As tensions simmer in Jerusalem, a linchpin of Israel’s security relationship with the Arab world is put to the test.
- By Alice SuAlice Su is a journalist currently based between Beijing and Tehran. Her work focuses on refugees, religion, China, and the Middle East.
AMMAN, Jordan — Zakaria al-Jawawdeh wept, bowing his head, eyes and lips pressed shut as he stood in front of a banner emblazoned with a photo of his son and the words: “Martyr of the Embassy.” Behind him, rows of neighbors and male relatives prayed in a mourning tent. Zakaria had last spoken with his son yesterday afternoon, he said, when he sent 17-year-old Mohammad to repair some bedroom furniture in an apartment near the Israeli embassy in Amman.
A few hours later, the apartment building’s doorman called him. “There’s been a shooting,” he told him. Mohammad was dead.
The shooting and killing of two Jordanian citizens by an Israeli embassy guard on Sunday night caused a 24-hour diplomatic crisis between Jordan and Israel. According to Israeli reports, Mohammad al-Jawawdeh had attacked the Israeli guard with a screwdriver, and the guard shot back in self-defense. Jawawdeh was killed while a second Jordanian, the building’s landlord and a doctor named Bashar Hamarneh, was also shot and later died in a hospital. The Israeli sustained light screwdriver wounds, Israel’s Foreign Ministry reported.
The crisis enflamed an already tense atmosphere over the escalating violence in nearby Jerusalem — but the ensuing mediation could pave the way for its resolution. On July 14, Arab gunmen killed two Israeli policemen at compound known as the Haram al-Sharif to Muslims and the Temple Mount to Jews. The compound, the holiest site in the world for Jews and the third-holiest for Muslims, is officially managed by Jordan via the Waqf, an Islamic religious trust. But Israel responded to the shooting by shutting the mosque site down and installing metal detectors at its gates, infuriating Palestinians and Jordanians, who saw the act as a sign of Israeli aggression.
Early on Tuesday morning, after a frenzy of negotiations and visits back and forth between the Israeli and Jordanian authorities, Israel finally announced that the metal detectors would be removed, replaced by as yet undefined “security measures based on advanced technologies.”
This potential resolution, however, comes after two weeks of escalating tensions and violence. One week after the first shooting, three Palestinian civilians were killed in clashes between the protestors and Israeli forces in Jerusalem. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced a severing of ties with Israel, including security cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and Israeli troops, until the metal detectors were gone. That same night, a Palestinian youth entered an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, then stabbed three Israelis to death and severely wounded another as they sat down for Shabbat dinner. He wrote in a Facebook note before the act: “I am young, not yet 20. I had many dreams and aspirations, but what kind of life is this, with our women and youths murdered without justification?”
These tensions have spilled over to Jordan as well, where thousands of demonstrators marched in downtown Amman against Israel’s security measures on the Haram al-Sharif last Friday. Jordanian public opinion is overwhelmingly anti-Israel, though the government has had a peace treaty with Israel since 1994, along with several water and natural gas agreements and ongoing security coordination. “The best way to describe the relationship between Jordan and Israel is that they are bitter friends and good enemies,” said Jordanian political analyst Osama al-Sharif. Shared security interests have tied the states together at the government level, he said. “But at the public level, there is a lot of outrage and resentment.”
This mistrust, Sharif said, translates into a belief among Jordanians that Israel is attempting to change the status quo at the compound to allow Israelis to pray inside, which is currently forbidden. The Jerusalem crisis is particularly sensitive to Jordanians not only because of its religious significance, but also because more than 60 percent of Jordanians have Palestinian roots. Many Jordanians regularly experience humiliation and discrimination on attempted visits to relatives across the border. All this has contributed to widespread disbelief of the allegations that Mohammed al-Jawawdeh attacked the Israeli embassy guard before being gunned down.
The Jordanian government insisted on an investigation in the aftermath of the attack, which Israeli authorities rejected, claiming diplomatic immunity for the embassy guard. Jordanian officials promised that the killer wouldn’t leave Jordanian soil without being questioned, and demanded clarity on how and why their two citizens were killed. Parliamentarian and former Bar Association chairman Saleh al-Armouti criticized the delay of investigation, saying that it was a challenge to Jordanian sovereignty and calling for the expulsion of the “Zionist ambassador” from Amman, withdrawal of Jordanian diplomats from Tel Aviv, and cancellation of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty. On Twitter, MP Dima Tahboub, who is affiliated with Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, wrote: “May God untie the knotted tongues of the official media and quickly bring a statement about the event to the people, instead of leaving them prey to the news of the Zionist media!!”
At a supermarket next to the Israeli embassy, 19-year-old Abed al-Dabbas said he wouldn’t believe reports from the Israeli or Jordanian governments. He’d grown up in the neighborhood but never engaged with Israeli embassy staff, he said. “No one can talk to them. They always have bodyguards,” al-Dabbas said. “Jordan’s police protect them, not us.”
Mohammed al-Jawawdeh’s family denied any possibility that their son might have planned an attack. “He’s just a kid. He doesn’t think like that. He was just going to fix a bedroom, and now he’s a martyr,” Zakaria al-Jawawdeh said.
Their lawyer, Fayez Basbous, speculated that perhaps the Israeli had opened fire suspecting that the boy’s toolbox concealed some kind of weapon. “Maybe he thought they were coming to attack the embassy,” Basbous said. “Now it’s in the hands of the Jordanian government. He is a son of Jordan.”
The leaderships in Amman and Jerusalem, meanwhile, have attempted to defuse both crises at once. Jordan’s King Abdullah II called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the head of Israel’s Shin Bet security agency came to Amman to negotiate. The mediation ended in a compromise: Jordanian police came to the embassy and heard the guard’s account of what had happened as he described it to Israeli diplomats, according to Israeli reports, instead of being directly interrogated by Jordanians.
Soon after, the entire embassy staff was evacuated to Israel, arriving by 11 p.m. Just after midnight, Jordanian intelligence released their report stating that the 17-year-old had attacked the guard with a screwdriver — but as part of a dispute about furniture delivery, not because of political motivations. Around 1 a.m., Israel announced that it would remove the metal detectors from the entrance to the Haram al-Sharif.
The diplomatic crisis is over, so the Jordan-Israel relationship is preserved. What’s left in Amman is grief, an empty embassy, and the question of whether justice will come for those who were slain. The other man who was killed, Bashar Hamarneh, had been trained as an orthopedic surgeon in Germany and run a successful private clinic in Amman. His family couldn’t be reached, but his secretary wept over the phone, saying that they were in shock. “It’s great trauma,” she said. “He was never violent or political. He was very, very kind. He was just there because they were fixing the bedroom.”
Inside al-Jawawdeh’s home, his aunt showed me selfies Mohammad had taken, including one from the morning before his death, with poofy hair and a grey collared shirt. He was in his last year of high school before tawjihi, the college entrance exam, she said. Saja, his 13-year-old sister, showed me his bed, one out of three in a shared room, with a red model car, dumbbell, and stuffed Shrek toy on top of the headboard.
What was your brother like? I asked her. “He was…” she flinched and covered her face, crying.
The women comforted each other. “He just went to fix a bedroom. That’s all,” they kept repeating. The family has Palestinian roots — their grandparents were expelled from a small village near Hebron in 1948 — but that didn’t mean their son was a terrorist, the women said. “We don’t want violence. We’re living in our country,” said one of the aunts, 53-year-old Kamila al-Jawawdeh. “This is Jordan and we are Jordanians. We just want his rights.”
KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images