‘I panic when my phone rings’: the plight of Palestinians in Jordan

Jason Burke

The Guardian  /  July 8, 2024

In kingdom where half of people have Palestinian roots, rulers try to balance US ties with calls for action on Gaza war.

Amman – Ahmed Saeed Abu Fares leans back in his cheap plastic chair and smiles. He has just got a call through to his older sister in Gaza. Though he is only 90 miles away in Jordan, this is an achievement. The conversation is brief, but long enough for Abu Fares to hear that she is safe. So too are her children. For the first time in weeks, the 63-year-old scrap dealer relaxes.

“We just couldn’t get through to check on them. When their house was bombed and two of my nieces were killed, it was two weeks before I found out. So I’ve been panicking when my phone rings. Every time, it is terror or fear,” Abu Fares says. “I feel much better now. She says they are all tired but OK.”

In Wehdat, a largely Palestinian neighbourhood in the Jordanian capital, Amman, where Abu Fares has lived since arriving in 1967, many share a similar daily ordeal.

With the death toll in Gaza now at more than 38,000 and with 87,000 people injured, according to Palestinian health officials, many in Wehdat can tell of relatives killed or hurt.

Abu Fares’s sister-in-law was forced to flee her home in the north of Gaza as Israeli troops advanced into the territory, after the surprise attack in October into southern Israel by Hamas militants who killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducted 250. She has been displaced repeatedly since and is now near the southern town of Khan Younis, where Israeli forces ordered a new evacuation last week.

“We all feel the same. Almost everyone in the camp has someone who is martyred in Gaza and there is nothing they can do,” Abu Fares says. “In Gaza they are hungry. We know this but what can we do? We can only call them, and out of 50 times we call they answer once.”

Wehdat was once a refugee camp, providing rudimentary shelter to Palestinians forced to flee to Jordan during the wars around the creation of Israel in 1948. More arrived after the 1967 war, when Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank.

More than 2 million Palestinians are registered as refugees in Jordan, and about half of the kingdom’s population of more than 11 million are thought to have Palestinian roots, including Queen Rania. Many have Jordanian citizenship but significant numbers of those who have arrived in recent decades do not. Almost all retain strong family or other ties to Palestinians outside Jordan, whether in Israel, the occupied territories or further away.

In the streets of Wehdat, many praise the “armed resistance” in Gaza and criticize Arab leaders for “doing nothing”.

Mohamad Qaryuti, 30, a neighbour of Abu Fares, says: “We are watching 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the news from Gaza. We all feel the same [emotions] but as ordinary people there is nothing that we can do. It is up to God, and the people in power.”

Jordanian officials contest the charge of inaction, saying that the kingdom has launched multiple efforts in Gaza itself – building field hospitals, setting up corridors for humanitarian assistance and airdropping pallets of food – while lobbying western powers to act to end the war.

King Abdullah and Queen Rania, who have a huge audience on social media, have delivered powerful speeches and accused Israel of war crimes. Jordan has also staunchly defended UNRWA, the UN agency charged with the welfare of Palestinian refugees, against Israeli charges of complicity with Hamas.

But the conflict has sharpened tensions within the kingdom that its rulers have long sought to downplay.

“Socially we have a problem: the identity question, which is very closely connected to the Palestinian question. Half the population are Palestinian. Most think they are Jordanian too, but are still very closely connected to Palestine,” said Mohammad Abu Rumman, an academic adviser at the Politics and Society Institute in Amman.

Jordan has historically been considered the Palestinians’ greatest advocate in the region, a reputation that may now be under threat. One viral picture in April showed posters carried during a demonstration addressed to the Jordanian army, calling on it to heed the calls of children and women in Gaza, or take vengeance on their enemies and free the land, adding the hashtag: “Where’s the army of al-Karamah?”

The word means “dignity” but primarily references the name of a 1968 battle in which the Jordanian army fought against Israeli troops seeking to destroy the bases of factions of the Palestinian Liberation Organization on Jordanian soil. The Israeli forces eventually withdrew after taking heavy casualties under Jordanian artillery fire.

Many Palestinian Jordanians say they have seen their dual identity in a new way since the beginning of the Gaza war. “I am originally Palestinian and I feel that I have to do something. The conflict has made me feel much more aware of my Palestinian identity,” said one activist in Amman who did not want to be named after being arrested at protests near the Israeli embassy earlier this year.

Many Palestinian Jordanians recognize and regret the challenges facing their rulers as they try to balance the small kingdom’s close US relations with popular calls for firmer action.

“I feel that Jordan is very important in the conflict. We have a big border with Israel and economic ties too, but that means we should do more, not less,” the activist said.

In Wehdat, the frustration is evident. Walls are covered with graffiti implicitly supporting Hamas, which was shut down in Jordan in 1999. Posters, more discreetly displayed, call for victory in Gaza.

“The only people in the Arab or Islamic world who make us proud are in Gaza,” said Jameel Safardi, a 49-year-old carpenter. “Historically, it has always been this way for Palestinians. No one seems able to do a thing for us. And the longer it goes on, the more angry people are. The only thing of importance for our honour is to fight [Israel], and that is what the resistance are doing in Gaza.”

Such sentiments are widespread, and unlikely to fade while the conflict in Gaza continues. Analysts say the anger and concern generated among most Jordanians will have consequences in the kingdom for years to come.

Ahmed Abu Zarifa, an 85-year-old resident of Wehdat, is not concerned with geopolitics. His 54-year-old daughter was displaced with her family early in the conflict when their home was destroyed. Zarifa thinks she is in Rafah but has not had news since Israeli troops moved into the city in May, which led to intense fighting.

“Every time I think about my daughter,” he said, “my heart aches.”

Jason Burke is the International security correspondent of The Guardian