Jordan’s Palestinian identity: Resurgence, discontent and hope amid struggle

The resurgence of Hamas, the population’s deep-seated anger and the risk of internal destabilization have heightened concerns that the Gaza war has further undermined Jordanian power.

Jordan’s Palestinian identity: Resurgence, discontent and hope amid struggle

Demonstrators hold up a leaflet bearing the words of Abu Obeida, spokesman for the armed wing of Hamas, in Amman's old city center. (Credit: Noura Doukhi)

Ahmad*, a Jordanian-Palestinian originally from Ramla — a mixed town in central Israel — sat on a plastic chair in front of his shop, which sells Palestinian thobes (traditional dresses) on the main street in Amman’s old city center.

The man in his 70s appeared reticent and did not actively invite passers-by into his shop. But at the slight mention of Hamas, he became animated.

“Hamas isn’t just defending our land, it’s given us back our honor!” Ahmad told L’Orient-Le Jour. He confidently added that the entire capital has been thinking the same since Oct.7.

Ahmad’s statements might be hyperbolic, but this sentiment reflects a broader reality.

Here, glorifying the “resistance” mingles with unanimous support for “our Gazan brothers.”

In the city, where the overwhelming majority of the population is of Palestinian origin, residents have been living to the rhythm of the Gaza war for seven months.

The capital’s Starbucks cafes and McDonald’s restaurants were completely deserted.

Young women wear necklaces bearing the map of Palestine. Pro-Oct. 7 inscriptions adorn the backs of cars crammed in the congested streets.

In Amman, the outbreak of war sent shockwaves and awakened a latent unrest.

“In the days that followed, there wasn’t a soul here. You either stayed home or went to demonstrate in the city center or in front of the Israeli embassy,” said Hussein*, 68, who runs a grocery shop in the Jabal Amman district near the historic city center.

Since then, life has returned to normal. Local shops and restaurants have started to welcome people again. But the surge of solidarity with Gaza has not waned. The praise for Hamas remained too; it was considered the herald of the Palestinian cause.

A phrase praising Oct. 7 and the fall of Israel is inscribed on the back of a cab. (Credit: Noura Doukhi)

Residents gathered under the blazing sun facing the King Hussein Mosque, a landmark in the old city center.

“Gaza the magnificent will win,” chanted a man in the street on this day, marking mobilization for the Palestinian enclave. Hundreds of men unfolded their carpets on the ground, forming rows that invaded the square. This is where they would pray, a gesture of protest made only when war is raging in the Palestinian territories.

Sitting on the edge of the pavement, Maha*, a woman in her 40s, wiped her tears with a handkerchief.

“I feel useless not being able to help the people trapped in Gaza,” she said.

She is originally from the coastal enclave but was born and lives in Jordan, with a residence permit renewable every two years — unlike most Palestinians in the kingdom, who arrived in 1948, and their descendants, who hold Jordanian nationality.

Before Oct. 7, Maha did not particularly support Hamas. “I had no opinion on the matter,” she explained. “Today, I’m all for them. Hamas is a resistance faction that makes me proud.”

Abu Obeida

Hundreds of people gathered in the square, as they do every Friday after midday prayers, under the watchful eyes of the police surrounding the perimeter.

Two young Palestinian women called out to passers-by on the pavement in front of the mosque. Having arrived from Haifa for a few days’ holiday in the Hashemite kingdom, they were trying to find out why the square was so crowded. Once they got their answer, they turned back.

“We can’t talk to any journalists,” they said. “The Israeli government is monitoring all the Palestinians from the inside. We don’t dare publish anything on our social networks. Even sharing verses from the Quran is synonymous with supporting Palestine,” said one of the young Palestinian women.

The protest began, with participants insisting it was the largest gathering of demonstrators in weeks.

“Abu Obeida’s speech brought us all out en masse,” explained Selina, a young student holding a Palestinian flag, proud not to have missed a single demonstration since the start of the war.

Three days earlier, on April 23, the mysterious spokesperson for Hamas’s armed wing gave a speech to mark the 200th day of the war, wearing a red kuffiyeh and surrounded by members of the Ezz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades.

He invited the “dear Jordanian masses” to “step up because Jordan is part of us and we are part of it.”

His words appeared on leaflets held up by the crowd, which chanted slogans paying tribute to him: “O Abu Obeida, look at us,” “We have listened to you, O masked man,” “All Jordanians stand with the resistance.”

Hundreds of men pray on the ground in front of the King Hussein Mosque. (Credit: Noura Doukhi)

In the pro-Gaza demonstration which resembled a plebiscite for Hamas, officers from the mukhabarat (intelligence) were easy to spot, sporting well-trimmed mustaches and black loafers.

Obsessed with regional balance and stability, the Hashemite kingdom has always been wary of Hamas, whose political bureau was expelled from the country in 1999, and from the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was dissolved in 2020.

In a country where almost half the population is of Palestinian origin, the authorities are striving to prevent Jordan from becoming a substitute state for them.

Standing on the truck leading the march, four representatives of political parties took turns with the microphone.

Since Oct. 7, five parties from the far left and right of the political spectrum have symbolically merged to organize these weekly rallies and mark their unity.

They include the country’s main opposition force, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political arm of the Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is associated with Hamas. Palestinian political parties are not tolerated here but have their Jordanian equivalents.

“Although the Brotherhood has been dismantled, the IAF remains, albeit significantly scaled down by the authorities over the years,” said Jalal al-Husseini, a research associate at the Institut français du Proche-Orient (IFPO) in Amman.

“It is the only real mass party in a country where political life is tightly controlled and democratic plurality is not yet part of the political mainstream.”

Iranian drones

A few weeks ago, the Jordanian authorities violently cracked down on a protest movement attempting to storm the Israeli embassy compound in the affluent Rabieh district, locking down the surrounding area.

Only about 10 people now travel more than a kilometer from the site each evening.

“The government is officially against the war in Gaza and in favor of an immediate ceasefire and negotiations. It allows its people to demonstrate, but only on the condition that they don’t attack the Israeli embassy, which is a red line,” said Husseini. “That would be tantamount to calling into question the Wadi Araba peace treaty signed between the two states in 1994, which serves the country’s economic interests.”

The balancing act of those in power in Jordan is precarious as they are unprepared to give up the gains they have made with Israel.

However, anger towards the kingdom was palpable in the streets. Here, many people criticize the executive branch, unable to criticize the king, who is untouchable.

Wearing the red and white kuffiyeh typical of Bedouins, Ahmad, from the prosperous town of Salt, northwest of Amman, spoke loudly: “Jordan made a mistake by shooting down the Iranian drones that were crossing our skies. They had to reach their destination.”

Jordan was the only Arab country to have obstructed the attack by hundreds of drones and missiles launched directly by Tehran against Israel on the evening of April 13. It has thus been accused of treachery by a portion of its population.

Ahmed, a Bedouin from Salt, makes the victory sign. (Credit: Noura Doukhi)

Amman defended itself by arguing that its sovereignty had been attacked, which fueled further division.

In a country that has made peace its main asset, it nevertheless resonates with a section of the population, even those who support Hamas.

In his Palestinian thobe shop, Mohammad, of Palestinian origin, “prays for the resistance,” but he believes the country acted correctly.

“We are not prepared for war and we can’t wage one,” he said. “We will not allow any country to enter our airspace,” he added, in a thinly veiled criticism of Iran.

A few meters away, Hana* wore a multicolored turban. She stood out in the crowd with piercing blue eyes and bleached blonde hair.

The young Christian woman (of a minority that accounts for less than 10 percent of the kingdom’s population) praised King Abdullah II. She expressed support for Jordan while criticizing both Iran and Hamas in Gaza.

“Israel commits horrific massacres that no human being, Muslim or Christian, can accept,” she said. “But Hamas has entrenched itself in its tunnels, exposing its people, and it is working with Iran, which is trying to drag our country into the war.”

'Martyrs for the cause'

Jordan is one of the most pro-Western Arab states and has long been considered a pillar of stability in the Middle East. The Iranian threat to them is thus almost existential.

Back in 2004, King Abdullah II was the first to warn of the creation of a “Shiite crescent” stretching from Iran to Lebanon.

At the time, these fears were nearly dismissed as paranoia. Today, there is widespread concern about the presence of Tehran-controlled militias in Iraq and neighboring Syria, and about the increase in clandestine arms deliveries from Iran to the West Bank.

Since the start of the war, members of the “Axis of Resistance” have been raising the prospect of destabilizing Jordan.

On April 1 last year, the Hezbollah Brigades, an influential pro-Tehran Iraqi Shiite militia, threatened to arm 12,000 Jordanians to attack Israel after it was accused of being behind the airstrike on the consular annex of the Iranian embassy in Damascus.

In the Hashemite kingdom, this mistrust has gradually morphed into animosity toward Iran and Shiite Muslims, who are virtually non-existent in the country.

Behind the counter of his dekkeneh (grocery shop) in Jabal Amman, Hussein* promised to speak candidly as long as he remained anonymous. “Iran and the Shiites are trying to kill all the Sunnis,” the 63-year-old insisted.

“They’ve done it in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere. And now they’re at our borders,” he added.

But anything goes to defend Hamas, despite its military support and financial backing from Tehran.

“Hamas had no choice but to accept Iran’s help. It will stop dealing with Tehran when it realizes it is being exploited for its own ends,” he said. “Sooner or later, Iran will come after us.”

In his technology equipment store, Khaled, a 28-year-old Jordanian-Palestinian, confides that he swears by Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis. (Credit: Noura Doukhi)

The fact remains that for some, the vast majority of whom are Jordanian-Palestinians, Iran is the only country that has come to the aid of Hamas.

“Whether you like Iran or not, you owe it to yourself to stand by its side,” said Khaled, 28, in his family’s tech shop in the Khalda shopping district west of the capital. He admitted to a complete transformation since the start of the war. Previously apolitical, the young man now spends his days and nights watching the speeches of his new idols.

“I haven’t missed a speech by Hassan Nasrallah,” said this young Palestinian originally from Jerusalem.

“The same goes for the Houthis. Before Oct.7, I had no opinion on Hezbollah or Iran. Today, everything is different. They have given martyrs for the cause,” he added, glancing at the screen of his laptop adorned with a sticker of Abu Obeida.

Over the last seven months, his disappointment and anger toward Jordan have only grown. He accused Jordan of remaining impassive in the face of events, even though “the country could be doing more under its role as protector of the holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem.”

“The administration of the al-Aqsa Mosque should be entrusted to Hezbollah or the Houthis. They seem strong enough for that,” he said.

Black September

With Hamas back on the central stage, there’s a sense of deep anger within the Jordanian population, and the Oct.7 attack appears to have further exacerbated the fragility of the Jordanian fabric.

This division is especially apparent in the Baqaa refugee camp. Located 20 kilometers north of Amman, it is a town in its own right.

As three little girls made their way to the UNRWA school, walking past dilapidated one-story stone houses, two boys, barely 10 years old, walked barefoot among the rubbish strewn on the ground.

In one of the shopping streets of this largest camp in the country, where there is a succession of grocery shops and stores selling mattresses and hygiene products, women shopped amidst vendors who bantered with passers-by.

A shopping alley in the Baqaa Palestinian refugee camp. (Credit: Noura Doukhi)

Established in 1968, Baqaa appears like a political desert. Palestinian flags were scarcely seen flying in the streets, and posters of leaders of the cause were absent. Like in the rest of the country, expressions of Palestinian identity were limited.

There is a strong fear that such expressions might strengthen Hamas and spill over into a challenge to the regime, especially as resentment against the government has deep roots in this camp. This sentiment is particularly pronounced among the older generations who arrived here after being displaced from their land.

“Baqaa was one of the main anti-regime centers during the events of Black September,” said Jalal al-Husseini.

During that tumultuous month in 1970, when armed Palestinian organizations sought to use Jordan as a base for operations against Israeli territory, King Hussein’s Hashemite kingdom conducted military operations against the fedayeen (self-sacrificers) of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), resulting in the massacre of thousands of Palestinians and the expulsion of the organization’s former leader, Yasser Arafat.

In Baqaa, few dare to revive the memory of this taboo, for fear of being overheard.

“Officially, the camp is controlled by the Department of Palestinian Affairs (DPA), which is part of the Foreign Affairs Ministry. In reality, the Interior Ministry controls everything that happens there,” said Al-Husseini.

In his painting studio, Khalil* (right) expresses himself freely, out of sight. (Credit: Noura Doukhi)

Khalil*, 57, said from his painting studio, “I was two months old when I arrived from my village of Anata [on the outskirts of East Jerusalem]. And I was just a baby in 1970. But as I grew up, I paid the price of those events.”

Years later, when looking for work, this stigma worked against him.

“Today, the younger generation is no longer affected by the events of Black September; it’s a thing of the past. Even if we’re all still second-class citizens,” he said.

He added, “But look at what’s happening in America! There’s never been so much talk about Palestine!”

He is not just hoping to return to his village. He’s certain of it.

“If not me, then my children. They have inherited the Palestinian cause,” he said.

*First names have been changed.

This article was originally published in L'Orient-Le Jour and translated by Sahar Ghoussoub.

Ahmad*, a Jordanian-Palestinian originally from Ramla — a mixed town in central Israel — sat on a plastic chair in front of his shop, which sells Palestinian thobes (traditional dresses) on the main street in Amman’s old city center.The man in his 70s appeared reticent and did not actively invite passers-by into his shop. But at the slight mention of Hamas, he became animated.“Hamas...