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Lebanon’s Palestinian Dilemma: The Struggle Over Nahr al-Bared
Lebanon’s Palestinian Dilemma: The Struggle Over Nahr al-Bared
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary

Lebanon’s Palestinian Dilemma: The Struggle Over Nahr al-Bared

Although attention naturally is focused on possible ripple effects on Lebanon from Syria’s conflict, it would be wrong to ignore the unresolved legacy of the battle that shook the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp five years ago. The risk of renewed flare-up, already significant, is now compounded by the regional crisis.

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Executive Summary

2012 marks the fifth anniversary of one of Lebanon’s bloodiest battles since the end of the civil war: the deadly, three-month war pitting a jihadi group against the army in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp. Since then, the camp’s displaced and resident population has suffered from slow reconstruction of their residences, a heavy security presence that restricts their movement and livelihood as well as the absence of a legitimate Palestinian body to represent their interests. Today, there are bigger and more urgent fish to fry, none more so than dealing with the ripple effects of Syria’s raging internal conflict on inter-sectarian relations in Lebanon and the risk that the country once again could plunge into civil war. But it would be wrong to toss the refugee camp question aside, for here too resides a potential future flare-up.

In Lebanon, attention typically shifts seamlessly from one crisis to another. What may look like a sign of stability should be a source of concern. It is the manifestation of a political system almost entirely focused on managing symptoms of conflict without genuinely tackling their causes. Instead, the state, refugee population and UN agency should work together to speed up the reconstruction of Nahr al-Bared by freeing up as much land as possible for residential use; minimising the presence of Lebanese security forces in the camp; removing discriminatory laws in the camps; and introducing a Palestinian body to represent the refugees’ interests in decision-making.

The conflict that erupted in May 2007 brought face-to-face the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and a previously unknown Islamist fundamentalist group, Fatah al-Islam, based inside Nahr al-Bared. A bank robbery swiftly snowballed into an armed confrontation against the militants who killed several soldiers at an LAF checkpoint on the camp’s perimeter. Backed by a public incensed by pictures of the soldiers’ corpses, the army entered the camp, from which state security forces traditionally had been barred since 1969. Lebanese forces prevailed, but in the process much of the camp was devastated and 27,000 residents were displaced.

From all this destruction and loss, something good was supposed to come out: a model of coexistence between the state and Palestinian camps. The government appears to have taken the task seriously, developing a new vision, the so-called Vienna Document. It has yet to live up to expectations.

Camp reconstruction, led by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) and funded by international donors, has lagged. Responsibility for this falls on inefficient contractors and a tug-of-war between on the one hand the army and the Internal Security Forces (ISF), which want more space in the camp and, on the other, UNRWA, which needs more land to build residential buildings. Living conditions likewise are unsatisfactory. The LAF has imposed a strict permit system that restricts access to the camp by both Lebanese and non-resident Palestinians, isolating Nahr al-Bared economically and socially. Because the ISF gradually is expanding its presence in the camp, the refugees fear that the discriminatory employment and property laws they face in Lebanon will be imposed for the first time in a camp, thereby severely affecting their livelihood. The Vienna Document does not allocate a meaningful governance role to Palestinian entities, thus marginalising the local population when it comes to key decisions regarding camp management and security.

The Palestinian refugees – and Lebanon – deserve better. The typical model of camp governance has serious flaws and is in need of repair. Power traditionally lies in the hands of Popular Committees comprising unelected faction leaders who derive most of their legitimacy from their weapons. With state security forces essentially banned from interfering, residents often complain of chaos and inter-factional strife in large, armed, and unregulated pockets immune to Lebanese law and order. Nahr al-Bared offered a real opportunity to build something different insofar as faction leaders had lost out – because they no longer possessed weapons and because they no longer enjoyed the trust of refugees who largely blamed them for failing to protect the camp.

But the new model that is taking form is not the answer. It is failing the basic task of restoring refugees to a normal life – at least as normal a life as refugeehood can allow. The relationship between camp residents and the state has not improved; rather, given the overwhelming security presence, refugees tend to see the authorities in the least appealing light: not protecting them, but rather protecting the country from them. They fear enforcement of discriminatory laws. Rigid permit requirements and rough treatment at camp checkpoints hurt intercommunal relations, already significantly damaged by the conflict which many Lebanese blamed on Palestinian refugees for harbouring jihadi militants and during which some Palestinians felt their Lebanese neighbours had been either complicit in their displacement or unwelcoming in the crisis’s aftermath. Most importantly, lacking an effective representative, Palestinians in Nahr al-Bared feel more disenfranchised than before.

There is still time to get things right. Should that be the case, the experience of Nahr al-Bared – after all the death and destruction it has endured – could help put relations between Palestinian refugees on the one hand, and the Lebanese and their state on the other, on firmer and sounder footing.

Beirut/Brussels, 1 March 2012

Jordanian activists set fire to a makeshift Israeli flag during a sit-in near the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan 14 May 2018. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

The Regional Stakes of Soured Israeli-Jordanian Relations

The quarter-century mark of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty has passed with little fanfare, as key constituencies in both countries question its core premises. The Trump administration’s policies and peace plan sharpen doubts. Reviving the 1994 deal’s spirit is important for Israel, Jordan and the region.

Crisis Group conducted the fieldwork for this commentary before the COVID-19 pandemic. Some dynamics examined in this publication may have changed in the meantime. Moving forward, we will be factoring the impact of the pandemic into our research and recommendations, as well as offering dedicated coverage of how the outbreak is affecting conflicts around the world.

Relations between Israel and Jordan have reached their lowest point since the two countries signed a peace treaty a quarter-century ago in 1994. At that time, and for some years thereafter, the two countries’ leaders, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein, were proud to be seen in each other’s company. By contrast, the current Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has met only once with Jordan’s King Abdullah in the last two years and then – at the Jordanian government’s request – with no cameras present. Abdullah has not returned Netanyahu’s telephone calls for over a year. The strained personal relationship deteriorated dramatically when an Israeli embassy guard in Amman killed two Jordanian civilians in July 2017 in circumstances that remain unclear but were labelled as murder by Jordanian public opinion. After Abdullah consented to extradition to Israel despite public outcry, Netanyahu gave the guard a hero’s welcome, leaving the king feeling personally betrayed. Officials on both sides lament the record level of distrust at the top, with Abdullah himself saying in November 2019 that relations are at “an all-time low”. Neither government commemorated the treaty’s 25th anniversary on 26 October.

The deterioration of ties endangers not only Israeli-Jordanian peace but also the Jordanian kingdom’s stability and the two countries’ cooperation in maintaining calm at Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade (Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif), sacred to Jews as the site of the ancient Temples and to Muslims as the place from which Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven; moreover, for Palestinians, it is the most valued site in the occupied territories and the most potent symbol of Palestinian nationalism. Contemporary Zionism, unlike the overtly atheist early Zionism, similarly accords it great importance. The unravelling of the relationship also raises further questions about the future of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, already in dire condition.

Enduring Strategic Interests

The mutual interests underlying the 1994 peace treaty have suffered no major harm: Jordan keeps Israel’s eastern border safe even when conflicts and instability in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq exact a toll on its own eastern and northern borders; as per its treaty commitment, Jordan has not allowed any foreign army into its territory nor has it entered into any alliance with a country hostile to Israel; and both states have continued security coordination and intelligence sharing on common threats. Jordan has reportedly permitted Israeli jets to fly through its airspace to carry out bombing sorties against Iranian targets in Syria.

Abdullah shares his father’s view that Jordan’s prosperity and stability require peace with Israel.

The durability of the treaty’s core security components is no accident. Abdullah shares his father’s view that Jordan’s prosperity and stability require peace with Israel. For his part, Netanyahu seems to share his predecessors’ view that Hashemite Jordan is an indispensable bulwark against possible threats from the east.

What most concerns the Israeli defence establishment is the threat from a possible collapse of the Hashemite monarchy, especially if subsequent instability in Jordan would allow Israel’s foes to use it as a base for their attacks. Because Israeli policies toward the West Bank and East Jerusalem could imperil both the treaty and the Jordanian monarchy, Netanyahu has exercised what he considers relative restraint on both fronts. While he has pledged to annex the Jordan Valley and all Jewish settlements across the West Bank, and while the Trump administration’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan unveiled in January provides for this, Netanyahu to date has avoided endangering the treaty’s survival or taking steps that could trigger significant unrest in Jordan. Such turmoil could occur if, for example, Israel were to annex parts of the West Bank or officially permit non-Muslims to pray at the Holy Esplanade (both of which measures are included in the Trump administration’s plan). This mutual interdependence between Hashemite stability and Israeli security has shielded the relationship’s core elements to date.

Relations Unravelling

Below the surface, however, several mutual Israeli-Jordanian commitments have begun to slip. Israel has effectively backtracked on its promise, as per the 2013 agreement it signed with Jordan and the Palestinian Authority (PA), to lay 180km of pipeline on Jordanian territory to connect the Red and Dead Seas. Instead, it has attempted to negotiate with Amman alternative means of providing Jordan with desalinated Mediterranean seawater through Israeli territory, arguing that the pipeline’s costs would exceed its benefits. The 2013 agreement is the most ambitious Israeli-Jordanian endeavour since the 1994 peace treaty, and of particular importance to water-scarce Jordan. Israel’s decision to, in effect, renege on it led the palace to doubt all other Israeli commitments. Jordan has rejected the proposed alternatives for fear of greater dependence on Israel for its water supplies.

Pillars of Israeli-Jordanian cooperation at the Holy Esplanade have begun to erode.

More importantly, pillars of Israeli-Jordanian cooperation at the Holy Esplanade have begun to erode. By the terms of the Status Quo – the unwritten Ottoman-era arrangement that Israel and Jordan claim to respect and that has broadly kept the peace since Israel seized Jerusalem’s Old City from Jordan in the 1967 war – Jordan’s Islamic Waqf administers daily affairs at the site, where Muslims alone can pray and non-Muslims –Israeli Jews, tourists – can only visit. At first, after he became premier in 2009, Netanyahu protected the Status Quo, endorsing the non-Muslim prayer ban and stopping Jewish Temple movement activists – groups that seek to promote Jewish worship at and Israeli control over the holy site with an eye to erecting a Third Temple – from visiting the Esplanade. Under the narrow right-wing government elected in 2015, however, and with Likud’s Gilad Erdan (a hardliner on the issue) as internal security minister, the Israel Police, acting at the behest of the government, has encouraged visits by religious Jews specifically during Jewish holidays. It also has allowed non-Muslims, including Temple activists, to visit the Esplanade when Muslim and Jewish holidays coincide. The police have tended to eject those Jews praying loudly and overtly but have regularly permitted others to pray quietly while still claiming to be maintaining the Status Quo.

The sight of video clips of Jews uttering prayers at the site infuriated Palestinians, who felt that Jordan was failing to preserve the exclusively Muslim character of a site to which they attach paramount national and religious importance. The young Palestinian activists who launched the so-called Knife Intifada (September 2015-October 2016), perpetrating or attempting over 300 stabbings, shootings and vehicular attacks, were often found to have reacted in particular to provocative changes at the holy site. Those attacks eventually abated, but Jordanian Waqf guards at the Holy Esplanade continued to feel the impact of Israel’s policy shift in the form of unprecedentedly frequent altercations between them and Israeli police officers that for many of the guards ended in arrest. Likewise, from Jordan’s perspective, Israel has systematically violated the Status Quo’s ban on non-Muslim worship since 2015, ignoring core Hashemite interests. Jordan accuses Israel of disregarding Amman’s repeated demand that Israel cease cooperating with Temple movement activists.

Jordan’s discontent with the state of the relationship is evident across the board. Seeking to dull the growing perception among Palestinians and Jordanians that he is failing to defend Muslim interests at the al-Aqsa Mosque, King Abdullah discontinued a land-lease arrangement in the 1994 treaty. The arrangement had given Israeli farmers special cross-border access to their privately owned agricultural lands in two small enclaves on Jordanian territory for a renewable 25-year period. The two sides are now negotiating an alternative but similar mechanism based on Jordanian law.

The Jordanian parliament has proposed cancelling gas purchases from Israel despite their significant contribution to easing Jordan’s economic challenges.

Tensions are manifest in other sectors as well. In 2014 and 2018, Israel signed major agreements to export gas from its maritime fields to Jordan. The two countries also made important arrangements to facilitate Jordanian exports of regular goods via Haifa’s port after Syrian land routes closed due to war. But these deals have aroused ire in Jordan, primarily because of wides­pread opposition to any form of engagement with Israel before the Palestinian issue is resolved, but also precisely because the deals increase Jordan’s reliance on Israel for quotidian needs. The Jordanian parliament has proposed cancelling gas purchases from Israel despite their significant contribution to easing Jordan’s economic challenges: the deal aims to satisfy 40 per cent of Jordan’s energy needs for fifteen years. To avoid the need for parliamentary ratification – almost certainly not in the cards – the Jordanian government framed the gas purchases as a deal between private companies and secured a Supreme Court ruling exempting such private transactions from legislative approval.

These developments have eclipsed minor improvements in relations, such as the increase in work permits for Jordanians in Eilat and Dead Sea hotels in southern Israel (2,500 after the increase), aimed at mitigating unemployment in Jordan’s less developed south, and the sluggish progress in building the Jordan Gateway Industrial Park, a joint endeavour on the Jordanian side of the border, designed to create 10,000 new jobs for Jordanians. The only components of the relationship that continue largely undisturbed pertain to low-profile security cooperation, intelligence sharing and counter-terrorism. Yet events suggest that Jordan’s public could seek to impose a ceiling on security cooperation as well. From late August to early September, Israel administratively detained two Jordanians suspected of involvement in security violations during separate visits to the West Bank, releasing them only after Jordan, under strong public pressure, withdrew its ambassador. Israeli officials were outraged that the palace would use protests in Amman to compel Israel to release individuals whom they believed were associated with Hizbollah and who, they claim, aimed to kill Israelis. The incident damaged trust between the two sides, including on a security level.

Palestinian Statehood and al-Aqsa’s Custodianship

The corrosion of Israel’s relationship with Jordan reveals an inherent asymmetry: Israel’s definition of its interests has changed while Jordan’s has not. At the Hashemite palace, fundamental views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remain as they were in 1994. In contrast, developments in Israel – mainly the ascendancy of religious Zionists and the maximalist right, who are ideologically committed to full Israeli rule over the West Bank and to advancing Jewish sovereignty over and unrestricted worship in Jerusalem’s Old City – have led Netanyahu to implicitly reassess the desirability of two elements that the Jordanian public generally deems to be among the treaty’s pillars: Palestinian national self-determination and preservation of the Status Quo at the Holy Esplanade. With a two-state solution losing favour on the Israeli right, Likud leaders increasingly oscillate between advocating conflict management (rather than resolution) and embracing a “Jordan is Palestine” formula. Netanyahu holds the former view but cannot totally ignore growing hostility toward Amman, particularly as his own ministers increasingly fault Jordan for the ban on overt Jewish prayer at the Temple Mount and for his reluctance to date to actually annex any part of the West Bank. He has consequently given Erdan greater leeway in advancing Jewish worship at the site, humiliating King Abdullah in doing so.

This shift in Israeli attitudes is noticeable especially when contrasted with the overwhelming support the peace treaty received in 1994: 105 of the Knesset’s 120 members (MKs) ratified it (only six voted no, three abstained and six were absent). Most of the MKs from Likud (including Netanyahu) and the pro-settler National Religious Party voted yes. This year, not a single Likud leader celebrated the treaty’s anniversary.

All this is occurring at a time when Jordan’s interest in cooperation with Israel has increased as a result of growing economic needs.

The Israeli-Jordanian rift will only grow if Israel annexes the Jordan Valley – or any other part of the occupied West Bank. King Abdullah has said that such a move would create “an apartheid future for Israel” that would have a “major impact” on Israel’s relations with Jordan and Egypt.

All this is occurring at a time when Jordan’s interest in cooperation with Israel has increased as a result of growing economic needs – notably in water, energy, jobs and investment. Post-2003 conflict and instability in Iraq, along with Syria’s civil war, have undermined Jordan’s trade (exports to both countries have resumed in the last two years but reached only roughly 10 per cent of pre-war levels) and sent many refugees its way. Israel effectively rebuffed repeated Jordanian requests over the last two years to triple its exports to the West Bank (which stand at roughly 100 million Jordanian dinar, or $141 million, annually), fearing that doing otherwise would come at the expense of Israeli exports to the West Bank. It did so despite the outsized positive impact such an increase in Jordanian exports would have on the Jordanian and West Bank economies as compared to the slight market share Israel would lose as a result.

Aligning with an Ascendant Gulf

The story of fraying Israeli-Jordanian ties is not merely one of mistrust between leaders or stalled bilateral projects such as the Red-Dead, as the project to link the two seas is known colloquially. Nor is it only a reflection of differences – however vast – regarding resolution of the Palestinian conflict or the status of Jerusalem. It is also embedded within regional developments and strategic choices, and Israel’s apparent reconsideration of how it ranks its priorities.

Direct relations between Israel and Gulf monarchies have largely replaced the intermediary role Jordan once played.

For years, Jordanians have been concerned that Israel and leading Gulf Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are giving lesser weight to Jordan’s geopolitical importance. Its historical role in helping build and man Gulf security services and in providing other skilled labour has dwindled, as these countries have found alternative sources of workers and established more independent security and higher education systems. Since Saddam Hussein’s ouster in 2003, Israeli leaders see less of a threat coming from armies in the east, and thus tend to minimise Jordan’s role as a potential buffer against a conventional army in the foreseeable future. Finally, direct, if still covert, relations between Israel and Gulf monarchies have largely replaced the intermediary role Jordan once played in security dealings and business transactions.

As Gulf countries have assumed greater importance, Netanyahu, with the apparent encouragement of the Trump administration and Saudi and Emirati leaders, began to reorient Israel’s regional priorities. Boosting relations with the Gulf, chiefly against a shared enemy in Tehran, became a central objective. In parallel, and tellingly, the Trump administration and Israel came to see Saudi Arabia and the UAE as assuming a central role in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, counting on them to pressure the Palestinian leadership into compromise.

This new paradigm apparently is based on three premises that are shaky at best: first, the belief that Israel can forge closer links with Gulf Arab monarchies and enlist them to support its approach to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking without harming its existing relations with countries such as Jordan and Egypt; secondly, and as a corollary, that the Palestinian question has become an issue of marginal importance in the region; and thirdly, that Egypt and Jordan need Israel so badly that they will acquiesce in any new dispensation on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

Flaws in the Strategy

This approach has severely harmed Israeli-Jordanian relations. Where before the two states might have overcome crises such as that over the Red-Dead project or the contestation over the building near the Gate of Mercy at Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade, today they fail to do so given the absence of trust and a growing sense of diverging interests.

Because of Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Jordan has already rejected high-profile U.S. mediation between itself and Israel on any Jerusalem-related issue.

Too, by pursuing this strategy, the Trump administration has further harmed whatever credibility the U.S. still enjoyed as a potential broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not only by siding with Israel on issues such as Jerusalem and the status of settlements but also by seemingly ignoring many of Amman’s core needs. Jordanian leaders express real anxiety about the administration’s peace plan, feeling that the U.S. did not consult them on issues of importance to them while (in their view) seeking input from Riyadh instead. They also note that the plan would allow Israel to retain large parts of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, as part of any peace settlement, and to empty the Status Quo at Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade of any meaning. Because of Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Jordan has already rejected high-profile U.S. mediation between itself and Israel on any Jerusalem-related issue, worried about accusations from Palestinians, in Jordan and elsewhere, of complicity with an administration seen as unabashedly espousing Israeli views. The plan’s position on Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and its apparent rescinding of Hashemite custodianship over Jerusalem’s Muslim and Christian sites only made cooperation with Washington regarding Jerusalem harder for Amman.

Amman refrained from explicitly rejecting the Trump plan, instead reiterating its support for traditional Arab positions within an hour of its unveiling. It clearly wished to avoid a head-on confrontation with an apparently vindictive U.S. administration whose support Jordan direly needs. In private, Jordanian officials share their assessment that the plan has no chance of becoming the basis for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and that Amman’s main, imminent concern is that Israel will proceed with unilaterally annexing any part of the West Bank. Down the line, Amman fears that U.S. approval of Israeli annexation would close the horizon of Palestinian statehood, and thus lend credence to the “Jordan is Palestine” formula.

In principle, there should be no inherent contradiction between promoting Israel-Gulf relations and, in parallel, maintaining Israel’s relations with its immediate Arab neighbours. The problem is that this is occurring at a time when Israel is simultaneously challenging traditional positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This has given rise to a sense of competing dynamics and to the impression that, by shifting toward the Gulf, Israel is also tilting toward an approach on the Palestinian question that ignores – or, worse, undermines – Jordanian interests.

Looking Ahead

Despite dramatic regional changes, Jordan remains of strategic importance to Israel’s security.

By now, it should have become clear that an approach that seeks to either bypass the Palestinians or force them to dramatically lower their demands by building relations between Israel and the Gulf will not succeed. Likewise, it should be evident to any Israeli government that emerges from the latest round of elections that its interests lie in rebuilding ties to Amman.

Despite dramatic regional changes, Jordan remains of strategic importance to Israel’s security. As Prime Minister Menachem Begin first concluded, and his successor Yitzhak Rabin agreed, Israel’s real strategic depth lies in enhancing its regional legitimacy and acceptance via diplomatic agreements that, in turn, ensure that large areas adjacent to Israel remain free of hostile forces. For this reason, Begin pursued an agreement with Egypt that guaranteed a demilitarised Sinai peninsula and Rabin sought an agreement with Jordan that barred any foreign military forces that might threaten Israel from its territory. Moreover, both understood that Egypt and Jordan would be unable to secure domestic support for such policies without at least the appearance of progress toward Palestinian national self-determination.

In some non-security areas as well, Amman remains Israel’s regional hub. In the absence of direct commercial flights to Gulf countries, for example, the shortest route there for Israelis passes through Amman. Apart from Cairo’s airport, Queen Alia remains the only Middle Eastern airport at which commercial flights land from Tel Aviv as well as Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Tehran. Similarly, Israel’s grandiose plans for connecting its Haifa port to the regional railway grid, in particular in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, depend entirely on Amman’s cooperation. (Jordan quietly relayed its agreement in principle, but has been dragging its feet, faulting its own bureaucracy.)

If Israel wishes to pursue a strategic reorientation with U.S. support, it would be wiser to do so by weaving its budding relations with the Gulf through and with Jordan as well as the Palestinians, not around them. Of course, doing so would require a dramatically different approach toward the Palestinian question, something that, as of now, seems quite remote.

Regardless of the makeup of the next Israeli government, modest steps might halt the steady deterioration in the bilateral relationship. These could include reaffirming and implementing Red-Dead; accelerating construction of the Jordan Gateway Industrial Park and initiating new similar parks elsewhere in Jordan; and establishing a crisis prevention team with direct access to the Hashemite Palace and a mandate to mitigate tensions regarding the Holy Esplanade, including initially by allowing some of the maintenance projects for which Jordan has long been calling. For its part, Jordan could facilitate these steps by refraining from denying Jewish history in Jerusalem, including the existence of the ancient Temple, and condemning others who do so.

Of course, all this depends on Israel refraining from annexing any part of the West Bank. Should any move toward annexation occur, the downturn in Israel-Jordan relations could make the current crisis look mild in comparison.