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

Years of tension between the PLO and the Jordanian government reaches a breaking point.

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Anybody familiar with the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre might wonder if the title of this post refers to the Palestinian “Black September” terrorist organization that perpetrated that attack, and, well,

“Black September,” the organization, never would have existed if it weren’t for “Black September,” the event, which began on September 16, 1970 in Jordan. At the very least it would have had to pick another name.

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. Palestinians had poured into Jordan after the formation of Israel in 1948, which created a lot of Palestinian refugees, and the ensuing Arab-Israeli 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 across the Jordan River. Jordan’s King Hussein elected to welcome these Palestinian refugees into his kingdom with open arms and do all he could to incorporate them into Jordanian society…sorry, I drifted off into an alternate reality there for a few seconds. King Hussein treated those refugees the way pretty much everybody treats refugees, as temporary visitors at best and parasites at worst.

Before you come down too hard on the now-deceased king, Hussein’s problems with the Palestinians were not entirely imagined. This was a somewhat unique refugee situation in that Palestinians actually wound up outnumbering Jordanians in Jordan. That fact made many Jordanians uncomfortable, not just the king, even though in the 1950s the very notion of “Palestinian” as a national identity distinct from “Jordanian” was still a pretty novel idea. Complicating things, Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization had 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.

Hussein ordered the PLO to knock off those cross-border attacks, but they more or less 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 base than the king. Hussein’s security forces secretly worked with the Israelis to try to increase 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 improve relations between the Palestinians and the Jordanian government, the PLO and Hussein reached an accord. In essence, 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 its members in military uniforms, from performing police and military functions in predominantly Palestinian areas, and from collecting taxes.

Having negotiated this new accord between the Palestinians and Jordanians, the PLO promptly went about ignoring it, 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 protests against the monarchy and led the PLO to actually increase its quasi-governmental activities. Then, in early September, the PLO’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) 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 the rest of Jordan.

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 the newly “liberated” region. 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. There were concerns about an Iraqi intervention on the PLO’s behalf, and the Syrian military actually invaded Jordan, which prompted Hussein to appeal to the US for help. This briefly raised tensions between the US and the USSR, which was in Syria’s corner, but a Jordanian Air Force counterattack drove the Syrians back over the border and kept things from escalating any further.

King Hussein of Jordan (center) meeting with Prime Minister Wasfi Tal and Army Chief of Staff Habis Al-Majali (left) on the first day of the Black September conflict (Wikimedia Commons)

Nevertheless, the diplomatic pressure remained. And so 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. Nasser, as it turns out, suffered a massive heart attack and died the following day, which wound up being not so great for the PLO.

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

This ceasefire marked the end of Black September, in the sense that September was over, but it did not mark the end of the Jordanian-PLO conflict. Arafat agreed to abide by Hussein’s rules governing the PLO’s activities, but a couple of groups under the PLO umbrella, including the PFLP, simply rejected the deal. As a result of their activities, the fighting picked up again in November and continued until summer 1971. Despite having sought an accord with Hussein, when the fighting resumed Arafat and his Fatah party joined right in. The PLO leader 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 he was right! King Hussein did sign a peace treaty with Israel!

In, ah, 1994, after Arafat had signed the Oslo I Accord with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Anyway, without some outside assistance the PLO was completely out of its depth trying to take on the Jordanian army. No such assistance was forthcoming, and Nasser, the one guy in the Arab world who could have convinced—or maybe “forced” would be a better word—Hussein to stand down, 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). 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 loss of reputation was probably a price he was willing to pay.

Speaking of Assad, he became president of Syria in part because of Black September. At the time, Assad was Minister of Defense and de facto leader of the country. He was engaged in a power struggle with the head of Syria’s Baath 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 personally.

To return to the Munich Olympics question, the organization “Black September” was established in 1971. It was a splinter group that broke away from Fatah because it wanted to escalate violence against Israel at an international level and to carry out attacks against Jordan. Or it was secretly a unit within Fatah that could be tasked with conducting reprisal attacks in Jordan and terrorist attacks on an international scale (by which I mean in places outside of Israel-Palestine) while still giving Fatah and the PLO some deniability. Your mileage may vary. Either way, the group is best known for the Munich attack and for its assassination of Jordanian Prime Minister Wasfi Tal while he was attending an Arab League summit in Cairo in 1971. It was disbanded in 1974 when the PLO decided to stop carrying out attacks internationally in order to build support for the Palestinian cause through diplomatic means.

In a peculiarly random bit of fallout, the events of Black September also played a 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 named Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. Operating 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 were 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, who was executed by Zia’s military government in 1979. Zia ruled Pakistan more or less dictatorially until his death in 1988 and, along the way, made his country the key pipeline for U.S. military aid going to the Afghan Mujahideen in the 1980s. It would be a stretch to blame the rise of al-Qaeda on Black September, but the two are at least connected with one another.