Thursday, July 13, 2006

Jordan and Hamas

Tension Returns Between Jordan and Hamas

Originally published in PINR 13 JULY 2006

Jordanian accusations that the Palestinian militant group Hamas has been planning terrorist attacks in the Hashemite kingdom have rekindled the ongoing tensions between the two. On April 18, 2006, literally hours before the first visit of the Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar, Amman disclosed that some members of Hamas were arrested in Jordan and that their terrorist plot was uncovered. Citing this, it called off the visit of Zahar who was on his maiden visit to the various Arab countries to drum up financial support for the near bankrupt Palestinian Authority.

Jordan disclosed that the large weapons cache that was discovered included Iranian-made Katyusha rockets and anti-tank missiles, explosives and machineguns, which Hamas activists allegedly stockpiled for use in attacks against Jordanian public institutions and officials. According to Jordanian officials, these weapons were smuggled into the country from across the border.

Amman blamed an unnamed Hamas leader based in Damascus, presumably Khalid Mashaal, as the mastermind behind this plot. The government, however, was careful not to blame the governments of Syria and Iran openly. This was soon followed by a televised confession by three men who admitted to being trained in Syria and sent to Jordan to carry out terrorist attacks.

Amman was quick to reject an offer by Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to send Zahar to personally sort out the problem. Instead, it demanded a security team from Hamas that was "capable of disclosing additional information and other hidden weapons...[that] threaten [Jordanian] national security."

In the immediate context, the row underscores internal divisions within the Palestinian leadership. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appears to be siding with the Jordanian version of events. He described the development as "dangerous and surprising" and, during a visit to Jordan in early May, he conceded that the incident "has serious repercussions for the security and stability of the kingdom." A few days later, in an interview to al-Jazeera, he remarked: "The information I got from Jordan was not just staggering, but also dangerous."

The reaction of Hamas was rather different. Already facing mounting international pressure over its refusal to recognize Israel and the Oslo Accords, the Hamas-led Palestinian government could not afford to open another front. Dismissively, it labeled the Jordanian accusation as "falsehood and mendacity." In a statement issued in Gaza, it said that these "arguments are excuses for Jordan's last minute withdrawal from receiving Zahar following the attack in Tel Aviv and the Israeli-American threats on the Palestinian government."

Hamas maintains that it had never targeted any other country, Arab or non-Arab, especially Jordan, but had always limited its battle to "the Zionist enemy." It called the whole affair a Jordanian plot to "isolate the elected Palestinian government and force it to change its positions in accordance with the Zionist and American conditions."

Partly to defuse the tension, in May Abbas sent a security team to Amman headed by intelligence chief Major General Tareq Abu Rajab, a Fatah loyalist, to examine the issue. Indeed, a few days after he returned to Gaza, an attempt was made on his life. He was seriously injured when a bomb placed at the entrance of the elevator in his office exploded. Even though it is difficult to establish a link between the two, Abu Rabaj has been known as a staunch adversary of Hamas.

Growing Tension
While some Arab commentators have raised doubts about the timing of the accusation and the veracity of the public confessions, the whole episode underscores the deep divisions between Jordan and Hamas. In recent years, especially after the ascendance of King Abdullah in 1999, Jordan began viewing Hamas as a threat to the Hashemite kingdom.

This was in contrast to the position of his father, King Hussein, who perceived the militant group as a potential ally in checkmating Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Never truly giving up on the idea of regaining control of the West Bank that he had lost during the June 1967 war, Hussein always sought to secure the loyalty of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Hussein's efforts to seek and secure a special role for Jordan in Jerusalem under the Israel-Jordan peace treaty signed in 1994 were a reflection of his prolonged longing for the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

His desire to use Hamas against the Arafat-led Palestinian Authority received a boost in September 1997 when Israeli agents sought to assassinate Mashaal, who was then the Hamas spokesperson in Jordan. Not only did he survive the attack, but the Israeli agents were captured. Capitalizing on the situation -- since the operation was ordered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- King Hussein demanded the release of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, was serving a life term in Israel after being charged with terrorism.

To secure the release of its agents, in October 1997 Israel freed Yassin who soon returned to Gaza and emerged as an alternative power center to Arafat, Fatah and the Palestinian National Authority. Until his assassination in March 2004 by Israel, Yassin remained a major threat to Arafat and his ability to dominate the Palestinian resistance.

Jordan-Hamas Divorce
King Abdullah, however, viewed the situation differently. Unlike his father, he has no emotional bondage to the West Bank and was more interested in consolidating the cohesion of Jordan, or the erstwhile Transjordan. He perceived the Palestinian Authority and Arafat as an ally and not a rival. He was, therefore, less prepared to tolerate Hamas' activities inside Jordan, especially when the organization had been carrying out suicide attacks inside Israel with the purpose of sabotaging the peace process.

On August 31, 1999, in a swift and surprise move, a number of Hamas offices in Jordan were closed down and a number of functionaries arrested. They were initially charged with misdemeanors, such as affiliation with an illegal organization and possession of light arms. Later they were charged with a host of much more serious charges, some punishable by death, including maintaining a military training camp, illegal fundraising, weapons storage, armed activities against Israel and the use of forged official stamps.

In an unprecedented development, Jordan also issued arrest warrants against four Hamas leaders, including Mashaal, who were in Iran at the time. When they returned a few days later, they were arrested. In an eventual compromise worked out by Qatar, in November 1999 the Hamas leaders, who were citizens of Jordan, were voluntarily deported to Doha.

Meanwhile, Hamas was declared to be an "illegal and non-Jordanian" organization whose presence would not be tolerated; additionally, Jordanian citizens were banned from becoming members of Hamas.

In the summer of 2001, after some prolonged drama at the Amman airport, former Hamas spokesperson Ibrahim Ghawshah was allowed to return to Jordan when he renounced his membership in Hamas. The fate of others, however, was different. In recent years, Egypt was prepared to host and negotiate with Mashaal as part of its strategy to secure a temporary halt in suicide attacks against Israel. Jordan, however, has been unrelenting.

The present accusations by Jordan against Hamas are merely a repeat of this historical narrative. The majority of Jordanians are of Palestinian origin and this demographic reality is weighing heavily on the Hashemite kingdom, which is determined to make a clean break with the West Bank and the Palestinians. The victory of Hamas and its unrelenting views vis-à-vis the peace process could ignite the existing tension inside the kingdom and further radicalize the Muslim Brotherhood, which enjoys the support of the Palestinians in the refugee camps.

Hamas was an ally when Jordan sought to compete with Arafat. The times, however, have changed. Seeking domestic stability and long-term survival, King Abdullah sees Hamas as an adversary especially if its hard-line polices were to radicalize the region further and start another cycle of violence. Any sympathy for Hamas in Jordan, especially among the Palestinian segment of the population, is a sure recipe for trouble. This, perhaps, explains the ongoing tension between Jordan and Hamas over the uncovered arms cache. The Hashemite Jordanian apprehensions over Hamas and its negative influences within Jordan are real and cannot be dismissed easily.

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