Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1315, (13 -19 October 2016)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1315, (13 -19 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

‘The enemy’s gas is occupation’

Jordanians are protesting against an unpopular deal to import Israeli gas into the country, but the government has not budged, reports Amira Howeidy

Al-Ahram Weekly

If all goes as planned, Israel will be regularly exporting large quantities of natural gas to Jordan by 2019 for up to 15 years- marking a first in the history of Israeli-Arab relations.   

Although Jordan and Israel have a 22-year-old peace agreement that has never been popular and has remained confined to the official level, the gas development has touched a raw nerve. It will take the normalisation of relations between the former enemies to a new level – inside Jordanian homes where Israel remains the enemy occupying the Palestinian Territories.

Half of Jordan’s population of seven million is of Palestinian origin.

On 26 September, Jordan’s National Electric Power Company (NEPCO) signed a 15-year deal with Nobel Energy, the US energy company that operates Israel’s Leviathan Field in the Mediterranean, and its Israeli partner Delek’s Drilling to supply Jordan with 45 billion cubic metres of gas in a deal valued at $10 billion.

The Leviathan Field is expected to start producing by 2019, by which time the construction of an Israeli-Jordanian gas pipeline would have been completed.

The deal was “conveniently,” according to critics, signed in the absence of a parliament, being elected at the time, and in a period when the Jordanian cabinet was waiting for the election results before forming a new government.

Jordan’s outgoing parliament was opposed to the agreement, in the making since 2014 when NEPCO signed a letter of intent with Nobel Energy. It was then stalled due to Israeli red tape and because of soured relations with Jordan.

NEPCO officials say the deal will save Jordan up to $600 million annually and cover 40 per cent of its energy needs. But the agreement has sparked nationwide protests across the political spectrum, including in universities and professional syndicates in Jordan.

The largest protest thus far, on 30 September, saw thousands of people take to the streets in the capital Amman against "stolen gas" and also the 1994 Jordanian-Israeli agreement known as Wadi Araba.

“Millions [of US dollars] of Jordanian tax-payers’ money will now go to funding the Israeli war machine in its crimes against the Palestinian people,” said Ibrahim Al-Tarawna, chair of Jordan’s Association of Professional Syndicates, at a recent protest.

Last Sunday, a weekly call by the Jordanian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel (BDS) group to switch off lights from 9 to 10 pm in rejection of the agreement gained traction as photographs of darkened or candle-light towns flooded social media to drive the point home.

The Arabic hashtags “the enemy’s gas is occupation” and “switch off the lights” topped the Jordanian Twittersphere, with thousands live tweeting about their participation and sentiments. “Switch off the lights so that dignity prevails,” one social-media user, Samar Barghouthi, wrote on her Twitter time line.

By Jordanian standards, the scale of participation, including businesses in the food and beverage sector, is noteworthy and a sign of growing public frustration at the government’s Israel policy.

In Amman, the Kalamazoo Grill, a steak-joint in the Dabouq neighborhood, shut down completely for an hour on Sunday evening. “It was necessary to join the movement,” Basem Aggad, managing partner of Kitchenette Jordan which runs the diner said in an email, “because of the scale of the issue being protested against, forcing the whole of society into involuntary normalisation with the apartheid state of Israel and strategically aligning Jordan’s energy security with what we consider an enemy state.”

Aggad said his business had lost money as a result of the closure, but had been overwhelmed by the support of hundreds of people, “customers and non-customers alike, both online and offline."

Dozens of similar businesses announced their participation on social media. Some operated during the boycott hour in candlelight, including one which held a Sheikh Imam evening in tribute to the late Egyptian dissenting poet.

Jordanian Prime Minister Hani Al-Mulki defended the agreement as being in the national interest of Jordan. He said that an increase in oil prices would have a negative impact on Jordan’s economy, which relies completely on energy imports.

“Politically, it is the government’s duty to preserve the security of the national economy,” he said.

Jordan relied on Saudi oil until the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which Amman supported. From then on, it received cheap Iraqi oil until the fall of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 2003.

By then Egypt had started exporting low-priced gas to both Jordan and Israel, which continued until 2011. Supplies to Jordan continued intermittently until they were cut off in 2013, contributing to an energy crisis which the country continues to reel from.

Today, critics say that Jordan has better options than tethering the economy with that of Israel, such as investing in alternative sources of energy like solar power.

Others argue that Jordan gave in to US pressure to go ahead with the deal despite the public opposition. There is also pressure on Egypt to import Israeli gas from the Leviathan Field, according to Iraqi energy expert Walid Khaduri writing in the newspaper Al-Hayat on Sunday.

“The objective is to change the geopolitical balance of power in Tel Aviv’s favour, so that Israel would be the main source of energy to these countries, perhaps for decades to come,” Khaduri said.

The importing of large quantities of Israeli gas for the importing country would lead to total dependence on Israel in determining the prices of local gas, electricity and industry, Khaduri wrote. “This means that Israel’s influence would become pervasive in the Arab energy sector.” 

The reverberations of the gas deal do not seem to be waning, contrasting with the relative quiet that met the 1994 peace agreement with Israel.

“Today, the political scene has changed dramatically,” said Jumana Ismail of BDS Jordan. “The opposition’s voice is louder despite the geopolitical realities that have forced Jordan to sign such a shameful deal.”

The movement says it has sensed a change in the public mood based on the level of engagement in activities advocated by the anti-Israel gas campaign and driving activists to work for long-term goals.

“The gas pipeline to Jordan is not due to be completed before 2019 at the earliest,” Ismail told Al-Ahram Weekly. “By then, we should be able to say that not a single home in Jordan will switch on the lights when the gas starts flowing. That will be the real measure of our success.”

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