The Pivotal Role of Jordan in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

When all strands of Palestinian political society came together in a deadly incitement based on religion radiating out from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, it left many dead on both sides of the religious divide – including the Jewish Israelis who were the prime target of Islam-motivated Palestinians.

Although the Islamic Movement and Hamas were two of the leading Palestinian instigators of the violence, it was the statements of a presumed secular Mahmoud Abbas that inflamed the Palestinian street. He, like Yasser Arafat before him, presumed to speak for the Muslim world when he exhorted his people in a televised address to his people on September 16,

“We welcome every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem. This is pure blood, clean blood, blood on its way to Allah. With the help of Allah, every martyr will be in heaven, and every wounded will get his reward.”

He was referring to his incitement to prevent Jews from visiting the Temple Mount plateau, which is the holiest place in Judaism.  About them he said,

“The Al-Aqsa Mosque is ours. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is ours as well. They have no right to desecrate the mosque with their dirty feet; we won’t allow them to do that.”

This statement was not only inflammatory, it was disdainful not only to Jews and Christians but also to King Abdullah, the Hashemite leader of the Kingdom of Jordan. It was also terribly presumptuous, as Palestinian Arabs have no religious right to govern any holy site in Jerusalem and the Temple Mount in particular.

The accepted status quo rests on Israel’s agreement in 1967 to allow the Jordanian appointed Waqf to govern the Islamic holy site on the Temple Mount, known in the Muslim world as “Haram al-Sharif.” 

The explosion of the Arab war of 1948 against the nascent state of Israel left part of Jerusalem and all of Judea and Samaria, colloquially called “the West Bank,” under Jordanian occupation. 

Jordan formally annexed the land they conquered in a war of aggression on April 24, 1950. This was widely considered illegal, including by the Arab League. On July 27, 1953, King Hussein declared the parts of Jerusalem under Jordanian control to be “the alternative capital of the Hashemite Kingdom” and would form “an integral and inseparable part” of Jordan. There was no consideration during the Jordanian occupation of any of this territory to be a state of Palestine. No claims for “Palestine” were lodged between 1948 and 1967 while it remained under Hashemite control, despite later narratives of “Palestinian Arabs” being kept in refugee status within Jordan itself. Those Arabs remaining in the West Bank and east Jerusalem were granted Jordanian citizenship without complaint. Its residents were allowed to vote in the Jordanian parliamentary elections and their representatives continued to sit in the Jordanian parliament as late as 1988 even though Jordan lost all of the territory it held in Jerusalem and the West Bank following a failed aggressive war it launched against Israel in 1967.

Following the Jordanian victory over Israel in 1948, as part of the Armistice Agreement signed on April 3, 1949, Jordan was obligated to allow “free access to the holy site and cultural institutions and cemeteries on the Mount of Olives.” Despite this, Jews were barred from entering into the Old City and visiting the Jewish holy places. Synagogues within the Old City were systematically destroyed. Gravestones in the Jewish Mount of Olives cemetery were desecrated and taken to be used as paving stones. The Western (“Wailing”)  Wall, a part of the destroyed Jewish Temple, was used as a urinal.

When Arab nations again attacked Israel in June 1967 in what became known as the “Six Day War,” the Arab armies suffered crippling losses of weaponry and equipment.  Egypt’s casualties numbered more than 11,000, with 6,000 for Jordan and 1,000 for Syria, compared with only 700 for Israel. Nobody at that time criticized Israel for a “disproportionate use of force” as they have constantly chosen to do in later events when Israel has been forced to defend itself from aggressive violence and terrorism, including during recent knifing and stoning attacks in which Palestinians have sustained a greater loss of life than Israelis.

In 1967, Israel warned Jordan to stay out of the fighting. Ignoring this request, Jordan began pounding the western parts of Jerusalem with artillery fire. Israel launched a counter-offensive that drove Jordanian troops out of Jerusalem and much of the West Bank.

Israel offered the Jordanians a ceasefire. This was refused. The muezzin loudspeakers on the Dome of the Rock mosque bellowed, “Take up your weapons and take back your country taken by the Jews.”

Perhaps the most iconic and historic moment of this war was when Israeli soldiers broke through the Lion Gate leading into the Old City of Jerusalem and fought their way through the narrow alleyways to the most central site in Judaism. There the IDF Chief of Staff, Mordechai “Motta” Gur, radioed the message “The Temple Mount is in our hands!”

A tremor went through the soul of nearly every Jew as, after three thousand years, the Jews returned to liberate their most cherished site, the Temple built by King Solomon.

Moshe Dayan was Israel’s Minister of Defense and, as he proceeded across the Temple Mount plateau he saw an Israeli flag atop the Dome of the Rock and he ordered it taken down. After he placed a private prayer note in the cracks of the Western Wall he turned and declared, “We’ve reunited the city, the capital of Israel, never to part it again. To our Arab neighbors, Israel extends the hand of peace and to all peoples of all faiths; we guarantee full freedom of worship. We’ve not come to conquer the holy places of others but to live with others in harmony.”

Ten days later, he returned to the al-Aqsa mosque where, on his own cognizance, he told the sheikh of the Haram that Jerusalem now belonged to Israel but the Waqf would control the Temple Mount. Even though, after 2,000 years, Jews could now finally visit the Temple Mount, he ruled that they were forbidden to pray there. He did so without the approval of the Israeli government, but his ruling has remained policy ever since.

There are many who consider that Israel should exert proper sovereignty over this site, granting the correct Islamic authority control over access to the two mosques that sit atop the Temple Mount, while allowing access to non-Muslims for private contemplation and silent prayer. It is after all, the most spiritual place on earth. But for the Palestinian Authority and other Palestinian factions to claim ownership and control over this most religious site has no relevance in history or religious teachings. No Muslim body has ever entrusted Islam’s holy sites into the care of Palestinian hands. The guardianship of these Islamic shrines has, historically, been allocated to the hands of Jordan. 

King Abdullah II of Jordan and Palestinian President Abbas constructed a legal agreement entitled “Cooperation for the protection of Jerusalem and the holy sites,” which reaffirms the status of King Abdullah as the custodian of the holy sites in Jerusalem, specifically Al-Haram al-Sharif (The Temple Mount). 

Jordan is a stakeholder in the Middle East diplomatic process as it applies to Jerusalem’s holy sites. As Prime Minister Judeh told John Kerry on October 24,

“Jordan has a special role in Jerusalem and His Majesty King Abdullah is the custodian of Christian and Muslim holy sites in the holy city. So from the perspective of final status negotiations and of the complexity of the issues that we see in Jerusalem, Jordan has not just an interest, but a very key and active role.”

With the enmity and deep mistrust between Israel’s Netanyahu and Abbas, with his words of Jewish filthy feet and drops of blood being spilled for Jerusalem, the King can play a key role in tempering the climate. With eighty percent of its citizens claiming to be Palestinian, and many claiming that Jordan is Palestine, the king has to balance a delicate pivotal role. His leadership remains precarious. The Hashemites represent barely fifteen percent of the population. Demographically, the Kingdom is little different than Alawite-controlled Syria.

Even the King’s approval for the installation of 24-hour security cameras to monitor what is happening on the Temple Mount met with noisy opposition from the Palestinian Authority leadership.

The King anxiously glances across his order at Syria at the double direct threats of Shiite Iran and Sunni ISIS destabilizing that country. As Colonel Dr. Eran Lerman, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University wrote in a recent report, “For Iran, Syria is a stepping stone on the road to destabilize Jordan and, as Ayatollah Khamenei has ordered, to “turning the West Bank into the next Gaza.”

Indeed, although King Abdullah publicly supports a two-state solution leading to the establishment of the state of Palestine, he must be deeply concerned that any such state will be usurped by Hamas, as they did in Gaza, who will then threaten his kingdom almost as much as a Hamas-led Palestine would endanger Israel.

Barry Shaw is the Senior Associate for Public Diplomacy at the Israeli Institute for Strategic Studies. He is also the author of Fighting Hamas, BDS and Anti-Semitism.