The Significance of Black September

Gemma Matheson, Dickson College, 2010

This essay was written in response to the following self-devised focus question: "What was the significance of Black September?" It was submitted as part of the Modern Middle East unit at Dickson College, Semester 2, 2010.

The events of September 1970, known as Black September in Arab history, had far reaching effects on the geo-politics of the Middle East which still echo today. In that month tensions between Palestinians in Jordan and the Jordanian Government of King Hussein erupted into open conflict. In the aftermath, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) was expelled from Jordan and relocated to southern Lebanon. While the PLO went on to be recognised as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, its presence in southern Lebanon created instability which helped trigger the Lebanese civil war. At the same time, King Hussein lost much of his legitimacy in the Arab world and Arab unity against Israel was broken.

After the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967, large numbers of Palestinian refugees flooded into Jordan, joining the many who had fled Israel after the 1948 war. While there are no reliable figures on the number of Palestinian refugees in Jordan, estimates based on the number of refugees who left Israel after 1948 and figures collected by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in 1970 range from 250,000 to over 500,000 refugees (Oroub Al Abed 2002). Overall, Palestinians comprised around 60 per cent of the Jordanian population.

With the influx of refugees, Palestinian guerrilla groups associated with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), particularly Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction, developed a strong presence in Jordan. By early 1970 at least seven Palestinian organisations could be identified in Jordan, comprising an estimated 15 to 16,000 fighters. This compared to the 60,000 strong Jordanian army. The Palestinian resistance or fedayeen as it was known had become as Time magazine said in 1968 “a virtual state within a state” (Time magazine 1968). For example, they easily acquired arms from other Arab states and from Eastern Europe and openly flouted Jordanian law.

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The emergence of the fedayeen created a significant threat to the authority of the Jordanian government, with Palestinian attacks against Israel from within Jordan prompting Israeli counterattacks creating instability for the Jordanian monarchy. In 1969 there were a reported 3170 Palestinian operations against Israel from Jordanian territory, generally without any coordination in advance with the Jordanian army (Uriya Shavit 2002). In February 1970 the Jordanian Army began a campaign to try to restrict the activity of the PLO.

The immediate trigger for the events of Back September occurred on 1 September 1970 with the attempted assassination of King Hussein by Palestinians (Ovendale 1984). Then from 6 to 9 September members of the left wing Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) hijacked four international airplanes and forced three to land at Zarqa in Jordan with their hostages. An evacuation of the hostages was negotiated and then the PFLP blew up the planes in full view of the international media, which further challenged the authority of King Hussein and the Jordanian Government.
In a radio broadcast on 16 September, Hussein declared martial law and announced that he was setting up a military government to restore ‘order and security’. Bloody fighting broke out on the hillsides of Amman, the Jordanian capital, within 24 hours of the broadcast, and the Jordanian army was closing in on the Palestinian fighters. Yasser Arafat was named PLO commander in chief only hours before the fighting started. He wavered between calling for the over-throw of the Jordanian military government and trying to patch things up with Hussein over the telephone, but he could not get through.

On 18 September, Syrian forces intervened briefly but ineffectively in support of the Palestinians. After the Jordanian air force attacked the Syrians on 22 September, Syrian forces began to withdraw (Ovendale 1984). For a time there was a risk that the US and USSR, as well as Israel might be drawn into the conflict. On 27 September, Egyptian President Nasser brokered a deal between King Hussein and the PLO which would have given a continued role to the PLO in Jordan. But the next day Nasser died of a heart attack and King Hussein resumed his campaign against the PLO. The conflict continued to mid June 1971 when the PLO were eventually forced out of Jordan and relocated to southern Lebanon.

The conflict of September 1970, Black September as it came to be known in Arab history, was bloodier and more drawn-out than anyone could have imagined. Hussein assumed the fighting would be over within 48 hours, but the Palestinians, armed with few weapons, fought with courage and determination. At least 3000 people died according to the Red Cross, although the PLO claimed as many as 20,000 Palestinians were killed (Gowers and Walker 1990).

The biggest long-term losses related to the crisis in Jordan were suffered by the PLO. During Black September, the PLO lost its main base of operations and fighters were pushed out of Jordan. The fighting was especially intense in the Jordanian capital Amman where Jordanian artillery pounded the Palestinian refugee camps relentlessly and dead bodies rotted in the streets as casualties, most of them civilians, mounted into the thousands. PLO leader Yasser Arafat in particular was a marked man. He described the Jordanian assault as ‘… an attempt to liquidate both the revolution and the PLO’. (Gowers and Walker 1990 page 85)

The PLO’s relocation to southern Lebanon stirred up internal unrest in Lebanon with intensification of fighting on the Israeli-Lebanese border. The PLO added to the weight of the Lebanese National Movement, a coalition of Muslims, Arab nationalists and leftists that opposed the right wing Maronite Christian-dominated government of Lebanon. These developments were part of the start of the Lebanese Civil war which the PLO was engrossed with from 1975 until after the mid 1980s. In this regard the events of Black September in Jordan in 1970 had far reaching consequences for the geo-politics of the Middle East for years to come.

One of the major outcomes from the events in September 1970 was the formation by members of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction of the PLO of the ‘Black September’ terrorist organisation. ‘Black September’ was established with the express purpose of conducting revenge operations against King Hussein’s regime and other targets (Gowers and Walker 1990). Between 1971 and 1973 it was responsible for a series of spectacular revenge actions against Jordan and Israel. In November 1971 ‘Black September’ assassinated the Jordanian Prime Minister Wafsi Tal in Cairo. Wafsi Tal had been one of the Jordanian leaders instrumental in expelling the Palestinian fighters from Jordan in 1970 and 1971. But their most famous operation was the Munich Olympics massacre in September 1972 in which 11 Israeli athletes were killed by Palestinian terrorists. ‘Black September’ was also responsible for many other terrorist attacks around Europe lasting until October 1973 when the PLO changed tack to a diplomatic strategy in its conflict with Israel for Palestinian independence after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Although the terrorist attacks did not win the Palestinian cause many sympathisers, it opened the eyes of the western world and created awareness of the refugee problem (Ovendale 1984).

Many wider political consequences can also be traced to the aftermath of Black September. Relations between the US, Israel and Jordan were strengthened with Israel and the US both taking the side of Jordan in the conflict (Bickerton and Pearson 1990) while Israel in particular had its own worries about the threat from the Palestinians if the Jordanian Kingdom was overthrown. The perceived threat to Israeli security from other Arab countries trying to overthrow Jordan, also gave justification in some quarters for Israeli occupation of parts or all of the West Bank of the Jordan River where the majority of Palestinians lived and which Israel had captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

But the increased ties between Jordan and Israel and particularly King Hussein’s actions against the PLO saw Jordan separated from much of the rest of the Arab world and Arab unity in conflict against Israel began to break down. King Hussein effectively became an outsider in the Arab World due to Black September. For example, he was heavily criticised at a summit in Cairo between Arab leaders during the conflict. There was a debate on whether he should have been invited to the summit and a discussion on his overall mental health (Gowers and Walker 1990). In 1971, as punishment for its actions against the Palestinians, Kuwait and Libya ended financial aid to Jordan and Syria closed its border and airspace to Jordanian aeroplanes (Gubser 1983). Then in 1972 Hussein proposed creation of a federated Arab state comprising Jordan and the Israeli occupied West Bank but this was rejected by most Arab nations and the Palestinian organisations (Gowers and Walker 1990). But while Syria supported the Palestinians and intervened in Jordan during the fighting, which created major tension between Jordan and Syria, Jordan did send forces to Syria a few years later to help during the October 1973 war against Israel (Bickerton and Pearson 1990).

With the expulsion of the PLO from Jordan and King Hussein’s loss of legitimacy in the eyes of much of the Arab world, Jordan lost any recognition of its own ownership of the West Bank and any role as representative of the Palestinian people. But if the PLO lost militarily from the events of September 1970, it actually emerged as the leading representative of the Palestinian people and Yasser Arafat’s prestige in the Arab world and in the eyes of most Palestinians was greatly enhanced. In 1974, the PLO was recognised first by the Arab League and later by the UN as the sole representative of the Palestinian people. (Gowers and Walker 1990)

‘Black September’ was a significant event in Arab history. It altered relationships between Arab countries and between Israel, the US and Jordan, and with the expulsion of the PLO from Jordan to Lebanon became part of the reason for the Lebanese civil war. Several terrorist groups were created in response to the condition of the Palestinian people after September 1970. The most significant group was the ‘Black September’ group which carried out several high profile attacks. But if the PLO suffered militarily during the war, after the war it was recognised as the sole representative of the Palestinian people and Jordan lost all recognition of ownership of the West Bank. The impact of the events of September 1970 are still being felt today.

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