The largest protests have taken place in northern cities with sizable Palestinian refugee populations, such as Amman and Irbid. In the capital, protesters have gathered almost weekly in the city center and near various foreign embassies, particularly those of Israel and the United States.
As numerous Israeli officials openly discuss plans to depopulate Gaza, and the Arabic news and social media broadcasts images of daily devastation, Jordan’s government and citizens alike fear that Israel and the United States will pressure the country to accept another large wave of Palestinian refugees. Jordanians are watching closely to see whether King Abdallah II, already deeply unpopular, will be able to resist pressure from Israel and the United States, which provides the kingdom with some $1.5 billion in annual aid. They are also raising larger grievances against the monarchy’s normalization with Israel.
In the context of the exceptional violence unfolding in Palestine, many observers are tempted to read the current protests as exceptional and potentially threatening to the regime. But as I document in my recent book, Protesting Jordan: Geographies of Power and Dissent, very little of what has been happening deviates from patterns established over the past quarter century.
The issue of Palestine has, for decades, driven Jordanians to push the limits of permissible protest. At the outbreak of the First Intifada in 1987 thousands defied martial law to demonstrate in the streets. When Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, political parties, activists and members of the professional associations joined with a few prominent former government officials—notably Ahmad Obeidat, a former head of the General Intelligence Directorate, or mukhabarat—to form an anti-normalization committee opposed to the normalization of political and economic relations with Israel. That committee has coordinated hundreds of protests since the mid-1990s, scoring an early major success when thousands turned out to protest the first Jordanian-Israeli trade fair outside of Amman in 1997 and effectively shut down the event’s opening day.
In the years since the Second Intifada, with every subsequent major Israeli incursion into the West Bank or Gaza, tens of thousands turn out nationwide. Before the current war on Gaza, the most recent example was the Sheikh Jarrah protests in 2021. The massive crowds and roadblocks bring traffic to a standstill. After weeks or months, the large crowds inevitably subside. But the Kalouti protests typically continue for many months more, often with only a few dozen committed anti-normalization activists.
Aside from the large protests around Israeli military campaigns, Jordanian activists have also taken other actions to target Israel and the Jordanian regime’s relations with it. A campaign against Jordan’s gas deal with Israel in 2014, for example, sparked a focused movement drawn from anti-normalization activists under the slogan “The Gas of the Enemy Is Occupation.” Despite the campaign gaining support from parliamentarians, however, the government went ahead with the gas deal, which went into effect on January 1, 2020.
The current Gaza protests are a continuation of this longer activist tradition. More than a rupture, they speak to an evolving dynamic between the regime and popular protest on the question of Palestine. Like the Sheikh Jarrah protests, they are happening in the context of a severe crack down on protesters and activists since the anti-tax and anti-austerity protests in 2018. In late 2019, for example, just a few months after a series of large-scale national protests in support of teachers’ demands for higher wages, the regime raided the offices of the teachers’ union seizing its assets and arresting its governing board.
The vast majority of protests since October 7 have reproduced familiar protest routines. One activist wrote me to express his frustrations that at the Kalouti protests near the Israeli embassy, people were unwilling to break from the established routines. At one protest, he even chatted with a police officer about how predictable they were, despite the swelling numbers.
When recent protests have pushed the limits, they have met with swift resistance from the police. In mid-October, some protesters tried to reach the border between Jordan and Israel in the Jordan River Valley, but police stopped them before they could get close. Notably, during the 2021 Sheikh Jarrah protests, some had managed to breach a border fence but did not come close to reaching the Jordan River, which forms the actual border. On October 17, following the strike on Al Ahli hospital that was at first attributed to Israel, hundreds gathered at a new location near the Chinese embassy and tried to march on the Israeli embassy. Whereas the protesters who followed the established route near the Kalouti Mosque did not encounter police violence, those at the new location were confronted by several hundred police officers using tear gas and heavy barricades to turn back the marchers.
Since November, the size and frequency of protests have fluctuated, and tensions among some of the familiar groups at anti-Israeli protests have increased. In one protest in downtown Amman in November, for example, some leftist activists clashed with Muslim Brotherhood protesters over whether the flags of political parties should be carried alongside Palestinian and Jordanian flags.
The war on Gaza has also reenergized communities with longer histories of political activism that had become subdued in recent years. One particularly notable protest was organized by residents of the Hayy Tufaylah neighborhood in Amman, where many have roots in the southern mountain town of Tafileh. As in other towns, such as Karak and Ma`an, Tafileh residents are proud of their long history of resistance to Ottoman, British and Jordanian authorities and their lack of fear in criticizing the regime. But after an anti-austerity protest in Hayy Tufaylah in 2018, when police beat protesters with batons, the neighborhood had been relatively quiet until hundreds of residents marched in support of Gaza in November.
The recent wave of protests, while widespread and sustained, does not directly threaten the Hashemite regime or challenge the king’s rule. In many ways, the king’s position is aligned with the protesters. But the escalated crackdown on activists in recent years, combined with the long-term house arrest of the popular Prince Hamzeh for his outspoken criticism of the regime, suggests that the king is increasingly worried about political opposition to his rule. Another massive transfer of Palestinians out of their historic homeland—even if not into Jordan—would likely escalate dissatisfaction with the regime’s rule, even if the king cannot stop a Gaza Nakba.
[Jillian Schwedler is professor of politics at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.]