King Abdullah and Queen Rania - Reuters - Nov. 2010
King Abdullah and Queen Rania at a soccer match in Barcelona in November. Photo by Reuters
Text size

A soccer match played Friday between the Jordanian league's Al-Faisaly and Al-Wihdat ended in a 1:0 victory for Al-Wihdat. The real news, though, wasn't the score, but the skirmish that broke out, in which 250 fans and policemen were injured, after the wire fence that separates the spectators from the field collapsed. This wasn't just a clash between fans accompanied by stone-throwing, broken bones and arrests. It was a political battle pitting the Al-Wihdat fans, mostly of Palestinian descent, against the Al-Faisaly fans, mostly of Jordanian origin.

This is not the first time a soccer match between these two teams has turned into civil war. In July 2009, police stopped a game in Zarqa because the Al-Faisaly fans began cursing not only the Palestinian players but even Queen Rania and the heirs to the throne who happen to be Palestinian. That event, barely reported in the Jordanian media because of strict censorship rules, was of particular interest to the U.S. embassy in Amman, which expressed its concerns in a cable to the State Department. The dispatch was published by WikiLeaks last week.

The cable notes that the rivalry between the teams stems from the different ethnic backgrounds of the fans. Al-Faisaly, which gets its name from the Hashemite King Faisal, is controlled by the important Adwan tribe, while the Al-Wihdat team, named after the largest Palestinian refugee camp, is controlled by businessman Tareq Khoury, who was elected to the Jordanian parliament in 2007 and has used his influence in the club for political purposes. The two teams have been meeting on the field for years and clashes between their fans are not infrequent. The U.S. embassy cable notes that these incidents are a barometer of tensions between the East Bank and West Bank - tensions that reached a peak in 2009 when the Al-Faisaly fans demanded that King Abdullah divorce his Palestinian wife offering to provide him with two wives of "our own" origin.

Apparently, it wasn't the incidents themselves that sparked the interest of the U.S. embassy but rather the weak response of Jordanian authorities. Prince Ali, Abdullah's half brother, who heads the Jordanian soccer association, published an anemic statement describing the behavior of the Al-Faisaly team as unbearable and fining it a relatively small sum equivalent to $7,000, according to the dispatch. It added that the official media were avoiding coverage of the story and that even those commentators who support the regime were apparently told to refrain from writing about it.

Embassy officials interpreted this reaction as a clear sign that tensions between the two groups had reached such a level that even their closest sources are refusing to discuss the matter, saying it touched "on the very heart of national identity." One source was quoted as saying, albeit with reluctance, that the game demonstrated the "ugly sides of Jordanian ultra-nationalism." Embassy officials said in the cable that tensions may be linked to planned reforms that are expected to transfer some of the positions of power traditionally held by the Jordanian elites to Palestinians, who for years have been complaining about discrimination.

The cable concludes by noting that "the king's silence about the game is deafening" and that senior Jordanian officials are amazed that the monarch did not respond to the personal attacks on his family.

A Jordanian source told Haaretz this week that "the built-in tensions between Palestinians and Jordanians in Jordan cannot be resolved without a series of reforms that will make it possible for the Palestinians to be part of Jordan's leadership. It's not enough that the king make a show of appointing a number of ministers of Palestinian origin," the source said, "and even his marriage to Rania cannot reduce the feelings of deprivation among Palestinians."

The king, it would seem, is not merely concerned about internal tensions in his country but also about the possibility that Israel will take advantage of this situation to promote "the alternative state," a theory that holds that Jordan is the Palestinian state. Last week, a seminar organized by Knesset member Arye Eldad under the slogan "Can Jordan be the Palestinian national state?" gave him cause for concern, especially since one of the invitees was the Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders, known for his anti-Muslim sentiments. Jordan sent a letter of protest to Israel for holding the event, and the Dutch foreign minister hastened to calm Jordanian fears by saying that his government took no responsibility for Wilders' remarks in support of making Jordan the Palestinian state. Abdullah, it appears, was not convinced by these reassuranced and, according to Jordanian sources, he is now more concerned than ever that the right-wing control of the Israeli government and the stalemate in talks with the Palestinians could encourage Israel to adopt the "Jordan is Palestine" option.

Abdullah is also disappointed that the United States failed to persuade Israel to freeze construction in the settlements, as this will make it more difficult to launch direct negotiations. He also fears that this could entice Palestinian residents of Jerusalem and the West Bank to pick up and move to Jordan, thereby increasing the Palestinian population there and upsetting the balance of power in the monarchy.