Jordan under pressure as Israel presses on in Gaza

Islamist-led opposition vents anger at IDF attacks; Israeli, US flags burnt.

jordan gaza protests 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
jordan gaza protests 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Jordan has been strident in its condemnation of Israel's attack on Gaza on the popular and official levels. In a country where more than 60 percent of the population is of Palestinian origin, and home to the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, it was inevitable to hear voices opposing the 1994 Wadi Araba peace treaty with Israel get louder by the day, as more civilians died in Gaza. The Islamist-led opposition, green-lighted by the authorities to protest, have been venting their anger at the continued attacks since they started on December 27. A flurry of protests swept the kingdom from its southern city of Aqaba upwards to the tribal-dominated city of Karak, to Maan, Amman and the crowded refugee camps. Under the leadership of the Islamist movement, all crowds repeat the same motto: "No to the Israeli Embassy on Jordanian soil." Until recently, the Islamist movement was shunned by the authorities; ever since Washington declared an open war against all Islamist movements and labelled them as terrorist groups, including Hamas. The Islamist group in Jordan witnessed three years of relentless hostility from the authorities, including its orchestrated failure in the parliament and in municipal elections more than two years ago. But the six decade-old movement, and its political arm, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), have seen a revival of power in the past few months since the humanitarian situation in Gaza deteriorated. Authorities in Amman opened lines of dialogue with the movement to strengthen the internal front following the worsening of economic conditions and growing frustration among the general public and even the political elite over lack of progress in the peace process, according to analyst Mohammad Abu Ruman - a Jordanian expert on the Islamic movement. Ever since attacks on Gaza started, Amman, concerned by popular frustration over its inability to influence the war, turned to the Islamist movement to lead public protests against the war, again to absorb public anger, on the condition that protests remained benign. The group, according to analysts, has honored its agreement with the authorities, aware of the window of opportunity it received to sell its political product through this situation. On January 3, the IAF flexed its muscles during a massive rally in an Amman stadium that brought together nearly 60,000 supporters. In unison, the crowd repeatedly shouted, "No to the Israeli Embassy in Amman." "The message is loud and clear; this is a public referendum that we do not want peace with Israel," says Zaki Bani Rsheid, secretary general of the IAF, on the sidelines of the rally. The Islamist movement continues to utilize all its political and financial capabilities to exert more pressure on the Jordanian authorities to react to popular calls for the severing of diplomatic relations with Israel. Burning the Israeli flag has become a familiar scene in the streets of the kingdom, along with the American flag and images of outgoing US President George W. Bush, whom protesters believe gave Israel the go-ahead to unleash its sophisticated arsenal in Gaza. But some politicians believe the protest went a little too far when an MP pulled the white and blue flag of Israel from inside his shoes and burnt it inside the parliament, under the watchful eyes of Prime Minister Nadir A-Dhahabi and his cabinet. Deputy Khalil Atiyah, known for his media gimmick of stamping on Israeli flags in his election campaigns, was assisted by a number of leftists and even pro-government MPs in setting the flag ablaze. The rest of the house cheered with joy as deputies delivered a letter calling for the cutting of ties with the Jewish state. Atiyah blasted Israel and its allies in Washington for the attack, describing Israel's action as a war crime. "I kept the flag of the so-called Zionist entity, the flag of pigs and monkeys' grandchildren in my cheap shoes, which is similar to the shoe that Muntazar Zaidi threw in the face of Bush. The shoe protested at the insult as I put the flag inside it," said Atiyah. Political salons in Amman believe Atiyah's action greatly upset Israel, leading to the dismissal of chief of the General Intelligence Department, Mohammad Dahabi, who is believed to have approved the move. As pressure mounted on authorities to end its ties with Israel, amid resistance from the latter to agree to a cease-fire, the Jordanian government felt it was compelled to react. Jordan's prime minister told lawmakers that the government was going to reconsider its ties with Israel, during a heated parliament session on January 4. "The government is considering all the available options and procedures to evaluate the kingdom's ties with any country, particularly Israel, if they are necessary to serve the country's higher interests," the premier told lawmakers. Since then Amman has recalled its ambassador to Tel Aviv but is not likely to ask the Israeli ambassador to leave. The pro-West government appeared to have threatened to end peace ties with Israel, but this threat is unlikely to materialize, say analysts. The kingdom, awarded an annual $500 million in military and economic assistance from Washington ever since it signed the peace treaty with Israel in 1994, considers its deal with Israel an irrevocable action, also for higher national interests. As far as Jordanian officials are concerned, the peace treaty means the kingdom is safe from what could be potential Israeli interest in Jordanian lands and protects the future generations. Moreover, officials in Amman insist their diplomatic relations with Israel are vital for Gazans at this delicate time as they have been able to send badly-needed humanitarian aid to the coastal enclave through the government-run charity organizations. All aid pouring in from around the Arab and Muslim worlds, and even from the West, passes through the kingdom before crossing King Hussein Bridge on Jordanian trucks to Israel. "The invaluable access of goods is a testimony to the importance of these relations," said a senior official, who preferred not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue. But officials from the Islamist movement believe the price Israel would pay for ending diplomatic ties with Jordan is far greater than the benefits that Gazans receive.