Friday mornings are basically the only time of the week when Amman is quiet. With a population of over four million people, heavy traffic and crowded sidewalks are common at any time of day or night. I joked with a friend recently that rush hour traffic in the DC area is on par with 2am traffic here in Amman. Fridays are different, though. As a Muslim-majority country, many citizens spend their mornings in Friday prayers. The streets are empty, the stores are closed, and there is not much to do other than relax and reflect.
As it is, there is much for me to reflect on. My overseas assignment is ending in a few days, so this is my last weekend in Jordan. It is a bittersweet feeling for me. While I am happy to return to my friends and loved ones in Virginia, Amman has started to feel like home to me in some ways. Aside from my work experience and my ability to visit amazing archaeological sites such as Petra, I have been able to forge many new friendships while I have been here. This is partially due to my attendance at events hosted by the Shams Community. Shams is a local nonprofit organization housed off of Amman’s lively Rainbow Street that hosts weekly dinners and discussions, as well as social events such as hikes and film screenings. The attendees and volunteers who host the events are a diverse mix of expats and locals, and the discussions I have had at Shams have given me a much more thorough understanding of some of the struggles facing Jordanian society.
As a Jewish-American with a name that tends to give away my heritage, the prospect of spending time living in an Arab country was a little nerve-wracking at first. Certain members of my family and community expressed concern for my safety, and some even actively tried to discourage me from taking on this assignment. It is a common stereotype in the United States that the hatred of Arabs towards Jews is so visceral, that any Jew who dares show up in an Arab country is sure to get strung up within seconds of stepping off the plane.
Thankfully, I have not found this to be the case here in Jordan. While I have been told that anti-Jewish attitudes are fairly common among the older generations, they are more akin to the silent bigotries that many hold in the United States. While those attitudes are certainly repugnant, they are also fairly benign, and I have never once feared for my safety since I have been here. Among the younger generations, attitudes are far more progressive. While I have not made a habit of advertising my heritage to those who don’t need to know it, I have been able to reveal it without concern to co-workers and the people I have met at Shams.
With that said, Jordanians are not shy about expressing their opinions about Israeli government policy, which is understandable given their background. It is worth noting that some 70% of Jordan’s population are of Palestinian origin. Israel’s independence in 1948 and the subsequent conflicts that followed led to a large Palestinian refugee population, which still exists in Jordan today. While the majority of Palestinian refugees from the West Bank are fully-naturalized citizens (Jordan is one of the only countries in the Middle East to extend citizenship rights to Palestinians), they still generally hold a second-class status and some have arbitrarily had their citizenship rights revoked. Most refugees from the Gaza Strip do not hold citizenship, and still reside in one of Jordan’s ten Palestinian refugee camps to this day.
I do not have the time to get into a detailed background of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or ensuing refugee crisis, but this Vox article can provide more background if you are interested. Needless to say, the UNRWA estimated in 2012 that there were approximately 5 million Palestinians with refugee status (mostly descendants of Palestinians whom were displaced in the 1948 conflict). Of that amount, 1.5 million lived in refugees camps in Jordan and Lebanon. Additionally, 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza and 2.7 million Palestinians in the West Bank live under Israeli military occupation as a result of the Six-Day war won by Israel in 1967.
The status of the occupied territories is a very contentious issue. While there have been multiple attempts by the Israeli government and the Palestinian authority to negotiate for a politically independent state in the occupied territories, these negotiations have been sabotaged by parties on both sides. For example, Israel has a far-right contingent which has long held opposition to an independent Palestinian state, believing that all occupied territories should be open to Jewish settlement. This contingent has gotten violent to the point where Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by an extremist in 1995 for his role in the Oslo Accords. As Israel’s government has been shifting incredibly far to the right under Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, political and financial support for settlements in the occupied West Bank has grown considerably, often leading to the demolition of existing Palestinian settlements.
On the other hand, Israel has faced major security concerns as a result of the occupation. Israeli civilians have historically been targeted by multiple terrorism campaigns in both the West Bank and Gaza. The situation in Gaza was worsened in 2006 with the election of Hamas, an extremist group that infamously refuses to recognize Israel’s statehood as legitimate. In response, both Israel and Egypt sealed their borders with Gaza, effectively leaving Gaza as an open-air prison. Hamas has instigated violence by shooting rockets and flaming kites across the Israeli border. However, to call Israel’s response to these attacks disproportionate would be the understatement of the year. Living under the threat of rocket strikes is undoubtedly terrifying and an unacceptable situation, but Israeli infrastructure ensures relatively few casualties from these attacks. Under the other hand, thousands of Gazan civilians have been killed by Israeli retaliatory airstrikes, and the infrastructure in Gaza has fallen into a deadly state of disrepair. Gazans only have access to four hours of electricity per day, and 97% of Gaza’s water supply is contaminated. Since Israel controls all imports into Gaza, it is difficult to bring in the supplies necessary to rebuild this essential infrastructure. These factors have led to widespread protests, which Israel has been responding to with even more violence.
I want to illustrate that in this conflict, there is no side that can be considered blameless. Both sides have violent and extremist factions which have impeded peace talks. But the fact of the matter is that the Palestinians, especially those residing in Gaza, are facing a massive human rights crisis right now. Israel has a right to defend itself against armed militancy, but any actions it takes need to be within the confines of international law. Indiscriminately blockading an entire geographical region, launching multiple bombing campaigns, and then denying essential infrastructure to everybody within those borders is not an acceptable way of waging warfare. Similarly, the West Bank settlement movement is widely considered to be a violation of international law.
I feel it is my responsibility both as an aid worker and a member of the American Jewish community to speak up against Israel’s current policies towards the Palestinians. The American Jewish community has a long history of promoting progressive values and speaking out for the human rights of oppressed people, but I think we often have a blind side when it comes to Palestine. We don’t like to believe that a country that holds so much hope and significance for us could be guilty of these types of crimes. But the more willing we are to defend the indefensible, the more we are betraying our own values.