Today in Middle Eastern history: Jordan’s Black September begins (1970)

Anybody familiar with the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre knows about the Palestinian terror group “Black September,” which was active in the early 1970s. Black September, the organization, was either a faction within or a splinter off of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah party that specialized in terrorist attacks on an international scale (by which I mean in places outside of Israel-Palestine). Depending on whose version of the story you believe, it either operated independently of Fatah or its purpose was to carry out especially violent while still giving Fatah and the PLO deniability. Either way, the group disbanded in late 1973/early 1974 when the PLO decided to put the kibosh on international terrorism.

In its earliest incarnation, Black September the organization was a reaction to Black September the event, which began on September 16, 1970 in Jordan. Effectively a civil war between the PLO and Jordan, Black September had a fairly significant impact on the Palestinians and on the Middle East.

Prior to September 1970, tensions between the Hashemite monarchy of Jordan and the country’s majority Palestinian population had been on rise for many years. Jordan had become home to large numbers of Palestinians in the wake of the formation of Israel–and the subsequent Arab-Israeli War–in 1948. The nakba, as Palestinians came to refer to Israel’s creation, displaced a lot of Palestinians who wound up in Jordan, and the war resulted in Jordan annexing the West Bank. When Israel seized the West Bank during the 1967 Six-Day War, still more Palestinian refugees made their way from into Jordan proper. Going back to the 1948 Palestinian exodus and the Arab-Israeli War, the Jordanian government had welcomed Palestinians with almost open arms. Its annexation of the West Bank gave Jordan a much needed boost in both population and arable land.

However, tensions around the large number of Palestinians in Jordan rose during the 1960s and especially after the loss of the West Bank in 1967. This was a somewhat unique refugee situation in that Palestinians actually came to outnumber Jordanians in Jordan. This made many Jordanians uncomfortable, though it must be said that in the 1950s and 1960s the whole notion of “Palestinians” as a national identity distinct from “Jordanians” was still a pretty new concept and so those tensions probably could have been managed better by Jordanian leaders. But that was only part of the problem. The bigger issue was that Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization developed a habit of launching attacks against Israel from refugee camps inside Jordanian territory, which led to Israeli reprisals against those camps and, therefore, against Jordan.

King Hussein of Jordan at a much later, and apparently happier, time in his life

Hussein ordered the PLO to knock it off with the attacks, but they essentially ignored him. Which they could afford to do in part because, to reiterate, there were more Palestinians than Jordanians in Jordan, so if anything the PLO had a larger political support base than the king. Hussein’s security forces secretly worked with the Israelis to try to clamp down on border security, though for obvious reasons this wasn’t something Hussein wanted the public to know. Then came the Battle of Karamah in 1968, when the Israeli army crossed into Jordan and destroyed the Karamah refugee camp in response to a series of PLO attacks inside Israel. After Karamah, to try to ease tensions between the Palestinians and the Jordanian government, the PLO and Hussein reached an accord: essentially, the PLO pledged to stop acting like a wholly autonomous nation that was simply squatting on Jordanian territory. Among other things, the PLO was barred from printing its own ID papers, from clothing members in military-esque uniforms, from acting as police/army in Palestinian areas, and from collecting taxes.

The PLO then mostly ignored this agreement, and so the situation grew more tense. In February 1970, Hussein issued a number of royal edicts that attempted to restrict Palestinian behavior, which led to the outbreak of Palestinian protests against the monarchy and led the PLO to actually increase its quasi-governmental activities. The PLO also attacked a motorcade carrying King Hussein on September 1 and began regularly clashing with Jordanian soldiers. Then, in on September 6 and 9, the PLO’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP, insert Monty Python joke here)

faction carried out four hijackings in quick succession to get the rest of the world’s attention, while decreeing that northwestern Jordan was henceforth “liberated.” From, uh, the Jordanians, I guess.

This, as you might imagine, didn’t go over too well with King Hussein. He declared martial law and sent the military to attack PLO offices in Amman as well as Palestinian camps in northwestern Jordan. The Jordanian army pushed PLO paramilitaries into the mountains and killed at least a couple thousand of them, but this military success was counterbalanced by a larger diplomatic failure. Hussein was handicapped by the fact that most of the Arab world was more sympathetic to the Palestinians than they were to him. While the Jordanians were worried about a possible Iraqi invasion, the Syrian army actually did invade. This prompted Hussein to appeal to the US for help (which raised tensions between the US and the USSR, which was in Syria’s corner), before a counterattack by the Jordanian Air Force was able to drive the Syrians back over the border. With the military part of the conflict going well for Jordan but the PR part going badly, on September 27, in Cairo, Hussein agreed to a ceasefire written by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser that recognized the PLO’s rights to operate in Jordan.

For what it’s worth, Nasser suffered a massive heart attack and died the following day. If you attribute his death in any way to the Cairo peace conference then I guess this is one of the many ways Black September changed the Arab world. I tend to assume Nasser would have had his coronary anyway.

Nasser (middle, RIP), negotiating (dictating?) ceasefire terms with (to?) Arafat (left) and Hussein (right), in Cairo, September 1970 (Wikimedia)

That was the end of Black September (the month), but not of the Jordanian-PLO conflict. Arafat and the main PLO leadership agreed to abide by Hussein’s rules governing their activities, but a couple of groups under the PLO umbrella, including the PFLP, simply refused to honor the deal. So the fighting picked up again in November and continued until the summer of 1971. Although he had sought an accord with Hussein, when the fighting resumed Arafat and his Fatah faction waded right back into it. Arafat began openly calling for Hussein to be deposed, saying that the Jordanian king was about to sign a peace treaty with Israel and that removing him was the only way to stop it.

And, as it turns out, he was right! King Hussein did sign a peace treaty with Israel! In, ah, 1994. So that’s probably not exactly what Arafat meant.

Without some outside intervention by a stronger Arab nation, the PLO was completely out of its depth trying to take on the Jordanian army. No intervention was forthcoming, and Nasser, the one guy in the Arab world who could have probably backed Hussein off through sheer force of will, was dead. So the Jordanian army gradually mopped up Palestinian resistance, and by July the last PLO elements (including Arafat) had been expelled from Jordan and were setting up shop in their new home, Lebanon (courtesy of new Syrian President Hafez al-Assad’s generous decision to allow them free passage across Syria). There they would play a major role in starting the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, a conflict that led Arafat and the PLO to relocate again, to Tunisia, after Israel intervened in 1982.

King Hussein’s reputation in the Arab world took a major hit over the whole affair, but in the end he had reasserted full control over his kingdom, so that was probably a price he was willing to pay. Black September, the organization, formed shortly after the events we’ve discussed here with the initial purpose of carrying out reprisal attacks against Jordan. As the story goes, a group of Palestinian fighters who had refused to leave Jordan with the rest of the PLO and who were fighting under Palestinian commander Abu Ali Iyad formed the organization after Abu Ali Iyad was killed by Jordanian forces in July 1971, allegedly after having been tortured. Abu Ali Iyad’s followers blamed Jordanian Prime Minister Wasfi al-Tal for their leader’s execution, and as their first attack they assassinated Tal in Cairo in November 1971.

Speaking of Assad, he became president of Syria in part because of Black September. At the time, Assad (who was Minister of Defense and arguably the de facto leader of the country) was engaged in a power struggle with the head of Syria’s Baʿath Party, Salah Jadid (who as party leader was supposed to be the de facto leader of the country). Jadid had supported Syria’s invasion of Jordan, and, when it failed (in part because Assad made sure it would, by refusing to involve the Syrian Air Force), the political fallout led Jadid to remove Assad from power. Well, to try to remove Assad from power. Assad responded by launching a coup, in November 1970, that ousted and imprisoned Jadid and toppled the government he’d put in place in favor of one led by Assad.

In a peculiarly random bit of fallout, the events of Black September also played a major role in Pakistani history. How, you ask? Well, when Black September kicked off, there was a Pakistani military unit in Jordan conducting training exercises with the Jordanian military. It was led by a brigadier general named Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. When Black September began, and acting on his own authority, Zia took command of a division of the Jordanian army and played a significant role in those early military successes against the PLO. Zia was almost court martialed for his actions when he got home, but he was saved by the intervention of the commander in chief of the Pakistani army, Gul Hassan Khan.

Zia’s battlefield successes in Jordan later became part of the reason why Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto promoted him to four-star general and Army Chief of Staff in 1976, a decision that Bhutto would regret when, oops, Zia led the 1977 coup that ousted Bhutto (and eventually led to his 1979 execution). Zia ruled Pakistan more or less dictatorially until his death in 1988. Apropos of nothing, Zia’s government was the key pipeline for US military aid going to the Afghan Mujahideen in the 1980s, which was an excellent aid program that had no negative long-term implications for the US or the region or the rest of the world whatsoever, the end.

Author: DWD

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