Arms smuggling from Jordan: Lessons learned

A nagging question is, for whom are the caches of weapons from Jordan intended?

Illegal weapons seized by the Israel Police, Nov. 8, 2021. Credit: Israel Police.
Illegal weapons seized by the Israel Police, Nov. 8, 2021. Credit: Israel Police.
Yossi Kuperwasser
IDF Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser is director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He formerly served as director general of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and head of the research division of IDF Military Intelligence.

Jordanian Parliament member Imad al-Adwan was arrested on April 23 at the Allenby Bridge while trying to smuggle some 200 weapons into the West Bank—and perhaps beyond, into Israel. He was quickly released after questioning and sent back to Jordan. The episode was pushed out of the headlines but deserves an in-depth look. 

The Israeli investigation revealed that al-Adwan had carried out 12 separate smuggling attempts since early 2022, according to the Arab News. Presumably, answers to the questions raised by the affair are already in the hands of al-Adwan’s interrogators in the Israeli Security Agency and Jordanian intelligence, but the phenomenon creates concern.

Al-Adwan is not the only major smuggler. According to Israel Defense Forces figures, during 2020-2021 some 1,600 smuggling attempts from Jordan were interdicted, and in the first months of 2023, several hundred weapons were seized in other attempts. It is reasonable to assume that this may be just the tip of the iceberg; only 10% of al-Adwan’s attempts were detected.

Lethal supply and demand

The Palestinian demand for weapons is great, and Jordan has a large supply, resulting in mutual motivation to engage in the trade. Israel and Jordan’s efforts and counterterror activity have not deterred the smuggling. 

A nagging question is, for whom are the caches of weapons from Jordan intended? Reasonable suspects are terrorist elements and criminal organizations. 

It is also possible, even likely, that some of the weapons are intended for Hamas and various elements in Fatah, to build their capabilities to compete for control after the current Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas exits the scene. The entire Palestinian system is in suspense for that moment of truth. 

Given that al-Adwan is allegedly a “problematic” member of parliament, from a faction affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is the Palestinian sister, it is possible his motives went beyond profit. Was he also exploiting his status and immunity to build Hamas’s power ahead of the decisive junction?

Israel’s Arab residents also seek weapons to combat criminal gangs and wage clan wars. Murders among Israel’s Arab population are increasing at an alarming rate. The shootouts and disorder may serve the purposes of external adversaries looking to destabilize the country.

Lessons learned 

Some important lessons emerge from the al-Adwan affair: First, the assumption that the Jordanian government is vigilant with regard to arms smuggling, and to the security of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, is doubtful.

The hypothesis that had the Jordanians known about the smuggling they would have stopped it remains in question. Jordan’s ability appears limited, possibly due to insufficient intelligence penetration into the illicit enterprise or because closing down smuggling is not a priority since it does not directly threaten the regime. It is also possible that the Jordanians do not want to be portrayed at home as Israel’s defenders, and when they have relevant information, prefer to pass it to Israel. 

Any lacuna in intelligence gathering is worrisome. Considering the hostile atmosphere to Israel that characterizes the Jordanian street today and concerns over Iranian entreaties to Sunni regimes, an inability to obtain information is problematic. Moreover, it could project on the stability of the regime itself, which is already confronting growing domestic challenges. 

A second lesson from the al-Adwan affair relates to Israel’s eastern border. The claim that Israel’s security no longer requires military and intelligence control over Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley, including a military presence in vital areas and control of the crossings and the Jordan Valley “in its broadest sense” (as Rabin said in the Knesset in October 1995) has proven erroneous.

This claim was the basis of the security component of President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry’s peace proposals (i.e., General Allen’s security plan). The lessons of the smuggling and the security threats from Palestinian enclaves prove Israel’s well-considered rejection of the U.S. notions.

What should be done about the arms smuggling? First, Israel must process the lessons, increase its capacity to deal with the phenomenon and thwart it on its own. This should be done through increased intelligence and operational efforts and by strengthening deterrence with harsher punishments.

Unfortunately, the quick release of the Jordanian parliamentarian to his home country, notwithstanding serious political considerations, did not contribute to this context. Second, Israel needs to increase cooperation with Jordan against the scourge of smuggling and demand that Jordan increase its efforts, which are also necessary to strengthen its own security. 

Ostensibly, the P.A. and its security forces are possible interlocutors on the issue, but in practice, the chances that they will earnestly work to thwart arms smuggling are meager. 

Finally, the efforts must be intensified to damage the terrorist infrastructure in the P.A. territories and confiscate the weapons in the possession of terrorist operatives there.

Originally published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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