Black September: How Palestinian Terrorism Was Born

Refugees pour into a country and try to seize power - the scenario played out in Jordan in 1970 and frightened Europeans.

Two failed wars with Israel in 1948 and 1967 brought Palestinians to the brink of losing their ancestral homelands. Few of them agreed to live under occupation, and the neighboring countries were overwhelmed with waves of refugees. The amount of Palestinians in Jordan reached 1 million – around 60% of the country’s total population – towards the end of the 1960s.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/BlackSeptember_01.jpg”, “text”:”Palestinian refugee camp near Amman, capital of Jordan, 1970. AFP / East News”}

The new masters of the country

After the Six-Day War in 1967, members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (under the command of Yasser Arafat), the Palestinian National Liberation Front, the Palestinian Democratic Liberation Front and several other armed groups, along with peaceful citizens, crossed the new border with Israel along the Jordan River into Jordan itself. They created a “government within a government” inside the refugee camps and were often in conflict with the local law enforcement.

Their businessmen had their own rackets – kidnapping people and stealing cars, installing their own checkpoints, killing soldiers and police…

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/BlackSeptember_02.jpg”, “text”:”Parade of Fatah militants, a part of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Amman, 1970. AFP / East News”}

Businessmen set up rackets under the guise of raising funds in the fight against Israel, kidnapped people and stole cars, set up their own checkpoints on international highways, denied law enforcement agencies entry into refugee camps, and killed soldiers and police officers. There were about 500 violent clashes between the Palestinians and representatives of the Jordanian government just between mid-1968 until the end of 1969.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/BlackSeptember_03.jpg”, “text”:”Palestinian fighters controlling the entrances to Amman, 1970. AFP / East News”}

In September 1970, with “attracting attention to the Palestine problem” as their stated goal, fighters hijacked four American and European planes and landed them on an abandoned airstrip in the Jordanian desert. Crew members, Israelis and members of US government organizations were held hostage and the rest of the passengers were released.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/BlackSeptember_04.jpg”, “text”:”Palestinians examine a Swissair-owned Douglas DC-8, hijacked en route from Zurich to New York. AFP / East News”}

One of the passengers hit Arguello over the head with a bottle of whiskey and Captain Uri Bar-Lev, a former combat pilot, sent the Boeing into a deep dive.

The only failure in this series of hijackings was by the 26-year-old beauty Leila Khaled. She became a star of the Palestinian National Liberation Front in 1968 after the hijacking of an American Boeing-707 in Syria. She had plastic surgery six times on her nose and chin to change her appearance, and on 6 September, she boarded an Israeli El-Al flight flying from London to Tel Aviv along with Nicaraguan fighter Patrick Arguello with the intention of hijacking it.

The group had already messed up the operation during boarding: the airline security service denied entry to two terrorists with suspicious Senegal passports. Khaled and Arguello were now forced to act alone and, just half an hour after take-off, they pulled out guns and grenades, demanding access to the pilot’s cabin. The Israelis seemed to be ready for this confrontation. One of the passengers hit Arguello over the head with a bottle of whiskey and Captain Uri Bar-Lev, a former combat pilot, sent the Boeing into a deep dive, throwing the hijacker onto the floor. Khaled was severely beaten in the ensuing fight and her accomplice killed one of the armed guards that El-Al secretly placed in the cabin of its aircraft.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/BlackSeptember_05.jpg”, “text”:”Leila Khaled after the successful hijacking of a plane in 1968. AFP / East News”}

Hybrid War

Hijacking the planes, in addition to several assassination attempts on King Hussein of Jordan, were enough grounds on which to initiate military operations. The plan was worked out by an invited consultant, Brig. Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who would go on to seize power in Pakistan eight years later. Jordanian tanks began shooting at the Palestinian headquarters in Amman on 16 September 1970, and the infantry stormed the six refugee camps.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/BlackSeptember_06.jpg”, “text”:”Headquarters’ security at the Palestinian refugee camp in Ibrid, September, 1970. AFP / East News”}

Two days after the start of the operation, Syrian soldiers sent by Defense Minister Hafez al-Assad crossed the Jordanian border to help the Palestinians. A segment of their 200 tanks, according to the rules of “hybrid war”, had the emblem of the Syrian army painted over, and now the Palestine Liberation Organization had their own armored vehicles.

The Syrian army was able to penetrate deep into the country’s territory, but fearing US and British intervention, Assad didn’t send the air force. The Syrian contingent found itself unprotected against the Jordanian Air Force and, four days after starting the operation, they were forced to retreat.

The US 6th Fleet appeared on the banks of the Jordan River, and two British aircraft carriers docked at Malta.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/BlackSeptember_08.jpg”, “text”:”A Palestine Liberation Organization tank in battle position, 24 September 1970. AFP / East News”}

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/BlackSeptember_07.jpg”, “text”:”Soldiers near a buried Jordanian tank, September 1970. AFP / East News”}

By this time, the conflict had attracted the attention of superpowers. The US 6th Fleet appeared on the banks of the Jordan River, and two British aircraft carriers docked at Malta. 20 Soviet ships and 6 submarines arrived in Syria to counter them. Both sides demonstrated a willingness to make an incursion – it smelled of a major war and the situation needed to be dealt with urgently. On 27 September in Cairo, with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser as a mediator, an agreement was signed in which Jordan agreed to cease military action and the Palestinians promised to recognize the authority of King Hussein.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/palestine_01.jpg”, “text”:”Leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat (left), Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (center) and King Hussein of Jordan (right). 27 September 1970, Cairo. AFP / East News”}

The Price of Victory

The Jordanians were outraged about being coerced into the agreement which didn’t allow the army to achieve complete victory in the war. Their hands, however, were soon once again separated by the death of Abdel Nasser and by the refusal of the Palestinian National Liberation Front and the Palestinian Democratic Liberation Front to follow the agreement that Arafat signed. The operation against the Palestinians was continued in January, 1971, and by summer the radicals were pushed out of towns and the camps into the mountains, driven into Lebanon or killed outright. Hussein was finally able to announce at a press conference at the end of July that everything was “completely calm” in his kingdom. Almost 100 Jordanian soldiers and 3,500-5,000 Palestinians, including women and children, died during the military operation.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/BlackSeptember_09.jpg”, “text”:”Jordanian army patrol, autumn 1970. AFP / East News”}

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/BlackSeptember_10.jpg”, “text”:”Palestinian children playing in the ruins of the Wihdat refugee camp, September 1970. AFP / East News”}

The term “Black September” was made famous by a terrorist group of the same name, which became a member of the Palestinian organization Fatah. The group assassinated Wasfi al-Tal, the Prime Minister of Jordan, in Cairo at the end of 1970, and also killed 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team in September, 1972, during an unsuccessful attempt to free the squad. They were not the only victims of “Black September,” but perhaps the most famous ones.

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