Judge’s shooting exposes internal tensions in Jordan

Judge’s shooting exposes internal tensions in Jordan

Amid mystery over Raed Zeiter’s fatal trip, some in Amman see his death at the border as a Palestinian issue, rather than a national one

Blue Stars of David painted in the foyer of the Amman courthouse where Jordanian-Palestinian judge Raed Zeiter, killed while crossing into the West Bank, worked. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
Blue Stars of David painted in the foyer of the Amman courthouse where Jordanian-Palestinian judge Raed Zeiter, killed while crossing into the West Bank, worked. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)

AMMAN — Anger toward Israel has been brewing in Jordan’s capital since an Israeli soldier shot and killed a Jordanian judge of Palestinian origin at the King Hussein/Allenby border crossing Monday night. Given the city’s large Palestinian majority and a population that’s generally hostile toward the state across the river, even if their government’s official line isn’t, the reaction shouldn’t be especially shocking.

But beyond the rage, the shooting also exposes a deep divide between Jordanians and Palestinians within the kingdom. For some Jordanians — the “real” or “original” Jordanians, as they often refer to themselves — the killing of Raed Zeiter is viewed as a Palestinian issue more than anything else, and one that they don’t want to cost them their peaceful ties with Israel. The shooting also illustrates the Palestinians’ precarious position within the country, and, to a lesser extent, points to the Palestinians’ complicated, if not questionable, loyalty to the kingdom.

After the shooting of Zeiter, emotions are running raw on the Jordanian street: Protests outside the Israeli Embassy Monday evening attracted several hundred people. Demonstrations at the courthouse where Zeiter worked drew a mob of over 2,000 people Tuesday, and continued to draw angry crowds who called for Israel to be punished throughout the week. On Wednesday, Jordan’s parliament called for Israel’s ambassador to the kingdom to be expelled, and for the withdrawal of Amman’s envoy in Tel Aviv. Lawmakers also demanded the release of Jordanian soldier Ahmad Daqamseh, incarcerated for murdering seven Israeli girls in the Jordan Valley in 1997.

Yet, along with the calls for punishing Israel, questions remain about what transpired at the border — and many Jordanians would admit that the fiery rhetoric won’t amount to anything other than a temporary, superficial rift between Israel and the kingdom. The diplomatic storm will pass, people say.

Rafat Tarawneh, a Jordanian lawyer who argued many cases in front of Zeiter, described the judge as a “very calm and very patient man who could never be brought to anger.” He and other lawyers used to make jokes about Zeiter’s meticulous manner, he said, teasing about how it routinely took Zeiter double the time it took other judges to sign off on a case.

He noted that, among most Jordanians, the consensus is that Israel is “bad,” and the killing of Zeiter is simply an extension of that: another “bad thing” Israel did.

Zeiter, 38, a judge in the magistrate’s court in Amman, was traveling from the Jordanian capital to Nablus, his city of origin in the northern West Bank, when he was shot by IDF soldiers after what may have become a heated scuffle. Israeli authorities say Zeiter lunged at a soldier and tried to grab his weapon and strangle him, whereas Palestinian media cite eyewitnesses who claim it was the soldier who provoked and attacked the judge. Abdullah Ensour, the kingdom’s prime minister, said the next day that Jordan held the Israeli government fully responsible for the killing.

An Israeli flag was painted outside the courthouse. Walking over national or religious symbols is a sign of disrespect in Arab culture and in Muslim tradition, which requires the faithful to be barefoot when praying. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
An Israeli flag was painted outside the courthouse. Walking over national or religious symbols is a sign of disrespect in Arab culture and in Muslim tradition, which requires the faithful to be barefoot when praying. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)

Speaking from the courthouse Wednesday, Tarawneh said he felt great sadness about the loss of a judge with whom he didn’t always agree in the courtroom, but greatly respected. To Tarawneh, the incident is an “unfortunate accident” that will sour Jordanians’ impression of Israel just as relations between the two countries were on the upswing, at least in an official and military capacity — a development he called “very undesirable.”

“I believe it [the shooting] could have been a misunderstanding,” he said, adding that he thought Zeiter’s slow pace of work sometimes confused people, leading them to possibly misunderstand his actions as indolent or inattentive.

He also claimed that Zeiter’s behavior — such as his unmentioned trip to Nablus, ostensibly to bring money to his child who’s in the hospital — was inexplicable.

“He [Zeiter] was going to Nablus — but what I can’t understand is this: Why didn’t he tell people he was going? He’s a judge with something like 50 cases per day, but he didn’t tell his boss he’d be away from work? These things don’t add up,” added Tarawneh. “In the end, I think the result of an [Israeli and Jordanian] investigation will help people understand what happened and give us some calmness, because this can’t be the whole story… I’ve traveled through that crossing many times, and the Israelis are usually very professional. I don’t know how someone could be shot there, without any reason.”

Raed Zeiter (photo credit: Channel 10 screenshot)
Raed Zeiter (photo credit: Channel 10 screenshot)

However, for Hassan Ghaith, a Jordanian engineer originally from Hebron, whether the shooting was an accident or not is irrelevant.

“Yes, we are angry. Of course we are angry, he’s dead! We want the soldier who killed him [Zeiter] to be brought to justice. We want him to be punished, just like [Jordanian soldier] Ahmad Daqamseh was for killing those [Israeli] girls,” he said Thursday after the courthouse demonstrations.

“But we know it won’t happen… The parliament can’t do anything, and this king is weak, and he will do whatever Israel wants,” he stated emphatically.

For Ghaith, as for others, the feeling of a lack of justice over the killing contributes to the overwhelming sense of frustration emerging in Amman. The Palestinians feel powerless, Ghaith said. The shooting is a reminder that, in Jordan, Palestinians hold a delicate position in society — as full members of society, yet as outsiders — and that, only decades ago, they were excluded from high levels of government and civil society.

Sami al-Jbhour, a lawyer in Amman who’s originally from a large Bedouin tribe in southern Jordan, said that the incident is a reminder that Jordan is a country “that’s always opened its doors to many foreigners.”

For Jbhour, the outsiders aren’t only the Palestinians who make up more than 60 percent of the country. They’re also the Iraqis and the Syrians who flooded the country in recent years, and who add to the tension Jordanians feel about being outnumbered — creating vague fears among Jordanians of becoming strangers in their own land.

“This incident is very sad; no one likes it when people die. But this is not a political situation, or something that requires cutting ties with Israel,” Jbhour said from his office in East Amman, adding that, despite the feckless parliament’s protestations, it’s the king who holds the real power over diplomatic ties.

Jbhour stressed that “for the real Jordanians, Israel is just another country,” explaining that normal ties with Jerusalem are important to the people, especially in areas of technology and water cooperation. He characterized the shooting as a Palestinian-Israeli issue, more than a Jordanian-Israeli one.

“If Palestinians come here, and build a life here, then why do they call themselves Palestinians? They’re Jordanian, he concluded.

For Tarawneh, who’s also from a large Jordanian tribe, the fact that Zeiter is of Palestinian origin presents another complication in the story.

At Zeiter’s funeral, he said, two flags were raised — one Palestinian, the other Jordanian. For Tarawneh, the action symbolized the vague-yet-lurking doubt some Jordanians have about Palestinians’ loyalty to the country. Zeiter, for example, carried a Jordanian passport, yet questions over his true identity remain.

Whether it’s out of Jordanians’ fear of being outnumbered in their own land, or because the Middle East is so prone to division along ethnic lines (making where someone comes from particularly important), the shooting reveals how precarious the Palestinians’ position is in Jordan. Sure, they’re Jordanian — but at the end of the day, they’re often thought of as visitors in someone else’s home.

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