter and hostage-taking perpetrated by Hamas. 

Simmering unrest at popular level makes the Jordanian authorities uneasy, while the popularity of Hamas – a proxy of the Iranian regime – is perceived as a threat to the stability of the kingdom.  About a thousand people were arrested in Amman during pro-Palestinian demonstrations in October and November 2023, nominally for criminal behavior.  Activists claimed the arrests were an attempt to stifle popular demands for the state to adopt an unequivocal anti-Israel position on the Gaza conflict.

King Abdullah has defied the more extreme popular demands, ignoring calls for Jordan to cut all ties with Israel and cancel the 1994 peace treaty.  On the contrary, on the night of April 13-14 he acted decisively in the common interests of Jordan and Israel.  The administration had earlier closed its airspace as a precaution against an Iranian strike across its border.  That is exactly what happened when the massive Iranian drone and missile attack attempted to reach Israel by flying over Jordan.. 

Abdullah proved as good as his word.  Authoritative sources confirm that Jordan’s air force intercepted and shot down dozens of Iranian drones that violated its airspace.  In neighborhoods south of the capital Amman, some 60 km (37 miles) from Jerusalem, several downed drones have been seen.

Jordan has been struggling for six months to restrain protests in support of Hamas.  One massive pro-Hamas demonstration was sparked at the end of March.

On Sunday morning, March 24, the principal news presenter on Qatari-owned al-Jazeera, Elsy Abi Assi, interviewed on live TV a Gazan woman named Jamila Al-Hessi.

She said she had been trapped in Shifa hospital for six days as the IDF carried out an intensive search of the building and its occupants.  Al-Hissi claimed that when inside the hospital Israeli soldiers had “raped women, kidnapped women, executed women, and pulled dead bodies from under the rubble to unleash their dogs on them.”

“Is there anything worse than this?” said al-Hissi. “Is there anything more horrifying than hearing women call for help, and when we try to reach them to provide assistance, they shoot at us?”

Her allegations spread like wildfire on social media.

The IDF’s Arabic spokesperson, Lt. Col. Avichai Adraee, immediately took to social media to deny al-Hissi’s story.  In a video posted on X, formerly Twitter, he said that there was “no evidence for these allegations.”  An unknown woman had called in with a series of claims. “No one knows who she is,” said Adraee. “She just claimed and claimed and lied.”

His denial was ignored and, said Aaron Magid, a journalist specializing in Jordanian affairs, “thousands of Jordanians hit the streets to protest.”

A few hours later Yasser Abuhilalah, a former director-general of al-Jazeerah, posted on X a full disclaimer. A Hamas investigation into these allegations, he announced, had concluded that they were not true, al-Hissi had retracted her story, and he apologized for promulgating the false report.  He dissociated al-Jazeera from al-Hissi and the unsustainable motives she had given for making her false claims. 

According to some analysts, Hamas issued a rare public denial of these claims because their dissemination in northern Gaza was having the opposite effect than intended.  Instead of stoking enmity against Israel, they had caused Palestinians to flee the area in fear for their safety.  Hamas wants as many civilians exposed to possible IDF action as possible.

The next day al-Jazeera pulled all references to al-Hessi’s claims from its online platforms, but the damage had been done. The false report had been viewed over 2 million times within the first 24 hours.

The slogan “All of Jordan is Hamas” has been a popular chant at the protests.  In official circles it is regarded as both untrue and destabilizing.  The ruling establishment is perfectly well aware that since the early days of the war Hamas leaders have sought to stir up tensions in Jordan.  In a speech in November, Hamas military spokesman Abu Obeida called on Jordanians to escalate all forms of protest.

 “You, our people in Jordan,” he declared controversially, “are the nightmare of the occupation (ie Israel).   It fears your mobilization, and strives tirelessly to neutralize and isolate you from your cause.”

Placards with Abu Obeida’s picture have been a common sight at the latest protests.

All the same, in an attempt to placate popular anti-Israel opinion, he and Queen Rania have stepped up their anti-Israel rhetoric.  Rania has been constantly urging Western leaders to call for a ceasefire in Gaza, and must be delighted that finally she appears to have turned opinion in her direction.   Abdullah took the lead in opposing those Western nations who decided to suspend funding UNRWA (the UN Relief and Works Agency), when it was discovered that a number of its officials had actually participated in Hamas’s bloodthirsty attack on Israel on October 7. 

         In short, the current situation in Jordan could be described as the royal family and the administration struggling to keep the lid on a bubbling cauldron of anti-government sentiment that is fanatically determined to identify with Hamas and to sever all formal ties with Israel.  At the same time Abdullah, well aware that popular opinion and the nation’s self-interest rarely coincide, pragmatically refuses to allow Iran free passage over his airspace in order to attack Israel.  The Israel-Jordan peace treaty, often subject to pressure, stress and difficulty, stands firm.

By Neville Teller

Neville Teller’s latest book is “"Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."