Jordan willing to escalate to get back its citizens detained by Israel

Jordan has recalled its ambassador to Tel Aviv in protest against the ongoing administrative detention of two of its nationals, threatening to take further escalatory steps.

al-monitor Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi gestures during a joint news conference with German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Amman, Jordan, Aug. 19, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed.

Topics covered

ayman safadi, benjamin netanyahu, peace treaty, administrative detention, ambassador, hunger strike, jordanian-israeli relations

Nov 6, 2019

Israel has handed over two Jordanian nationals on Nov. 6, which it had held in administrative detention for months, ending a diplomatic crisis between the two countries. In what is seen as a triumph for Jordanian diplomacy, Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi announced on Nov. 4 that the two Jordanians, Heba Labadi and Abdulrahman Meri, would be handed over to the kingdom before the end of the week. 

On the same day, the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu confirmed that the two Jordanians would be released, adding, “Israel views the relationship between Jordan and Israel as a cornerstone of regional stability and will continue to act to ensure the region's security.”

Haaretz newspaper, which reported the news, added that Israel’s National Security Council chief Meir Ben Shabbat and Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman were behind the political and security negotiations to form the deal.

That deal comes a week after Jordan announced Oct. 29 that it was recalling its ambassador in Tel Aviv, Ghassan al-Majali, in protest of the administrative detention of the two Jordanian nationals by the Israeli authorities. Labadi, 24, was arrested on Aug. 20 while crossing the King Hussein Bridge with her mother to visit relatives in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Meri, 28, was also arrested while crossing into the West Bank on Sept. 2. The latest crisis takes place as the two countries fail to mark the 25th anniversary of the signing of the peace treaty.

The Jordan Times quoted Safadi on Oct. 29 as saying that recalling the Jordanian ambassador in Tel Aviv for discussion is a “first step” in light of Israel’s continued illegal and inhumane detention of the two Jordanians, and its failure to meet the ministry's repeated demands for their release. Safadi added, “We hold Israel fully accountable for the lives of our citizens and will continue taking all available legal, political and diplomatic measures to ensure their safe return home.”

The case of Labadi and Meri has enraged public opinion in Jordan, with activists launching hashtags on Twitter calling on the government to do more to release the two Jordanians. There are fears for Labadi’s life, who went on a hunger strike Oct. 10 and was moved to a prison hospital on Oct. 31, according to a Foreign Ministry statement.

Both Labadi and Meri had been held in administrative detention without charges. Labadi’s lawyer, Raslan Mahajna, told Haaretz Oct. 6 that she was interrogated intensively for 35 days, and in the end, there was no basis for indicting her, so she was slapped with an administrative detention order. Israel alleges that she has contacts with Hezbollah in Lebanon, a charge that her family denies.

Meri was also under administrative detention and the Israeli authorities had not explained the reason for his incarceration. His family says he has cancer and fears for his life.

Fadi Farah, spokesman for the National Committee for Prisoners in Israel, told The Jordan Times Oct. 29 that the health condition of Labadi and Meri has been deteriorating since they were arrested. As she is on hunger strike, Labadi’s “condition might lead to a heart problem, as her heart muscle has become so weak,” Farah said. Concerning Meri, he said that he needs medical supervision, since he has been receiving treatment for cancer for nine years. But medical care for him has been “intentionally ignored” in Israeli prisons, Farah added.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry had not reacted publicly to Jordan’s recall of its ambassador and had not commented on the continuous detention of the two Jordanian nationals. But on Nov. 1, Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper said that Ben-Shabbat was planning to visit Jordan in the coming days as part of efforts to resolve the issue.

In a twist to the crisis, Jordan’s Foreign Ministry announced that the local authorities had arrested an Israeli citizen Oct. 26 who had crossed the northern borders illegally. It added that the individual, later identified by Israeli media as Oleh Chadash, has been detained and will be transferred to “the relevant legal parties to take the necessary legal measures against him.” There was no mention by Jordan and Israel if he was part of the latest deal.

A committee representing relatives of Jordanian captives and missing in Israel, numbering 22, issued a statement Oct. 30 calling on the government not to hand over the Israeli citizen who crossed the border illegally until “all Jordanian captives in Zionist prisons are released in exchange.” The arrest of the Israeli citizen also prompted lawmakers to demand that the government use him as a bargaining chip to release all Jordanian detainees in Israel.

Meanwhile, quoted an unnamed Jordanian official Oct. 30 as saying that Israel had tried to use the case of the two detainees to pressure Amman into reconsidering the fate of two enclaves along the Jordan-Israeli border, which will be handed back to Jordan Nov. 10, after King Abdullah decided last year not to renew annexes in the peace treaty that allowed Israel to use them for the last 25 years.

Safadi’s reference to the recalling of the ambassador as “a first step” has caught attention in Jordan, since such major decisions are taken directly by the king himself. Safadi’s statement raised questions over how far Amman would be willing to go in putting pressure on Israel.

Writing in Al-Ghad daily on Oct. 29, political columnist Maher Abu Tair said that it is not true that Jordan’s options in confronting Israel are limited. “We have many cards in our hands: suspending all Israeli exports, canceling tariff exemptions on Israeli goods and what many are demanding, which is the expulsion of the Israeli diplomatic mission in Amman and even the abrogation of the peace treaty,” he added. “While some of these options may not be tenable now, they could be at a future moment.”

Also writing in Al-Ghad daily on Oct. 30, commentator Fahd al-Khitan said that the Israeli government under Netanyahu had repeatedly provoked Jordan and threatened its national interests while proving that it cares less for the peace treaty. “This has meant that there are no more red lines for Jordan in terms of its relations with Israel and the case of the two detainees underlines that,” he said. “If Israel continues to provoke us and ignore our interests, then the next step would be to ask the Israeli ambassador to leave the country and Israel should know that Jordan is ready to go even further.”

Commenting on the latest crisis, head of Al-Quds Center for Political Studies Oraib al-Rantawi told Al-Monitor that the case underlines Netanyahu’s repeated attempts to provoke Jordan. “It’s a typical stunt by him [Netanyahu] whereby he invents a crisis with Amman only to back down in the end as we had seen in the past many times; the only outcome is a further deterioration in ties,” he said.

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