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Black September, The PLO's attempt to take over Jordan in 1970

The nature of the Arab purpose in Palestine was illumined, was indeed dramatised, by the clash between the terrorist organisations and the Jordanian government that began September 1970. Not an ideological confrontation nor the result of a difference of opinion on the proper fate of Israel, the clash between them was over power and authority. What the Fatah demanded was, in fact, a sharing of power and authority in Jordan. The smaller, so-called left-wing organisations led by George Habash and Naif Huwatma called for a complete change of regime -- that is, for Palestinian control in Jordan. In those parts of Jordan which adjoined the border with Israel, they demanded complete autonomy; throughout the rest of the country, they demanded a measure of exemption from the laws of the land for the members of their organisations. Hussein and his ministers were prepared to go-indeed, they did go-a long way to meet these demands. The conflict came over the extent of agreement. In the heat of the battle, the Palestinians involuntarily abandoned the posture to which their propaganda had for years accustomed the world. Exposed suddenly was the cynical imposture of the plea of homelessness by which hearts in so many countries had been touched.

Are authority, power, autonomy-demanded as a right and, to a degree, even granted-the lineaments of "homeless people" struggling for a homeland? Do they reflect the status of a liberation movement merely enjoying the hospitality of a foreign state? The truth is -- and every Arab knows it -- that the Fatah does not look on Jordan as a foreign state at all, but as its home, and its members feel completely at home in it. They behave as though they owned the place -- because they feel that they do, in fact, own it.

Transjordan, the territory of the present Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, is historically and geographically a part of Palestine. It was the nearly empty three-quarters of the territory originally entrusted to Britain expressly for the Jewish restoration; the territory had, moreover, been liberated from the Turks with the help of Jewish forces. This widely forgotten fact and the existence instead of the Arab state of Jordan underlines the myth of the Palestine Arabs as a "deprived people!' driven out of their homeland. Whatever the Palestine Arabs may lack, it is not a homeland; whoever has been deprived, it is not the Arabs.

The encounter in Jordan uncovered only a small part of the not at all secret fact of the Arabs' territorial affinities. It was even more rudely exposed in the confrontation in the Lebanese republic. Though- the Arabs do not claim Lebanon as a part of Palestine, in Lebanon the Fatah troops behaved exactly as they had behaved in Jordan. Throughout the country, dotted with their information and recruiting offices, they assumed the right of exemption from the ordinary civic regulations and restraints of the constituted Lebanese authority. They took over refugee camps, turned them into bases, and set up checkposts on the highways. In the southern zone, bordering on Israel, they demanded and seized autonomous control. Their rule was so comprehensive that some newspaper correspondents promptly labelled the area Fatahland. It was from here that they fired their mortars across the border into Israelís northernmost villages.

For many months Lebanon, divided into two camps, was in a state of perpetual crisis that almost completely paralysed its government. The Lebanese (even the lukewarm Christians) were prepared to, and did, go far to meet the Fatah demands. But even the fervent Moslem supporters of the Fatah declined to overstep the limits beyond which lay anarchy. In the end, an uneasy compromise was worked out. In the south it was, indeed, enforced willy-nilly by the regular daily appearance of Israeli Army patrols, whom the terrorists on the whole left severely alone. Under this protection, the Arab villagers who had earlier fled now came back and resumed their ordered life.

Out of Jordan

By Uriya Shavit

The Israeli public remembers the events of Black September as the operation in which the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan decisively eliminated a Palestinian uprising in the course of one month. The actions taken by King Hussein 32 years ago to expel Yasser Arafat and the senior Palestinian leadership from his country are used as a preferred example by those who claim that in the Middle East, the name of the game is cruelty and mercilessness. The Israeli invasion of the Palestinian cities two weeks ago sharpened the analogy between  the conditions that the king faced and the method of operation he chose, and the conditions facing Israel and the method of operation it has chosen.

But the seemingly well-known events of Black September did not last for only one month. The military struggle between Jordan and the Palestinians lasted for a year and a half. The climax came in September 1970, but the battle was won only after 10 bloody months, during which the Palestinians surprised the Jordanians with their tenacity.

A good starting point for understanding the processes that led up to the confrontation can be found in March 1968, when Israel Defense Forces (IDF) entered the Jordanian village of Karameh, about seven kilometers east of the Jordan River, where the young and then unknown leader of Fatah, Yasser Arafat, had his headquarters. The move came in response to a series of attacks carried out by Palestinian organizations against Israel, from Jordanian territory. Prime minister Levi Eshkol declared that the goal of the operation was to prevent "a new wave of terror" against Israel. The UN Security Council condemned the action.

Between 128 and 170 Palestinians were killed during that operation, depending which version one accepts. But, unexpectedly, even the IDF, still basking in the glory of the Six-Day War, suffered heavy casualties: 28 soldiers were killed, 80 were wounded, four tanks remained in Palestinian hands. And Yasser Arafat managed to escape.  A state within a state

The limited achievement on the battlefield captured the imagination of the Palestinians in Jordan and of the entire Arab world. Arafat was glorified as the person who had managed, to some extent, to restore downtrodden Arab dignity. Thousands of young Palestinians wanted to enlist in his organization. Fatah became the most important organization within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). In the wake of the battle of Karameh, Arafat's men became more daring. In the refugee camps and in several Jordanian cities, they behaved as though they owned the place: They walked around armed and in uniform, set up checkpoints, collected taxes, and refused to travel with Jordanian license plates on their cars.

The strengthening of the Palestinian organizations posed a dilemma for King Hussein. On the one hand, about two-thirds of his subjects were Palestinians, who supported the guerrilla warfare against Israel. Hussein could thus not oppose them without antagonizing most Jordanians - and without risking a confrontation with Nasser's Egypt, which supported the Palestinians. On the other hand, the increasing power of the Palestinians undermined his sovereignty. The Jordanian police and army were no longer the source of authority in the Jordanian refugee camps, and they gradually lost authority in the
north of the kingdom as well. 

King Hussein's first attempt to reestablish his authority was made in November 1968. He reached a seven-point agreement with the Palestinian organizations: Members of these organizations were forbidden to walk around the cities armed and in uniform; they were forbidden to stop civilian vehicles in order to conduct searches; they were forbidden to recruit young men who were fit to serve in the
Jordanian army; they were required to carry Jordanian identity papers; their vehicles were required to bear Jordanian license plates; crimes committed by members of the Palestinian organizations would be investigated by the Jordanian authorities; and disputes between the Palestinian organizations and the government would be settled by a joint council of representatives of the king and of the PLO.

The agreement reached between the sides did not withstand the test of reality. The Palestinian organizations continued to accumulate power in Jordan, and to do as they pleased in the refugee camps. They even intensified the fighting against Israel. During 1969, they conducted 3,170 operations against Israel from Jordanian territory, without bothering to coordinate them in advance with the Jordanian army. The counterattacks carried out by Israel damaged the Jordanian economy, and forced about 70,000 Jordanian subjects to flee from their homes in the Jordan Valley.

In the spring of 1969, the United States began its efforts to promote a political agreement between Israel and the Arab states. King Hussein hoped that president Richard Nixon's Republican administration would be less friendly toward Israel, and would force it to withdraw from the territories it occupied in 1967. He went to Washington to make it clear that Jordan was willing to become more flexible, in order to ensure the success of the American initiative.

The Palestinian organizations anxiously observed his moves. They were afraid of a separate Jordanian-Israeli agreement, which would destroy the dream of a Palestinian state stretching to the Mediterranean Sea.

In order to undermine the political contacts and to bring about a military conflagration between Jordan and Israel, Arafat and his partners stepped up the armed conflict against Israel. Hussein reached the conclusion that he had to act - but his hands were tied. He couldn't do more than Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser allowed him to do. At the beginning of February 1970, Hussein went to Cairo, and received Nasser's secret acquiescence to take more decisive action against the Palestinian organizations.

When the king returned to Jordan on February 10, he published a 10-point edict. Among its provisions were a ban on interference by members of the Palestinian organizations with the activity of the Jordanian security forces, a ban on organization of meetings or assemblies without the permission of the Interior Ministry, and a ban on Palestinian political activity.

The Palestinian organizations were not impressed. On February 11, they established a united military headquarters in order to prepare for a possible Jordanian attack. That same night, 300 people were killed in confrontations that broke out between the two sides in the streets of the capital, Amman. King Hussein was afraid of losing control. Nasser allowed him to impose limitations on the Palestinians, but warned him not to accept an all-out Jordanian war against the Palestinians. Hussein ordered the Jordanian army to refrain from additional activities, and declared: "We are all fedayeen" [Palestinian commando groups]. Afterward, he fired his interior minister, who was the greatest enemy of the Palestinian organizations in his government. The first round of battle between the sides ended with a clear victory for Yasser Arafat.

Who gave them rifles?

At the end of July 1970, Egypt decided to accept the plan proposed by U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers, which called for an immediate cease-fire in the war of attrition between Egypt and Israel, and for an Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 242. After Egypt, Jordan also announced that it accepted the plan.

The dramatic decision brought about an intensification of the Palestinian battle against Jordan. The radical left organizations in the PLO, George Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Naif Hawatmeh's Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front- General Command, decided to undermine Hussein's regime in order to ensure the failure of "the Rogers Plan," and perhaps the deposition of the king. In their opinion, the Hashemite regime had to be eliminated in any case, since it was conservative and pro-Western.

Yasser Arafat, head of Fatah, feared that the move to depose Hussein was premature. The Jordanian army numbered 55,000 well-trained soldiers, as well as an armored corps and an air force, whereas the Palestinian organization numbered at most about 15,000 fighters, armed mainly with light weapons. Arafat chose to play both sides against the middle and to maneuver in the ensuing chaos: On the one hand, he didn't stop the radical organizations; on the other, he didn't come out openly against Hussein.

At the beginning of September 1970, the activities of the leftist Palestinian organizations in Jordan turned into open defiance of King Hussein himself. On September 1, a failed attempt on Hussein's life was made while he was on his way to the Amman airport. On September 6, members of the Popular Front hijacked three planes: A Swissair plane and a TWA plane were hijacked to the airport in Zarqa, and an additional plane, belonging to Pan American, was hijacked to the Cairo airport. Three days later, a British plane was hijacked, and
brought down near Amman. The passengers were held hostage. The hijackers demanded the release of Palestinian prisoners in various countries. A spokesman for the Popular Front said in Beirut that the hijackings were carried out in order "to teach the Americans a lesson, because of their long-standing support of Israel."

Yasser Arafat did not condemn the hijackings, which aroused an international protest against the Palestinians. Hussein knew that the international community would now be more sympathetic toward a decisive battle against the Palestinian organizations, and that Nasser - who wanted to promote the Rogers Plan - would be less supportive. The Jordanian king quickly lost control of his kingdom.
At the height of the drama of the hijacked planes, the Palestinians declared the area of Irbid in the north of the country a "liberated region," and announced that they were preparing for "the showdown."

Hussein's inner circle, citizens of Transjordan who feared a Palestinian revolt, explained to the king that the time had come to defeat the Palestinians. "On September 15, at the palace in Sweileh, north of Amman, the associates and advisers of the king gathered,"wrote Prof. Asher Susser of Tel Aviv University in "Between Jordan and Palestine," his 1983 Hebrew biography of Wafsi al-Tal, Hussein's prime minister.

"These people, who had long supported strong action against the fedayeen, convinced Hussein that the time had come to act. They estimated that the army could expel the fedayeen from the large cities within two to three days. Hussein's hesitations disappeared. That same day, he made the decision to strike at the fedayeen. The uncertainty and frustrations of the past weeks disappeared. The atmosphere in the palace on the night of September 16 was like that in military headquarters on the eve of battle. Operational plans were made and organized quickly. The assumption was that there were only a few hours left before the all-out and unavoidable confrontation."

Syrian advances

On the morning of September 16, Hussein declared martial law. On September 17, the military attack began. Patton tanks from the 60th armored brigade, accompanied by armored vehicles, entered Amman from all sides, and attacked the headquarters of the Palestinian organizations. Battles took place in Zarqa, Sweileh, Salt and Irbid as well. The opinion of the king's advisers, that the Palestinians could be defeated within days, proved incorrect. The Palestinians surprised the army with their stubborn resistance. There was house-to-house fighting. Hussein knew that the longer the fighting continued, the greater the risk that Arab and international pressure would force them to stop the attack and to reach a compromise with the Palestinians.

On September 18, two days after the attack began, a small Syrian armored force invaded northern Jordan. Two days later, it was joined by two Syrian armored brigades, which were reinforced the next day, and swelled to the size of a division. The opening of an additional front against Jordan was the desired scenario for the Palestinians. The Jordanians were afraid that Syria aspired to exploit the civil war that had broken out in the kingdom in order to occupy it and to realize the dream of "Greater Syria." They confronted the Syrians with the 40th armored brigade, and managed to halt their advance. 

The U.S. and Israel shared Jordan's fear. Reconnaissance flights by the Israel Air Force above the Syrian force aroused fears in Damascus that Syria would be defeated in another war if it did not withdraw its forces from Jordan. Syria was thus forced to take its troops out of northern Jordan. Its involvement at the time remained a subject for historical debate. Hafez al-Assad, who was the Syrian defense minister in September 1970, told his biographer, Patrick Seale, that Syria's intention in invading northern Jordan was only to protect the
Palestinians from a massacre.

Whatever the case, the swift Syrian withdrawal was a severe blow to Palestinian hopes. Jordanian armored forces steadily pounded their headquarters in Amman, and threatened to break them in other regions of the kingdom as well. The Palestinians agreed to a cease-fire. Hussein and Arafat attended the meeting of leaders of Arab countries in Cairo, where Arafat won a diplomatic victory. On September 27, Hussein was forced to sign an agreement which preserved the right of the Palestinian organizations to operate in Jordan. For Jordan, it was humiliating that the agreement treated both sides to the conflict
as equals.

The agreement declared that Jordan "would support the Palestinian liberation movement"; that "both sides would withdraw from the cities," and "that all the prisoners would be released." The only clause that served the Jordanians was the one that stated that the Jordanian police would be the only body authorized to impose law and order. But Hussein had no reason to assume that the Palestinians would observe this clause any more than they had before, after signing similar agreements.

According to conservative, minimum estimates, several hundred Palestinians died in the battles of September 1970; according to the maximum estimate, there were several thousand casualties. Their independent military might suffered a major blow. Those were the circumstances which gave the name "Black September" to the events of the bloody month. But politically, Arafat and the Palestinian organizations were not dealt a decisive blow. Even after bringing the main force of his army to bear against them, Hussein did not succeed in expelling them from the country, and they were able to prepare for the next stage of the campaign.

But two developments outside Jordan determined the fate of the Palestinian organizations in Jordan. On September 28, Nasser died of a sudden heart attack. He was only 52 years old, and it was said that the tremendous pressure that he had been under because of the events of Black September had brought about his demise. With Nasser's death, the most important protective umbrella of the Palestinians in Jordan disappeared, and Egyptian involvement in the Jordanian-Palestinian conflict waned for the time being. Two months later, the Syrian defense minister, Hafez al-Assad, the leader of the pragmatic branch of the Ba'ath party, seized control in Damascus. So Syria was also not free for the time being to be involved in Palestinian affairs. 

The time was ripe for the third and last stage of the continuing war between King Hussein and Yasser Arafat.

Hussein's last battle

After Nasser's death, Arafat understood correctly that his position had been weakened. On October 31, 1970, he signed a five-point agreement, which was similar to that signed in November 1968, and was designed to return control of the country exclusively to King Hussein. The agreement stated that members of the Palestinian organizations were expected to honor Jordanian laws, instructed them to dismantle their bases, and forbade them to walk around armed and
in uniform in the cities and villages.

Had the Palestinians honored that agreement, Hussein would have had difficulties in continuing to act against them. But the PFLP and the DFLP - the two organizations to the left of Arafat - refused to accept its conditions. They called on their members to ignore the Jordanian government, and at a meeting of the Palestinian National Council, they were responsible for prompting the acceptance of the proposal that Transjordan would be part of the Palestinian state to be established in the future.

The open defiance caused renewed conflict between the Palestinians and the Jordanian army, whose commanders were in any case eager to finish the work they had begun in September. At the beginning of November 1970, incidences of fighting erupted between members of the PFLP and DFLP and the Jordanian security forces. On November 9, Jordanian prime minister Wasfi al-Tal, the sworn enemy of the Palestinians, announced that in accordance with the agreement signed a month earlier, the authorities would no longer allow the Palestinians to walk around with weapons or to store explosives. The announcement was not honored, and the security forces received instructions to confiscate the Palestinians' weapons.

Until January 1971, the Jordanian army heightened its control in all the central cities. At the beginning of that month, the Jordanian army began an attack against the Palestinian bases along the highway between Amman and Jerash, in order to cut them off from the other cities and to take over the roads linking their strongholds. In response to the operation, the Palestinians agreed to hand over their weapons to the Jordanians. This agreement was not honored either.
Toward the end of March, after a Palestinian arms warehouse was discovered in Irbid, the Jordanian army placed a curfew on the city, arrested some of the Palestinian activists, and expelled others. The takeover of Irbid was completed at the beginning of April. Afterward, many senior members of the Palestinian organizations, who were aware of their weakness, began to withdraw from Amman as well.

Yet, despite the series of defeats, the Palestinian organizations did not give in. On June 5, the senior Palestinian organizations, including Yasser Arafat's Fatah, came out with a declaration on Radio Baghdad in which they called for the deposition of King Hussein. The reason they gave for this was that deposing him was the only way to prevent the signing of "a peace agreement between Israel and Jordan." 

In mid-June 1971, after three tense months during which the sides made efforts to fortify their positions by political means, Jordan embarked on the final campaign against the Palestinians. The Jordanian army, which for almost 10 months had been pushing the Palestinian organizations out of the major cities, used large forces to expel them from the mountainous regions of the cities of Jerash and Ajloun, in the north of the kingdom, where about 3,000 armed Palestinians were located. 

The members of Fatah declared that they preferred to die in battle rather than surrender to the Jordanian dictates. After four days of battle, the Jordanian army overcame the last pockets of resistance. 

King Hussein held a press conference and declared that there was now "absolute quiet" in the kingdom. Seventy-two Palestinians who were afraid of the Jordanian soldiers chose to undertake the most humiliating action possible for them: They fled to the West Bank and surrendered to IDF soldiers.

The Palestinian rout was complete. King Hussein had removed the grave threat to his throne, and had strengthened his control over the kingdom. Fatah, beaten and humiliated, established an avenging arm - called "Black September." The first operation by this group took place on November 28, 1971. Four of its members assassinated Wasfi al-Tal, Jordan's prime minister and the enemy of the Palestinians, on the steps of the Sheraton Hotel in Cairo. Tal's last words were: "They've killed me. Murderers, they believe only in fire and destruction."

After Black September

The saying that history repeats itself, once as tragedy and once as farce, has not proved itself in the Middle East. Here the tragedies tend to repeat themselves again and again. For Jordanian identity, September 1970 was a turning point. The continuing effort made by King Hussein to blur the differences between the identity of Transjordanians and that of Palestinians was replaced by the "Jordanization" of the administration and the army in the kingdom, and paved the way for Hussein to gradually relinquish his desire to reestablish his total sovereignty over the West Bank. The American and Israeli support of Jordan in the face of the Syrian invasion of the north of the kingdom strengthened Jordanian recognition of the fact that the stability of the kingdom depended on the support of the West.

For the Palestinian leadership, Black September was the month in which it proved that the military might of its members should not be underestimated, and that it had the ability to formulate the agenda of the Arab states and of Israel. At the same time, the Palestinian leadership also proved that it wasn't aware of the limitations of its power, and had wrongly estimated the willingness and the capability of Arab countries to fight for its people. Since then, the Palestinian leadership has returned to the achievements - and the mistakes - of Black September, at every critical junction at which it has found itself.

For Yasser Arafat, Black September was a test. He was asked to honor agreements, and repeatedly violated them; he was asked to rout out the extremists in his camp, and he didn't rout them out; he was asked to opt for realistic strategic goals, and he didn't opt for them. 

From Jordan he continued to Lebanon, from Lebanon he was expelled to Tunis, from Tunis again to Gaza and to Ramallah, where he found himself, 32 years after Black September, once again causing chaos, and once again besieged by armored forces which he will not be able to subdue.

The lessons learned from the events of Black September have not been quickly forgotten. After the recent invasion of the IDF into the Palestinian cities, the Hashemite Kingdom sent several serious warnings to Israel. They included a warning about the tragic consequences of deporting Yasser Arafat back to Jordan.

Source: Uriya Shavit, Haaretz Newspaper, May 28, 2002

This page was produced by Joseph E. Katz
Middle Eastern Political and Religious History Analyst 
Brooklyn, New York 
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Source: "Battleground: Fact & Fantasy in Palestine" by Samuel Katz, 
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Copyright © 1973, 1977, 1978, 1985 by Samuel Katz.
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Portions Copyright © 2001 Joseph Katz