The March 15 request by the United States for Jordan to extradite Ahlam Tamimi, the Palestinian woman involved in the 2001 Sbarro pizzeria suicide bombing, surprised everyone — Hamas, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and to a large extend Israel as well. Tamimi, a one-time student at Birzeit University in the West Bank, was convicted in Israel for driving Hamas member Izz al-Din Shuheil al-Masri from the village of Aqaba, near the West Bank town of Jenin, to Jerusalem, where he perpetrated the attack.
The Sbarro bombing is one of the deadliest terror attacks of the second intifada (2000-2005), killing 15 people, including two Americans. Among the dead were seven children. Another 140 people were injured, among them Americans. Israeli troops captured Tamimi about a month after the attack, and a military court sentenced her to 16 life terms. She was freed in the 2011 prisoner deal between Israel and Hamas involving more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners being exchanged for an Israeli soldier held by Hamas. She never expressed remorse for her deed and even proclaimed that she would do it again.
Tamimi has been living in Jordan since her release. She was the most famous of all the female inmates freed in the swap, and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal lauded her. When Meshaal greeted the freed women in Cairo, an event broadcast on regional TV channels, he turned to Tamimi with great excitement and addressed her as “our heroine sister.” She leaned toward him and pledged to work for the freedom of other Palestinians jailed in Israel. Tamimi has since embarked on a career as a presenter on a show dealing with the issue of Palestinians in Israeli jails on the Hamas-affiliated Al-Quds TV station.
The extradition request is a source of great embarrassment to Jordan, mired as it is in economic difficulties that threaten King Abdullah II's continued rule and facing a US administration determined to prove itself tough on terrorism everywhere in the world. In fact, one could say that the US Justice Department has put Abdullah in a bind.
Tamimi had been added to the FBI’s Most Wanted list for her role in the murder of American citizens. A case against her was filed under seal in 2013, but the extradition and arrest orders were only now completed and sent to Amman. Mary McCord, acting assistant attorney general for National Security, said the United States never forgets those who target its citizens.
Hamas has urged Jordan to reject the extradition request for the “freed heroine.” Movement spokeswoman Huda Naim claimed that the entire Palestinian nation stands behind the woman who has become a symbol of its struggle for liberation.
“This makes no sense,” a Hamas source told Al-Monitor, speaking on condition of anonymity about the US request. He argued that Tamimi was freed by Israel in a prisoner exchange deal, and any request for her to be extradited so she can stand trial for something that she has already been tried for violates international law.
The release of prisoners in the 2011 deal is the only achievement that Hamas can boast of, so it is intent on preserving it. The episode is praised at every event and rally in the Gaza Strip, which Hamas controls. The only one raining on the parade is Israel, which re-arrested 54 of the freed inmates from the West Bank after the June 2014 kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens studying in the Etzion settlement bloc.
Yahya Sinwar, elected to lead the Hamas movement in Gaza earlier this year, has made the prisoner issue the movement’s top priority, so for Hamas, Tamimi’s extradition is a red line. Making the situation surrounding her even more relevant is that the Jordanian monarch expelled Hamas from the kingdom in 1996.
The Hamas source did not rule out the possibility that a Jordanian move to comply with the extradition request and arrest Tamimi, even for a day, would set off a wave of reprisals against Abdullah, not only by Hamas, but by all the Palestinian factions, who see her as a symbol and role model.
As mentioned, Jordan is in dire economic straits. Any shock to its stability could threaten the future of the monarchy. On March 8, Haaretz reported that Israel’s ambassador to Jordan, Einat Schlein, had briefed Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot on the deteriorating situation in Jordan and expressed concern about the stability of the monarchy.
Abdullah is between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, he knows full well that any indication of a willingness to give in to the Americans would be a colossal problem for him. On the other hand, when he met with President Donald Trump on Feb. 2 at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, he was hoping to establish an open line of communication with the US leader. The last thing he wants now is to fall out with the new administration.
Unless the State Department grasps that no one in the Trump administration had thought through all the consequences, and that the repercussions of the extradition are too dangerous to chance, the Jordanian king will ultimately be forced to choose between the lesser of two evils.