The shooting death of Jordanian magistrate’s court judge Raed Zeiter at the Allenby Bridge on Monday at the hands of IDF troops has cast a pall on relations with Jordan.
According to initial findings of a joint probe by the IDF, Israel Police and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), Zeiter, yelling ‘Allahu akhbar,’ lunged at a soldier at the border terminal, and tried to strangle him and wrest away his rifle. After having been shot in the leg, he wielded a metal pole at the soldiers, and this provoked the fatal gunfire.
According to eyewitnesses who were waiting at the crossing with Zeiter, an argument had started at the passport control leading to a pushing match between Zeiter and a soldier, followed by gunshots. For inexplicable reasons, there are no surveillance camera images of the incident at this sensitive security spot that could shed light on how the events really played out.
The Prime Minister’s Office expressed regret for the loss of life, which is prudent in the context of efforts to safeguard the fragile peace with Amman. It shared details of the preliminary probe and agreed to Jordan’s request to establish a joint investigatory team.
As one Israeli official said after the shooting, the peace with Jordan is a strategic interest and one of the foundations of Israel’s national security strategy. “We have a special relationship with the Jordanians, and we want to make sure that relationship is protected,” he said.
It is discouraging, therefore, that following Zeiter’s death, hundreds of lawyers took to the streets in Amman and staged a protest calling for the extradition of “the guilty Israeli murderers.” Members of the Jordanian Bar Association congregated at Amman’s Palace of Justice and burned an Israeli flag to shouts demanding the expulsion of Israeli diplomats and the immediate release of Jordanian Army Cpl. Ahmed Daqamseh, who, 17 years ago today, shot to death seven 13- and 14-year-old Israeli girls who were on a school outing at Naharayim.
When that ghastly massacre took place, Israelis did not gather in protest against Jordan, calling for the young peace treaty between the countries to be ripped up. They instead mourned their loss, and in an act of unusual empathy, the King Hussein flew to Beit Shemesh and paid condolence calls to their families.
Unfortunately, the circumstances 17 years later are different. Hussein’s son, King Abdullah, has yet to react to the Zeiter shooting. He is clearly between a rock and hard place, trying to keep extremist elements calling for jihad against Israel at bay, while not appearing to ignore public opinion. A columnist for The Arab Daily News website criticized Abdullah’s silence and theorized that the Jordanian government is hoping Israel’s version of the incident is proven to be true so that the king can sell it to his people and quell the angry protests.
Despite the public display of animosity toward Israel, behind the scenes there is still close security and diplomatic cooperation between the Amman and Jerusalem, as exemplified by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s three trips to meet Abdullah over the past year – the most recent in January.
According to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office after that meeting, Netanyahu stressed “the important role played by Jordan, under King Abdullah’s leadership, in the efforts to bring about an agreement [with the Palestinians],” and emphasized that Israel “places a premium on security arrangements, including Jordan’s interests, in any future agreement.”
It is imperative for the Israeli-Jordanian investigatory team to work quickly and efficiently so the facts come to light over the death of Raed Zeiter. If he indeed attacked the soldier and the IDF reacted properly, that needs to be acknowledged. And if there was inappropriate behavior on the part of the soldiers, leading to an altercation, that too must be acknowledged, and, regret again expressed over the incident.
Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, the goal for both countries should be to put the incident behind them. With the US framework agreement between Israel and the Palestinians ostensibly getting closer to being sealed, the unique relationship between Israel and Jordan is going to be more important than ever.