Israel’s Defense Dept. Reappraising Jordan Border After Infiltrations

The defense establishment has begun a rigorous reappraisal of security conditions along Israel’s lengthy and no longer quiet border with Jordan.

It was undertaken in response to the growing number of armed infiltrations of Israel from Jordanian soil, which seem to indicate that King Hussein is fast losing control of his kingdom to Islamic militants on the military, political and popular levels.

“The king is riding a tiger,” Israel Defense Force Chief of Staff Dan Shomron told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday.

Shomron said the new situation in Jordan and the Middle East generally requires the IDF to provide greater protection for the Jordan Valley settlements.

The need for tighter security on the Jordanian border was demonstrated early Tuesday when a lone infiltrator managed to cross the Jordan River undetected and attack an IDF lookout post, killing 37-year-old Sgt. Pinhas Levy before being overpowered.

It was the third infiltration from Jordan in three weeks and the second in six days to cause an IDF fatality.

Apart from the Egyptian border, which was fixed by a formal peace treaty in 1979, the border with Jordan had been Israel’s most peaceful frontier.

Unlike the perpetual violence on the Lebanese border and the menace of Syrian troops across the Golan Heights, Israelis came to expect little trouble in the east.

They were convinced that King Hussein, who celebrated his 55th birthday on Wednesday, has a strong interest in keeping the border peaceful and free from terrorist incursions, if only to avoid reprisal attacks by Israel.

Moreover, King Hussein, the region’s longest-reigning monarch, maintained unofficial contacts with Israel even after he voluntarily severed his links with the Palestinians in the West Bank.

For those reasons, the border with Jordan, though Israel’s longest, was its most lightly defended. It extends from the Jordan Valley in the north to the desert reaches of the Arava in the south.

The Jordan River, a natural boundary part of the way, is a narrow, easily fordable stream with reeded banks.

LOOKOUT POSTS WITH FLOODLIGHTS

The topography of the region makes it necessary for the Israeli security fence and electronic surveillance devices to be set back from the river bank, in some places as much as several hundred feet.

Lookout posts equipped with large floodlights fill the gaps, but because the region has long been peaceful, they are manned by older, less rigorously trained soldiers.

Defense officials and senior IDF officers fear the period of calm on the eastern frontier is over. They can no longer rely on Hussein as a tacit partner in keeping the peace because his influence is waning rapidly.

His largely Palestinian population no longer supports him, and the Jordanian Parliament, which he reconstituted only last year, may no longer be a rubber stamp.

Hussein’s small, well-trained army, considered one of the best in the Arab world, is no longer unquestioningly loyal.

The Arab affairs correspondent of Ha’aretz reported Wednesday that since the intifada began nearly four years ago, and especially after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait last August, the streets of Jordan have been seething with anti-Israel sentiment of unprecedented virulence.

The Palestinian day laborer from the West Bank, who murdered three Israelis in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood on Oct. 21, became an instant hero in Jordan.

The only complaint against him was that he hadn’t killed more Jews.

Ha’aretz said King Hussein has shown himself to be weak and helpless against nationalists and especially Moslem fundamentalist elements in his kingdom which are inciting attacks on Israel.

There have been anti-Israel, pro-Iraqi assemblies and marches by tens of thousands in Jordanian cities, Ha’aretz reported. Only a massive police presence prevented riots, the newspaper said.

The king’s control has been eroded further by the severe economic crisis in Jordan in the last two years.

It has worsened significantly since Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait last August. At least 100,000 Jordanian workers in Kuwait were forced to return to their own country, where unemployment is running at a 35 percent rate, Ha’aretz said.

The price of fuel is rising. The once busy port of Aqaba, Jordan’s only access to the sea and a major source of revenue for the country, has been paralyzed by the U.S.-led blockade of Iraq.

In the political sphere, Hussein’s Hashemite dynasty faces serious trouble in Parliament.

A majority coalition — 43 of the 80 members — has been formed of Islamic radicals, leftists and nationalists who are united by their dissatisfaction with the king.

According to Ha’aretz, the showdown will occur in three days, when the Parliament elects a chairman.

If the opposition bloc manages to seat its candidate, Abdel Latif Arbi’at, it will be a Parliament overtly hostile to the king.

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