News Analysis: Jordan King Gets Tough on Hamas, but Extent of Crackdown is Unclear

After years of tolerating Hamas activities in Amman, Jordanian officials have clamped down on the Islamic fundamentalist group.

The move has sparked accusations from Hamas officials that Jordan’s King Abdullah was doing the bidding of Israeli officials — a claim roundly denied by both Israel and Jordan.

While it is true that Israel has exerted pressure on Jordan to put the squeeze on Hamas operations in Amman ever since the two countries signed a peace treaty in 1994, Israeli officials this week were quick to repudiate the Hamas claims.

“We did not exert any pressure,” Ephraim Sneh, Israel’s deputy minister of defense, told JTA. “In my opinion, Abdullah took the restrictive measures against Hamas because he re-evaluated the situation and reached the conclusion that this was the right thing to do under the existing circumstances.”

According to Sneh and other Israeli officials, Abdullah was concerned that if he refrains from acting against Hamas now, the militant group may grow strong enough to give him the same troubles the PLO had given his father, King Hussein, 29 years ago, during the Black September riots in which 2,000 people were killed during 13 days of clashes between the Jordanian army and PLO fighters operating in and around the Jordanian capital.

Nachman Tal, who until three years ago was a high-ranking official with Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security service, wrote in his newly published book, “Islamic Fundamentalism,” that Abdullah would maintain the same relations with Hamas that had marked the reign of his father.

This week, Tal told JTA that the recent Jordanian crackdown against Hamas had caught him by surprise.

Ever since Abdullah ascended the throne after Hussein’s death in February, he had adopted a policy of rapprochement with the wider Arab world — particularly with Syria, which had strained relations with Jordan during Hussein’s reign.

According to Tal, it would have been only natural for Abdullah to maintain the status quo with the Islamic fundamentalists and perhaps even improve relations with them.

But Abdullah had no such plans. On Aug. 30, Jordanian officials shut down the offices of Hamas in Amman, arrested dozens of followers and issued arrest warrants for three of its leaders, Khaled Mashaal, Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook and Ibrahim Ghosheh.

The three were in Tehran when the warrants were issued. When they returned to Amman last week, they were promptly arrested. One of them, Marzook, was soon deported.

The case histories of Mashaal and Marzook illustrate Jordan’s dramatic change in policy toward Hamas.

In September 1997, Jordan’s relations with Israel were severely strained after two Mossad agents were apprehended by Jordanian authorities after attempting to inject Mashaal with a fatal poison. After Hussein convinced U.S. officials to intercede, Israel provided an antidote that saved Mashaal from the toxin that had been injected into his ear.

As part of the price for securing the two agents’ release from Jordan, Hussein got Israel to free the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

Marzook, who was the head of Hamas’ political wing, had lived in the United States for 15 years before he was detained at a New York airport in July 1995 because his name was on a list of suspected terrorists.

Israel had asked for his extradition to bring him to justice for his alleged role in 10 terrorist attacks between 1990 and 1994 that took 47 lives.

After his arrest, Marzook remained in a New York jail while his lawyers fought the Israeli request.

In April 1997, Israel decided to drop its extradition request — apparently fearing that putting Marzook on trial would provoke Palestinian violence.

The next month, Hussein agreed to take in Marzook, who operated freely until Abdullah had the arrest warrants issued.

Marzook has now found safe haven in Damascus, where Syrian officials harbor several Palestinian groups which, like Hamas, oppose the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and call for the destruction of the Jewish state.

Marzook was quoted Monday as saying he expected that he would soon be able to return to Amman, adding that he believed there would be a “breakthrough” to reverse the crackdown.

Tal also suggested that the crackdown may be short lived.

“It is too early to tell whether Abdullah will go all the way against Hamas,” he said. “It is still likely that in two weeks or so, Abdullah will release the prisoners.”

Hamas has prospered in Jordan since the beginning of this decade, when Israeli officials detained, killed or deported many of its members in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Hamas moved many of its operations to Jordan, which was a natural choice for the militants, given the fact that some 3 million Palestinians — or more than two-thirds of the total population — live in the Hashemite Kingdom.

Over the years, Amman became the back door for Hamas activities in the territories. During the past five years, Hamas raised a reported $70 million for its radical activities against Israel.

Even prior to Jordan’s peace agreement with Israel, Hussein had banned Hamas from initiating terrorist attacks inside Israel. The restrictions became even tighter after the agreement was signed.

While Hamas officials in Jordan promised to meet Hussein’s demands, it was often an agreement more honored in the breach than in the observance.

The Hamas headquarters in Amman supervised the military training of terrorists and transferred money and military equipment into Israel.

In what was the latest breach, Hamas operatives in Jordan were behind an attack earlier this month in which a group of Israeli Arabs attempted to carry out bombings in Haifa and Tiberias.

The bombs apparently exploded prematurely, killing three of the attackers and seriously wounding an Israeli woman who was passing by.

The Jordanian crackdown on Hamas offices in Amman took place several days before the botched bombings.

But after it became clear that the Israeli Arabs were taking their orders from Hamas operatives in Jordan, Abdullah apparently became more firm in his resolve to arrest Mashaal, Marzook and Ghosheh if and when they returned from Iran.

Officials in Amman said over the weekend that the crackdown on Hamas had not come in the wake of pressure from either Israel or the United States, which has offered political and financial support to Abdullah’s new regime.

The crackdown was a “sovereign decision taken by the Jordanian government,” according to the deputy prime minister, Ayman Majali.

In taking the action, Abdullah may have underestimated the reaction of Palestinians living in Jordan. Last Friday, some 3,000 Palestinians staged a sit-in to demonstrate their support for Hamas.

If such demonstrations continue, they could prove a crucial factor when Abdullah decides whether to press on with the crackdown on Hamas.

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