September 15, 2020 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 231

'Black September,' Then And Now

September 15, 2020 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
Jordan, Palestine | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 231

It is an interesting coincidence that the signing of a peace agreement by Arabian Gulf states – the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – and Israel occurs in mid-September 2020, 50 years since "Black September," the beginning of the 1970-1971 war between Palestinian factions and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The latter event is an important one in Middle East and Palestinian/Jordanian history, but one that makes many uncomfortable – nowhere more so than in Jordan itself, with a mostly Palestinian population and even, since 1999, a Palestinian queen.

"Stop Fascism in Jordan" – PFLP-GC Political Poster (Circa 1970)

Following the loss of the West Bank in the 1967 Six-Day War, Jordan became even more of a safe haven than before for Palestinian fedayeen groups to launch cross-border attacks into Israel-held territories. The PLO grew powerful over time, becoming a heavily armed state within a state, supported by Nasser's Egypt and Baathist Iraq, flaunting its power in Jordan's cities, refugee camps, and bases for guerrilla operations. Even before "Black September," bloody clashes claimed many lives, including that of U.S. Army Attaché Major Robert P. Perry, killed in his Amman home by Palestinian guerrillas.[1] Repeated humiliations of the Jordanian state by the Palestinian leadership included even a failed assassination attempt against Jordan's King Hussein.[2]

Despite repeated efforts at appeasement by King Hussein,[3] open war broke out in September. As the king unleashed his army against PLO-held parts of Amman, Syrian-controlled units of the Palestinian Liberation Army (PLA) intervened and declared Jordan's second city, Irbid, a "liberated zone." With no air cover provided by Syrian Defense Minister Hafez Al-Assad, the Jordanians were able to drive these troops off. An Iraqi threat to intervene directly on the side of the Palestinians never materialized. Both the U.S. and Israel had contingency plans to intervene should Hussein and his regime be overthrown.

Although the Jordanians would triumph by summer 1971, it was a close-run thing that could have easily gone another way. Most Arab leaders' sympathies lay very much with the Palestinian side, and they openly mocked the Jordanian king.[4] The Jordanians were defamed in the Arab press of the day as fascists, and accused of having killed tens of thousands of Palestinians. And, of course, Yasser Arafat's Fatah would create the terror group Black September as a cutout to carry out bloody acts of violence in the Middle East and Europe.[5]

After its Jordanian defeat, the PLO would move to Lebanon, where a few years later it would play a key role in igniting the Lebanese Civil War and triggering Syrian military intervention and then decades of occupation in Lebanon. One of the other consequences of Black September was the rise of an anti-Palestinian East Bank Jordanian identity, which survives to this day.[6]

2017 Monument to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in Qalqilya, Palestinian territories

Meanwhile, the "cause of Palestine" would be the flag of convenience and bloody shirt for every rogue and genocidal maniac in the region – Assad father and son, Saddam, Qaddafi, Khomeini, Khamenei, Erdogan and others. The Palestinian leadership would use and be used by all of them. Assad (using his Lebanese and Palestinian proxies, especially Amal) would kill more Palestinians during the "War of the Camps" in Lebanon in 1985-1988 than were killed by the Lebanese forces at Sabra and Shatila.[7] The PLO itself would support Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and even send fighters to Uganda in 1979 to try to prevent Idi Amin from falling to Tanzanian forces.[8]

That same cause of Palestine would be cynically used to this day. Hizbullah plunged Lebanon into war with Israel in 2006 for the sake of "resistance" against Israel. And Hizbullah and Iran would intervene directly in Assad's genocidal repression inside Syria, wrapped in the cloak of resistance for the sake of the Palestinians. When Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh visited a Lebanese refugee camp in September 2020, his travel was facilitated by supporters Turkey, Qatar, Iran, and Hizbullah, and Haniyeh boasted of Hamas rockets being able to reach Tel Aviv from Hamas-ruled Gaza.[9]

Despite that show of force by Haniyeh, and vociferous denunciations by the PLO of Arab states "normalizing" with Israel, the region is changing. The change is not so much about Israel but about the Arab region and its neighbors as a whole. The aggressive and intrusive non-Arab powers in the region today are not Israel but Turkey and Iran. That may not trouble the Palestinian leadership, comfortably ensconced in Ramallah, but is of immediate and serious concern to states in the line of fire. An Iran which boasts of controlling four Arab capitals is matched by the feverish neo-Ottoman dreams of the Turkish strongman, who is currently occupying parts of Syria, shelling Iraq, and sending expeditionary forces to Libya and Qatar.

Aside from predatory actions by Ankara and Tehran, the Arab world faces a whole host of urgent socio-economic problems which now appear to dwarf the cause of Palestine: a hot, thirsty, angry, poor, and mostly unemployed region looks for answers and solutions from regimes more skilled in repression and duplicity than in governance. Palestine may be a popular issue in some quarters, a necessary name check, but its existence or absence will not bring water or jobs to the region.

Arab regimes could do what they have always done – wrap themselves in this cause, posture and deceive and try to buy time – or they could look at the region coolly and logically though the lens of their own pressing national interests. This is what the UAE and Bahrain, and perhaps others, are doing, calculating how an alliance with the least threatening and most technologically and militarily advanced of three major rising non-Arab powers in the region can enhance their security and wellbeing in an extremely unstable region. This is common sense, no doubt encouraged by American diplomacy. Both states have already been threatened in detail by Turkey and Iran and by their Islamist proxies well before there was an agreement with Israel. They could have opted for the usual hypocrisy, but chose a braver path. They are betting on a real, normal "warm" peace rather than the cold peace with Israel practiced by the regimes in Egypt and Jordan.

For the corrupt and feckless Palestinian political leadership, and for a host of Western pundits and think tankers who have made a lucrative career on the "peace process," recent events have come like a bucket of ice-cold water. It is not that Palestine is not important, but that rather than falsely and dishonestly placing it on some sort of artificial pedestal, an increasing number of states in the region are seeing it as one of many issues, and for most players not the most pressing one.

As with any political development, there is a possibility for change and course correction, even from the Palestinian side, as much as there is a danger of falling back into past follies from Ramallah's aging revolutionaries.[10] Despite the caterwauling from the PLO leadership and threats from the usual regional suspects, for many this September seems less black than the one 50 years ago, and these modest, positive steps towards peace and dialogue could bear fruit. Certainly, the other path tried over the past five decades has yielded little.


[1], June 11. 1970.

[2], June 9, 1970.

[3], uploaded March 30, 2017.

[4], uploaded December 26, 2014.

[5], uploaded July 21, 2015.

[6];jsessionid=0L3etBy_1O92Pw5Sv1OAIWoU.hbkuplive-10-240-9-176, March 18, 2015.

[7], uploaded June 1, 2017.

[8], September 15, 2020.

[9], September 7, 2020.

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