The United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine in late 1947 led to civil war, the end of British Mandate, and the Israeli Declaration of Independence on 14 May 1948. With nationhood, the ongoing civil war was transformed into a state conflict between Israel and the Arab states. Egypt, Jordan and Syria, together with expeditionary forces from Iraq, invaded former areas of Mandatory Palestine. They took control of the Arab areas, and immediately attacked Israeli forces and several Jewish settlements. The fighting was halted with the UN-mediated 1949 Armistice Agreements, as the remaining areas of former Mandatory Palestine came under the control of Egypt and Transjordan. In 1949, Transjordan officially changed its name to Jordan; in 1950, it annexed the West Bank of the Jordan River, and brought Palestinian representation into Jordanian government. In Egyptian-dominated Gaza Strip, there was an attempt to establish the All-Palestine Government in September 1948, partially recognized by the Arab League (except Transjordan), but its authority was limited, and it was legally brought under Egyptian full protectorate in 1952 and effectively abolished by Nasser in 1959.
Only one third of the combined population of the West Bank and Jordan consisted of Jordanians, which meant that the Jordanians had become a ruling minority over a Palestinian majority. However, Jordan had provided Palestinians with seats mounting to half the parliament and several Governmental positions. Moshe Shemesh claims that this proved to be a mercurial element in internal Jordanian politics, and played a critical role in the political opposition. The West Bank had become the center of the national and territorial aspects of the Palestinian problem, which was the key issue of Jordan's domestic and foreign policy. According to King Hussein, the Palestinian problem spelled "life or death" for Jordan, and would remain the country's overriding national security issue.
King Hussein feared an independent West Bank under PLO administration would threaten the autonomy of his Hashemite kingdom. The Palestinian factions were supported variously by many Arab governments, most notably Egypt's president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who gave political support. The Palestinian nationalist organization Fatah started organizing attacks against Israel in January 1965, and Israel was subject to repeated cross-border attacks by Palestinian fedayeen; these often drew reprisals. The Samu Incident was one such reprisal. Jordan had long maintained secret contacts with Israel concerning peace and security along their border. However, due to internal splits within the Jordanian government and population, many of King Hussein's orders to stop these raids were not obeyed, and some Jordanian commanders along the Israeli-Jordanian border were lending passive assistance to the Palestinian raids.
In June 1967, Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan during the Six-Day War.
On 21 March 1968, Israel Defense Forces units entered Jordan and destroyed a PLO base camp in the village of Karameh. The PLO suffered some 200 killed and another 150 taken prisoner. 40 Jordanian soldiers were also killed. Israeli casualties stood at 28–33 killed and 69–161 wounded. The Karameh operation highlighted the vulnerability of bases close to the Jordan River, so the PLO moved their bases farther into the mountains, which placed additional strains on their operations. Further Israeli attacks targeted Palestinian militants residing among the Jordanian civilian population, giving rise to friction between Jordanians and guerrillas.
In Palestinian enclaves and refugee camps in Jordan, the Jordanian Police and army were losing their authority. Uniformed PLO militants openly carried weapons, set up checkpoints, and attempted to extort "taxes". During the November 1968 negotiations, a seven-point agreement was reached between King Hussein and Palestinian organizations:Members of these organizations were forbidden from walking around cities armed and in uniformThey were forbidden to stop and search civilian vehiclesThey were forbidden from competing with the Jordanian Army for recruitsThey were required to carry Jordanian identity papersTheir vehicles were required to bear Jordanian license platesCrimes committed by members of the Palestinian organizations would be investigated by the Jordanian authoritiesDisputes between the Palestinian organizations and the government would be settled by a joint council of representatives of the king and of the PLO.
The PLO did not live up to the agreement, and instead came to be seen more and more as a state within a state in Jordan. Discipline in the Palestinian militias was often poor, and there was no central power to control the different groups. Many of them were recently formed, and new groups sprang up spontaneously after the Karameh battle, or were set up by foreign governments such as Syria and Iraq. This created a bewildering scene of groups rapidly spawning, merging, and splintering, often trying to outdo each other in radicalism to attract recruits. Some left-wing Palestinian movements, such as the PFLP and the DFLP, began to openly question the legitimacy of the Jordanian monarchy and call for its overthrow, while at the same time stirring up conservative and religious feelings with provocative anti-religious statements and actions. In other cases, illustrating the lack of discipline on the fringes of the movement, fedayeen activity became a cover for gangsterism, with theft of vehicles or extortion of local merchants claimed as 'confiscation for the war effort' or 'donations to the cause'. The largest Palestinian faction, Arafat's Fatah, preached non-involvement in Jordanian affairs, but not all members lived up to this slogan. Fatah also protected smaller movements from being singled out for retaliation by the government by threatening to stand with them in any armed clashes. Palestinians claimed there were numerous agents provocateurs from Jordanian or other security services present among the fedayeen, deliberately trying to upset political relations and provoke justification for a crackdown.
Between mid-1968 and the end of 1969, no fewer than five hundred violent clashes occurred between the Palestinian guerrillas and Jordanian security forces. There were frequent kidnappings and acts of violence against civilians. Chief of the Jordanian Royal Court (and subsequently a prime minister) Zaid al-Rifai claimed that in one extreme instance, "the fedayeen killed a soldier, beheaded him, and played football with his head in the area where he used to live".
Militarily, the PLO continued attacking Israel from Jordanian territory with little regard for Jordanian authority or security. Heavy Israeli reprisals resulted in both Palestinian and Jordanian casualties, and the threat of larger-scale Israeli invasion loomed large.
In February 1970, King Hussein visited Egyptian president Nasser and American president Nixon. Upon his return, he published a ten-point edict restricting activities of the Palestinian organizations. On 11 February, fighting broke out between Jordanian security forces and Palestinian groups in the streets of Amman, resulting in about 300 deaths. Hoping to prevent this violence spinning out of control, Hussein announced that "We are all fedayeen" and fired the interior minister, who was hostile toward the Palestinians.
Armed Palestinians set up a parallel system of visa controls, customs checks, and checkpoints in Jordanian cities, adding more tensions to an already polarized Jordanian society and army. Between February and June 1970, about a thousand lives were lost in Jordan due to the conflict.
In July, Egypt and Jordan accepted the U.S.-backed Rogers Plan, which called for a cease fire in the War of Attrition between Egypt and Israel, and for Israel's negotiated withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967. In accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, it called for the West Bank to come under King Hussein's authority—and that was unacceptable to the more radical organizations. The PLO, George Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and Naif Hawatmeh's Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) opposed the plan, and heavily criticized Nasser for agreeing to it. There were claims the plan had been a trap conceived to destroy the PLO's relations with Nasser. It was never implemented.
With Nasser alienated, King Hussein began his military campaign against the PLO, while more radical Palestinian organizations became determined to undermine Hussein's pro-Western regime.
On 1 September 1970, there were several failed attempts to assassinate the king. On 7 September, in the series of Dawson's Field hijackings, three planes were hijacked by the PFLP: SwissAir and TWA jets that were landed in Jordan's Azraq area, and a Pan Am jet that was flown to Cairo. On 9 September, a BOAC flight from Bahrain was hijacked to Zarqa. The PFLP announced that the hijackings were intended "to bring special attention to the Palestinian problem". After all hostages were removed, the planes were dramatically blown up in front of TV cameras. Directly confronting and angering the King, the rebels declared the Irbid area a "liberated region."
On 15 September, King Hussein appointed Field Marshal Habis al Majali commander in chief of the armed forces and declared martial law. The head of a Pakistani training mission to Jordan, Brigadier Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (later Chief of Army Staff and President of Pakistan), played a key role in planning the offensives. The next day, Jordanian tanks of the 60th Armored Brigade attacked the headquarters of Palestinian organizations in Amman; the army also attacked camps in Irbid, Salt, Sweileh, Baq'aa, Wehdat and Zarqa. However, the Jordanians could not devote all their attention to the Palestinians. The 3rd Armoured Division of the Iraqi Army had remained in Jordan after the 1967 war. The Iraqi government sympathised with the Palestinians, and it was unclear whether the division would intervene on behalf of the Palestinians. Thus the 99th Brigade of the Jordanian 3rd Armoured Division had to be retained to watch the Iraqi division. Furthermore, the 40th Armored Brigade, 2nd infantry division, and other supporting units positioned in northern Jordan could not devote all their efforts to the PLO due to concerns of Syrian invasion. Finally, political and economic pressure on Jordan by Arab leaders who sympathized with the PLO limited the success of this first offensive. Nevertheless, the Jordanian army regained control of key cities and intersections in the country before accepting the ceasefire agreement brokered by Egypt's Nasser on 27 September. By late November, the Jordanians had regrouped and were ready to resume their campaign to expel the PLO. The King placed Brig. Gen. Zid bin Shaker in charge of the operation. Under his command, the Jordanians conducted a systematic and meticulous campaign against the PLO. First, the army regained control of all major cities with PLO presence. Second, the army forced the PLO into the mountains of Ajloun and Jarash. Finally, the army besieged the PLO in the mountains, and between fighting and surrenders the PLO was completely eradicated.
Arafat later claimed that the Jordanian army killed between 10,000 and 25,000 Palestinians, although more conservative estimates put the number between 1,000 and 2,000.
Hostage David Raab described the initial military actions in Black September this way:
"We were in the middle of the shelling since Ashrafiyeh was among the Jordanian Army's primary targets. Electricity was cut off, and again we had little food or water. Friday afternoon, we heard the metal tracks of a tank clanking on the pavement. We were quickly herded into one room, and the guerrillas threw open the doors to make the building appear abandoned so it wouldn't attract fire. Suddenly, the shelling stopped."
The armored troops were inefficient in narrow city streets and thus the Jordanian army conducted house to house sweeps for Palestinian fighters and became immersed in heavy urban warfare with the Palestinian fighters.
Amman experienced the heaviest fighting in the Black September uprising. Syrian tanks rolled across the Yarmouk River into northern Jordan and began shelling Amman and other northern urban areas. Outdated missiles fired by the PLO struck Amman for more than a week. Jordanian infantry pushed the Palestinian fedayeen out of Amman after weeks of bitter fighting.
On 18 September, during the time of turmoil, Syria tried to intervene on behalf of the Palestinian guerrillas. President Hafez al-Assad told his biographer, Patrick Seale, that Syria's intervention was only to protect the Palestinians from a massacre. The Syrians sent in armored forces equivalent to a brigade, with tanks, some of them allegedly hastily rebranded from the regular Syrian Army for the purpose. Other Syrian units were the 5th Infantry Division (with the 88th and 91st Tank Brigades and the 67th Mechanised Brigade with over 200 T-55 tanks) and Commandos. They were under the command of the Palestine Liberation Army's (PLA) Syrian branch, whose headquarters were located in Damascus, and which was controlled by the government. They were met by the 40th Armored Brigade of the Jordanian Army. The Syrian Air Force, under orders of Assad, never entered the battle. This has been variously attributed to power struggles within the Syrian Baathist government (pitting Assad against Salah Jadid), and to the threat of Israeli military intervention. Joel S. Migdal argues that Israel made these threats (including IDF troop movements and buzzing of Syrian convoys) at the behest of the United States under Nixon and Kissinger.
As King Hussein dealt with threats by both Palestinian refugees in his country and invading Syrian forces, the king asked "the United States and Great Britain to intervene in the war in Jordan, asking the United States, in fact, to attack Syria." Timothy Naftali said: "Syria had invaded Jordan and the Jordanian king, facing what he felt was a military rout, said please help us in any way possible."
A telegram indicates that Hussein himself called a U.S. official at 3 a.m. to ask for American or British help. "Situation deteriorating dangerously following Syrian massive invasion", the document said. "I request immediate physical intervention both land and air... to safeguard sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of Jordan. Immediate air strikes on invading forces from any quarter plus air cover are imperative."
On 21 September the Syrian 5th Division broke through the defenses of the Jordanian 40th Armoured Brigade, and pushed it back off the Ar Ramtha crossroads. On 22 September, the Royal Jordanian Air Force began attacking Syrian forces, which were badly battered as a result. The constant airstrikes broke the will of the Syrian force, and on the late afternoon of 22 September, the 5th Division began to retreat.
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 27 September, 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 U.S. Navy's 6th Fleet was positioned off the coast of Israel, near Jordan. At the beginning of September, Nixon sent an additional carrier task force and the Marine assault ship USS Guam to supplement the 6th Fleet. Two Royal Navy aircraft carriers arrived in the vicinity of Malta as well. By 19–20 September, the U.S. Navy had concentrated a powerful force in the Eastern Mediterranean. Its official mission was to protect American interests in the region and to respond to the capture of about 50 German, British, and U.S. citizens in Jordan by PLO forces.
The Soviets asserted that the goal of the U.S. deployment was to take control of the West Bank of the Jordan river in support of an upcoming Israel incursion into the neighboring territories of Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. To protect Soviet interests in the area and to assist Syria, the 5th Mediterranean Squadron of the Soviet Navy was increased to about twenty surface warships and six submarines. By mutual agreement with Syria, Soviet landing troops were ordered to respond to the expected U.S. landing and assist in demarcation of Syrian national boundaries with Israel.
On 19–20 September, a particularly busy time of confrontation, U.S. landing ships entered Haifa's outer harbour and prepared to disembark U.S. Marines, who stood on deck in full gear, ready to load into helicopters. However, after the Soviet landing ships ran for Tartus, preparations for disembarcation were rolled back.
The 82nd Airborne had been alerted on 15 September. On 19 September, they were loaded into C-141s. They were to drop into the Amman Airport, and secure and hold it for follow-up units. Within minutes after the first C-141s became airborne the mission was aborted and all returned to Pope AFB/Fort Bragg.
U.S. Forces remained on alert in the area throughout September and October. Tensions gradually decreased once it became clear, around 23–24 September, that the Syrian drive into Jordan had failed.
Two Iranian leftist guerilla organizations, namely Organization of Iranian People's Fedai Guerrillas (OIPFG) and People's Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI) were involved in the conflict against Jordan. Their "collaboration with the PLO was particularly close, and members of both movements even fought side by side in Jordan during the events of Black September and trained together in Fatah camps in Lebanon".
On 3 August 1972, PMOI operatives bombed the Jordan embassy in Tehran during King Hussein's state visit as a means to revenge unleashing his troops on the PLO in 1970.
Meanwhile, both Hussein and Arafat attended the emergency meeting of leaders of Arab countries in Cairo and on 27 September, Hussein signed an agreement that treated both sides as equals and acknowledged the right of the Palestinian organizations to operate in Jordan, but which required them to leave the cities and stay in the fronts.
On 28 September, Nasser died of a sudden heart attack. As a result, the PLO lost its protection, and King Hussein continued the attack.
Estimates of the number of the people killed in the ten days of Black September range from three thousand to more than five thousand, although exact numbers are unknown. The Palestinian death toll in 11 days of fighting was estimated by Jordan at 3,400, while Palestinian sources often cite the number 5,000, mainly civilians, killed. Arafat at some point claimed that 10,000 had been killed. The Western reporters were concentrated at the Intercontinental Hotel, away from the action. Nasser's state-controlled Voice of the Arabs radio service from Cairo reported genocide. One cameraman was shot dead in the Intercontinental Hotel; Jordanian tanks fired straight through the hotel and there was a heavy machine gun firing from the roof of the hotel.
On 31 October 1970, Yasser Arafat 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, incidents of fighting erupted between members of the PFLP and DFLP and the Jordanian security forces. On 9 November, Jordanian prime minister Wasfi al-Tal 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 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 5 June, 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 Ajlun, 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 fled to the West Bank and surrendered to IDF soldiers. The commander of Fatah's forces in northern Jordan, Abu Ali Iyad, was captured and killed by the Jordanian Army.
The Palestinian rout was complete. King Hussein had removed the threat to his throne, and had strengthened his control over the kingdom.
According to Benjamin Clarke et al., the PLO knowingly breached international law and threatened the legitimate Jordanian government but was unprepared for the massive response on the part of the Kingdom of Jordan:
"... where the international community has been unwilling or unable to prevent crimes against international law (such as wars of aggression, genocide, brutal occupation, war crimes and crimes against humanity) victims of such crimes have often taken matters into their own hands. They do so in pursuit of justice, retribution and an end to dispossession. Self help measures aimed at securing an end to violations of fundamental rights, can however escalate beyond what the founders of resistance struggle intended or planned. PLO terrorism in Jordan in 1970 is one example. It led to the expulsion of the PLO from Jordan the following year."
Palestinians: The group Black September was established by Fatah members in 1971 to serve as a terrorist organization for revenge operations and international strikes after the September events. On 28 November 1971, in Cairo, four of its members assassinated Wasfi al-Tal. The group would go on to perform other strikes against Jordan, and against Israeli and Western citizens and property outside of the Middle East, such as the Munich massacre in 1972. The Black September Organization was later disbanded in 1973–1974 as the PLO sought to exploit the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and pursue a diplomatic strategy. Fatah has always publicly denied its responsibility for Black September operations, but by the 2000s (decade), numerous high-ranking Fatah and Black September activists openly acknowledged the relationship. Only a few years later, in 1974, the Arab League (and then the United Nations) would recognize the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
Lebanon: In the September fighting, the PLO lost its main base of operations. Fighters were driven to Southern Lebanon to regroup. The enlarged PLO presence in Lebanon and the intensification of fighting on the Israeli–Lebanese border stirred up internal unrest in Lebanon, where the PLO fighters added dramatically to the weight of the Lebanese National Movement, a coalition of Muslims, Arab nationalists and leftists who opposed the rightist, Maronite-dominated government. These developments helped precipitate the Lebanon Civil War, in which the PLO would be engrossed from 1975 until well after the mid-1980s.
Jordan: King Hussein of Jordan was maligned throughout the Arab world for having attacked the Palestinian resistance, and although he had now averted the physical threat to his throne, his legitimacy had suffered a crippling blow among Palestinian refugees and on the regional Arab scene.
Syria: The September events set alight the smouldering conflict between Hafez al-Assad and Salah Jadid in Syria. This culminated in Assad's Corrective Movement of November 1970, in which he deposed Jadid and seized power, after Jadid had tried to fire him over the Black September debacle and other issues.
Pakistan: According to Major General Aboobaker Osman Mitha, it was General Gul Hasan in 1971 who saved then Brigadier General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq from being court martialed. General Yahya Khan received a signal from Major General Nawazish, the head of the Pakistan military mission in Amman, asking that Brigadier Zia-ul-Haq be court martialled for disobeying GHQ orders by commanding a Jordanian armoured division against the Palestinians, as part of an action in which thousands were killed. Gul Hasan's intercession on Zia-ul-Haq's behalf saved the Brigadier's career, and allowed Brigadier Zia-ul-Haq to advance his own military career. This culminated in his political appointment as Chief of Staff of the Pakistan Army, and his subsequent coup against Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
Zia's performance as a military leader for Jordan was part of what convinced President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to promote him to Chief of Army Staff in 1976. Haq later staged a coup d'état, executed Bhutto and, aided by the United States, was instrumental in supporting mujahideen such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar during the Soviet Afghan war.
Iraq: According to Abu Iyad, Iraq encouraged the PLO to overthrow King Hussein. However, Iraq took no action to assist the PLO during Black September, even though it had "25,000 troops stationed in Jordan." In his 2012 memoir, Jack O'Connell, former head of the Central Intelligence Agency's Station in Amman, recounted that Iraqi defector Abud Hassan provided falsified documents to Iraqi officials suggesting that the United States planned to enter the conflict militarily on Jordan's side, which convinced Iraqi Defense Minister Hardan al-Tikriti to order "his troops to positions near the Iraqi border, thereby cutting them off from operations taking place near Amman." Arafat sent a message to Iraqi President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, stating: "History will not forgive those who failed [to] support [the] fedayeen." In the aftermath, Tikriti was removed from his civilian and military positions by Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council on 5 October, neutralizing a potential rival to Saddam Hussein's ascension to power.