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“Black September” 1970: Anatomy of a State-Militant Fallout

In Allah’s Name from beginning to end

Black September 1970: Anatomy of a Fallout[i]

Ibrahim Moiz, rights reserved

September 2020

Fifty years ago this month, the Levant experienced one of its most seminal and traumatic events in modern history: the “Black September” 1970 war in Jordan. Pitting the Jordanian monarchy against a coalition of Palestinian militants, or fidayin, with whom it had hitherto been uneasily allied, the bloody expulsion of the latter was among the earliest cases of a postcolonial Arab state turning on non-state actors – a pattern since oft-repeated from Algeria to Syria. It drew in regional powers and had a profound aftershock in the region, ending several major careers and starting new ones even as the principal protagonists, Jordanian monarch Hussein bin Talal and Palestinian commander Yasser Arafat, consolidated their positions in their camps. The formal break between an Arab capital and the Palestinians proved a precedent to the Lebanese civil war that started a few years later, and also has echoes a half-century later as other pro-Western monarchies line up to sideline the Palestinians.

Background: The heyday of the fidayin

If the 1967 war with Israel had shattered the morale and reputation of the Arab states – with Egypt, Syria, and Jordan routed in a few days and the remainder of historical Palestine lost – it also provided the non-state actors, the Palestinian fidayin, with an opportunity. Fatah, the militant group to which Arafat then served as military commander, had long mounted hit-and-run attacks in Israel, making a point of its independence from Arab capitals. In this sense it was the classic non-state actor, and differentiated from the then-more mainstream Palestinian Liberation Organization (hereafter referred to by its Arabic name Munqada), whose foundation Egypt had sponsored and that served as an official vehicle for Palestinian aspirations. For Fatah and its fellow travellers, the 1967 war was proof that Palestinians had to take their cause into their own hands rather than relying on Arab capitals, whose support it accepted but – as an aspirant to Palestinian statehood – as equals rather than agents.

But it was precisely as agents that the Arab capitals now warmed to fidayin activity. Following up the rout, Israel’s neighbours – Masr, Syria, and Jordan – engaged in a slow-burning border “war of attrition” to which fidayin hit-and-run tactics were ideally suited. Secretly, however, Arab leaders as different as Masr’s dictator Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Jordan’s monarch Hussein bin Talal now saw Israel as a long-term reality[ii], and they moulded their policy accordingly: fidayin attacks were required only insofar as Israel did not have a pretext to mount the disproportionate cross-border reprisals at which it was so effective.

Similarly, Syria’s Baath regime – the product of a full decade of coups and countercoups between different factions in the military – was riven with factions, seeing the fidayin as assets not only against Israel but more immediately in the competition between such Syrian potentates as Baathist chieftain Salah Jadid and defence minister Hafez Assad. On this account the Damascus regime repeatedly accosted Arafat and Munqada military commander Abdul-Razzaq Yahya, himself a former Syrian soldier of Palestinian background. They also set up their own fidayin group, Saiqa led by Dafi Jumaani and the Jordanian Baathist soldier Mahmoud Muaiteh, which served as the Syrian Baath’s proxy among the Palestinians.

Another Baath faction had seized Iraq in 1968; since they did not border Israel, the Iraqis could afford more generosity, and their military contingent sent to Jordan and led by pro-Palestinian general Hasan Naqib was widely perceived as a shieldbearer for the fidayin. But Egypt, Syria, and Iraq each boasted tightening police states with overarching security apparatuses, and so it was ironically in the pro-Western states Lebanon and Jordan – neither particularly confrontational against Israel – that the fidayin enjoyed the greatest freedom of action. The pattern of fidayin activity and Israeli attacks would eventually mix with Lebanon’s peculiar sectarian politics to produce a civil war there in the mid-1970s[iii], but it was in Jordan that the arrangement unravelled first.

The long career of Jordan’s monarch Hussein bin Talal (1952-99) has accurately been assessed as hinging on a “knife edge”. As the only openly pro-Western monarch in the region, he had long had uneasy relations with his neighbours, but internal unrest was similarly unsettling. Part of this had to do with Jordan’s peculiar circumstances: it was the only Arab state that had given citizenship to Palestinians, many of whom served in official positions. This stemmed from the ambitions of Hussein’s grandfather, the Jordanian founder Abdullah I bin Hussein, to rule both banks of the Jordan river, and unite the Levant under his rule. During the 1940s this ambition had collided with Abdullah’s vassalage to Britain, who had committed Palestine to the Zionist movement; as a result, the 1948 war had seen Israel occupy the so-called West Bank while Jordan kept the East, along with East Jerusalem. The role of Abdullah’s British vassalage was not lost on many Palestinians expelled from the Israeli-occupied territory; as a result, the monarchy was often uneasy about its Palestinians’ fealty and would rely heavily on the Transjordanian bedouins, in particular, as a bulwark. Had his subjects known that he had secretly been talking with Israel since the mid-1960s[iv], Hussein’s position might have weakened further. These talks did not stop him from siding with his Arab neighbours against Israel in the 1967 war, but he could hardly have been thrilled with the resultant loss of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Though he hosted the fidayin faction in the border conflict with Israel, he was intensely uneasy about their effect on his rule.

Not that  the fidayin were a necessary ingredient for Jordanian unrest. In spite of its regime conservatism, Jordan’s politics featured a number of more revolutionary ideologies ranging from Islamism, Baathism, communism, and much in between. The only free election in Jordan’s history, during the Masri war against Israel, Britain, and France in autumn 1956, had yielded a republican pan-Arab cabinet strongly supportive to Masr. Since then, Hussein had swatted off a number of coup attempts that had threatened his hold over the one advantage he held over his rivals – a compact, disciplined, and well-armed military. It was from the senior networks of the military that Hussein drew a secretive advisory council that kept its powder dry in case of a confrontation.

This council neatly encapsulated the different segments of the Jordanian elite invested in the monarchy’s success. It included the king’s cousins Zaid bin Shaker and Nasir bin Jamil, as princes naturally inclined to support royal prerogatives. It included the naturalized Palestinian-Jordanian officer Wasfi Tal, already a former prime minister and a fierce defender of Jordanian conservatism against the more radical types of Arab nationalism abroad. It included Nadhir Rushaid, who had in fact participated in such a “radical” plot a decade earlier but was so reconciled that Hussein made him spymaster. And it included the former defence minister Habis Mujali, a member of the same bedouin clans upon which the monarchy heavily relied. The irony was that each had fought – in Habis’ case[v], with some success – against Israel in the past, but their investment in the monarchy’s stability meant that they viewed the fidayin with grave misgivings.

As thoughtful Palestinian leaders later conceded, such misgivings were not entirely without basis. One factor was that it gave an always trigger-happy Israel, then at its triumphalist peak, a pretext to raid into Jordan – indeed tens of thousands of inhabitants were uprooted from the Jordan valley during the late 1960s[vi]. But there was another problem as well, which had to do with the relation of states to non-state actors as a whole, and which has since proven relevant to many governments and the non-state actors with whom they work.

Fidayin recruitment had ballooned to such an extent in the late 1960s that, whatever their intentions, the Palestinian militants could not help but act as a state within the Jordanian state. A major catalyst was the so-called Battle of Karameh in spring 1968. Here Arafat – ironically and crucially, supported by Jordanian troops led by Mashhour Haditha – had mounted a brave “last stand” against an Israeli raid on his camp in the Jordan valley. The unexpected retreat of the attackers, such a contrast to Israel’s triumph over the Arab armies the previous summer, propelled Arafat to fame, turning his last stand into a windfall. An entire generation of disempowered Palestinians saw their aspirations in fidayin militancy, with such writers as Ghassan Kanafani explicitly framing Palestinian nationalism in constant struggle. Coupled with the Arab regimes’ persuasion over the fidayin’s usefulness in the border war – indeed even Hussein was famously moved to declare, “we are all fidayin” – fidayin recruitment abounded.

By spring 1969, Arafat’s popularity had propelled him to lead the umbrella Munqada – ironically the same coalition that Fatah had earlier dismissed as a tool of the Arab governments. This brought with it theoretical control over Munqada’s “standing” military force, largely led by Palestinians who had served in various Arab armies; however, in reality this force was largely divided with the Arab regimes competing over its various units. One exacerbating factor was the interference of Arab states; Baathist Syria, for example, constantly tried to replace Munqada military commander Yahya with pro-Baath rivals. Nor did the “irregular” Palestinian fighters have a strict hierarchy: Arafat and his colleagues exercised much less control over the fidayin than they might have liked. Even within Fatah there were divisions that were both spatial – seeing as the group was scattered over several countries – and generational, with the founding core increasingly challenged by younger recruits among the thousands who joined in the late 1960s. The latter included such ideologists as Sakhr Habash, who led civilian outreach in Jordan, and commissar Nimr Saleh. The first tensions with Amman arose in November 1968, when an attack by a small separate group led by a certain Tahir Dablan provoked an army counterattack against Sakhr’s contingent, forcing the Iraqi force’s commander Naqib to intervene personally with an appeal to Hussein.[vii] In this atmosphere Sakhr and other leftists were easily drawn to the Jordanian opposition, which leaned toward the left in turn.

Within the senior command, too, Fatah had splits, with members often working independently and occasionally at cross-purposes. Along with Arafat, these senior leaders included Khalil Wazir and Mahmoud Maswadeh, who organized an insurgency in the occupied territories; Walid Iyad, an Algerian-trained commander who founded the Fatah base in Syria; spymaster Salah Khalaf, his second-in-command Hani Hasan, and the latter’s brother Khaled; Farouq Qaddoumi, later Fatah secretary-general; Kamal Udwan, later military commanders; Amman commander Naji Alloush; and others.

Fatah’s experiment with Islamist groups gives an example of the competition between the command: Maswadeh, whose attempt to upstage Arafat had been thwarted by Khalaf in summer 1968, then made contact with Hizbut-Tahrir, a banned Islamist party founded by the Palestinian preacher Taqiuddin Nabhani that was planning a coup against Jordan. In winter 1968-69, Arafat himself alerted the Jordanian regime to this plot, and later expelled Maswadeh.[viii] Meanwhile Arafat and Wazir, on the advice of former Palestinian mufti Amin Hussaini, had secretly founded a number of separate Islamist camps near Zarqa, using their links with the legal  Muslim Brethren party. These camps, however, were also discovered by Khalaf, who shut them down.[ix]

Unsurprisingly, Khalaf began to view himself as a kingmaker in Fatah – and his security apparatus’ extensive infiltration of the Jordanian regime meant that, as tension between the fidayin and regime mounted, he increasingly viewed himself as a potential kingmaker for Jordan as well. This confidence was shared by his second-in-command Hani, who boasted that they could “turn Amman’s night into day and day into night”, and by Qaddoumi – a former Baathist, and thus having no love lost with the monarchy – who scoffed at Hussein as a “paper tiger whom we can topple in half an hour.”[x] But to a large extent this was bluster; as the episode with Hizbut-Tahrir showed, and as future episodes prior to September 1970 would show, Fatah were not only unwilling to challenge monarchical rule but largely went out of their way to maintain relations. In particular, the leading field commanders in Fatah – Iyad, Wazir, and Udwan – constantly argued for cordial relations with the Amman regime.

The same could not be said of other groups over which Fatah had little control, whether in the Munqada umbrella or not. Most prominently this included the Marxist groups who, though small – numbering less than two thousand fighters collectively – exercised an outsize influence largely through rhetorical outbidding, each promising more revolution than the other. To some extent this was influenced by their relations with Jordan’s younger Marxists, who were increasingly unhappy with the monarchy. The larger Marxist group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (hereafter referred to by its Arabic name, Shaabia), was led by George Habash, Abu Ali Zabri, and Wadi Haddad. Habash had hitherto been best-known as the leader of a loose conglomeration of pro-Masr Arab nationalists during the 1960s, who had in fact refrained from outright militancy against Israel in the fear of endangering Masri preparation. Now, however, seeking to ride the militant tiger – and incidentally again in line with Masri policy, which after 1967 favoured fidayin militancy – he set up a fidayin faction, eventually adopting Marxism as its ideology largely in a sop to younger recruits. Shaabia’s main modus operandi was to bring the Palestinian issue to world attention through a series of headline-catching aircraft hijacks organized by Haddad.

Habash’s conversion to Marxism did not satisfy a younger colleague, Nayef Hawatmeh, who broke away to found a Maoist splinter group. Far more than Shaabia, Hawatmeh saw the Palestinian cause as linked to an entire upheaval – social, political, and economic – in the Arab states; if anything, he assigned precedence to the latter. Though he enjoyed some influence in South Yemen, where his friends seized Aden in a coup during summer 1969,[xi] Hawatmeh was aware of his front’s tiny size – no more than two hundred fighters at that point – and consciously sought to draw in larger groups such as Fatah into his battles.[xii] The escalatory rhetoric and provocative postures of the Marxists in their mutual competition would have serious repercussions in the Jordan war, particularly since it gave the regime a heightened threat perception and thus a pretext to move against the fidayin as a whole.

Tensions between the Jordanian state and the Palestinian “state-within-a-state” began in autumn 1968, with isolated firefights between the army and the fidayin. Fairly minor in themselves, when mixed with the Hizbut-Tahrir threat – another coup was attempted in October 1969 – and the increasing belligerence of Marxist rhetoric – by February 1969, Shaabia was ruminating about capturing Jordan to use as a base against Israel in the same way as North Vietnam served as a Vietcong base against the South – they alarmed the regime. A similar pattern had been taking hold in Lebanon; the latter was eventually papered over with a Masri-brokered accord in November 1969, but no such agreement would hold in Jordan. A cycle emerged; provocations and fights – some of which, Arafat would later claim, were instigated by government agents who had infiltrated the fidayin[xiii] – led to mistrust, and mistrust led to further escalation.

In February 1970, Hussein attempted to limit fidayin movement and the army instigated a clash; Arafat rushed back, bolstered by Iraqi interior minister Saleh Ammash, who hammered out a ceasefire that effectively boiled down to Hussein dismissing the hardline interior minister, Rasoul Kailani. In May 1970, another round of clashes brought Ammash back for another ceasefire; this time, he actually offered Arafat a coup against the monarchy, but Arafat declined. The next month, Hussein gave Arafat the startling offer of the prime minister’s position; again, Arafat declined the offer. Hussein nonetheless appointed a prime minister, Abdul-Munim Rifai, and an army commander, Mashhour Haditha of Karameh renown, whom the Palestinians trusted. On its face this was startling generosity by the Jordanian ruler, and might or might not have reflected a sincere will to reconcile.

But in the background Hussein’s council was hard at work, quite independently of either Rifai or Mashhour. They mobilized the army as well as bedouin fighters, while attempts to emphasize the monarchy’s Islamic legitimacy and traditional values were strenuously made by information minister Maan Abu-Nowar – another soldier whose family had once been implicated in opposition to the monarchy but was himself a staunch loyalist and would years later become deputy prime minister.[xiv] In trying to shield the army from possible fidayin infiltration, Abu-Nowar disseminated material that contrasted manly, righteous Jordanian soldiers with effeminate atheist militants[xv] – another example of the monarchy’s eagerness to project Marxist fantasism with the fidayin as a whole. Provocative actions by the Marxists, such as hanging red flags over mosques, only lent weight to the monarchy’s argument even though they would attract condemnation by other militants.

Caught in the middle of this cavalcade, Fatah was exposed to its own limits. In April 1970 they were unable to stop a Marxist attack on the American embassy, mounted in response to American diplomacy on the border war. The United States, whose partiality to Israel had been so clear in 1967, had been alarmed by resultant Soviet presence in Egypt and Syria during the border war. Thus a Cold War ingredient was added to the Jordanian cocktail; American foreign minister William Rogers and his deputy Joseph Sisco consciously sought in their attempt to find a ceasefire between Israel and the Arab states to displace Soviet influence on the latter and emerge as the only superpower on both sides of the Palestine dispute.[xvi] But it consciously sought to draw in the Arab regimes, and had little space for non-state actors such as the Palestinian militants.

Thus the fidayin had the wind knocked out of their sails in midsummer when both Cairo and Amman accepted the American-brokered ceasefire. They were unanimously indignant, but the most drastic action was taken by the Marxists, who sought to sabotage the agreement by mounting uncorroborated attacks that would draw Israel against the Arab states and thus render the deal a non-starter. Habash, the most pliable of the Marxists, was away on a trip to China, and so this initiative was taken by Shaabia commanders Haddad and Fuad Abdul-Karim. They mounted a series of sabotages, hijacks, assassination attempts – including, perhaps, an attack on Hussein’s cavalcade at Amman at the start of September 1970 – and raids that were clearly designed to draw a war between Israel and Jordan. In the words of Kanafani, the Palestinian novelist and now a Shaabia writer, Shaabia sought to salvage its position by “shattering the ceasefire with any possible means.”[xvii]

In addition – along with Hashim Muhsin, a Baathist ideologue from Iraq – Shaabia approached the Jordanian army’s garrison commander in the northern city Irbid, Attaullah Ghasib, and asked him to seize power in a coup. Ghasib, a typical bedouin officer, was not a good pick; he swiftly reported the matter to army spymaster Muhammad Bashir, a member of Hussein’s secret council.[xviii] The exact opposite scenario meanwhile occurred when Abu Moussa Muragheh – a cousin of the Shaabia commander Abdul-Karim in the Jordanian army, and one of the increasing number of junior officers unhappy with Jordanian policy – approached Arafat and offered to mount a coup against Hussein; Arafat yet again refused. Yet none of the “doves” – Arafat and the military among the Palestinians, prime minister Rifai and army commander Mashhour among the Jordanians – could stop increasing violence by their compatriots.

This epitomized Munqada and Fatah indecision in the days leading up to the September 1970 war, an indecision partly born of circumstance; not only were they now to act as guarantor between a regime they increasingly mistrusted and more radical militants, but they were also to act as a guarantor for a ceasefire that did not serve their interests, simply because the alternative would give a pretext for the regime to attack them. Without the permission of an indignant Mashhour, regime forces attacked fidayin bases in southern Jordan, which were closely linked to such clan leaders as the veteran Abu-Sitta sheikh Abdullah Moussa[xix], and also began to shell Palestinians in the cities with major casualties. Unsurprisingly in this atmosphere, more militant arguments prevailed in the fidayin camp and by mid-September 1970, even Fatah was calling for a regime change in Jordan.

This was precisely what Hussein had expected, and he shed any semblance of pleasantries as his military council emerged from the shadows. Prime minister Rifai and army commander Mashhour were both dismissed in favour of retired soldiers: Daud Abbasi, a Palestinian-Jordanian officer, formed a military cabinet while Habis Mujali returned to take charge of the army, with the prince Zaid leading military operations.[xx] The regime also received an unexpected bolster in the form of Mohammad Ziaul-Haq, the second-in-command of the Pakistani contingent in Jordan, who made his first notable appearance and would only years later seize power in Pakistan. Ziaul-Haq went out of his way in this endeavour, against the orders of his indignant commander Nawazish Ali, to help the monarchy and was lucky to escape with his career intact[xxi]; why he should have done so is still unclear but had, perhaps, to do with his anticommunist leanings against the leftists amid the fidayin.

The fidayin now announced a unified command against the army assault, officially led by Arafat and Yahya; in particular the Amman command, led by Wazir, Udwan, Khalaf, Qaddoumi, and Alloush put up a stiff fight. In reality, however, they had not prepared for such a showdown[xxii] and there was no command and control to coordinate the different groups effectively. They had relied to a great extent on the threat of intervention by Naqib’s Iraqi troops; yet, to their surprise, when it came to the crunch the Iraqis dispersed. The fidayin could not have known at that point that the United States had threatened to bomb the Baath regime in Baghdad, with which it had some clandestine links, and that the Iraqis were faced with a stark choice between the Palestinian fidayin and their own internal stability. It was a no-contest: Ammash, who had done so much to bolster fidayin confidence, told Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas, “We can replace the revolution with a hundred others, but our regime is more important.”[xxiii] Iraqi defence minister Hardan Abdul-Ghaffar, the military strongman in the Baghdad junta, similarly assured Hussein that the Iraqis would not interfere; this according to the indignant Fatah spymaster Khalaf, who claimed to have heard the conversation. State interests won the day in Iraq, as they were doing in Jordan.

It was instead the other Baathist regime, in Syria, that launched an attack from the north, where the Syrian-controlled units of Munqada as well as regular troops led by Hasan Turkmani[xxiv] attacked in the direction of Irbid. Even before the Syrian attack, northern Jordan had given the fidayin some room for optimism; Iyad’s forces in the Ajloun highlands had swatted off army forces, while such cities as Irbid and Jarash had large fidayin garrisons that included not only Fatah but also the Saiqa Baathists led by Jumaani, who were in league with the Syrian regime. Early on, indeed, the fidayin in Amman announced that the north was a “liberated province”, even appointing two Jordanian dissidents – the civilian official Hamad Farhan and the radical officer Mahmoud Rousan – as its official leaders. In reality, however, the northern fidayin had been very cautious, with Fatah commander Muadh Abid refraining from taking the military initiative and instead preferring to withdraw into the countryside.

Similarly, the Syrian attack proved, ultimately, a damp squib for the same reason that Iraqi promises had been abandoned: state interests. Though Turkmani’s troops seriously challenged Ghasib, the army’s field commander in the north, the Syrian attack was related less to fidayin-Amman tensions and more to the longstanding internal conflict within the Damascus regime, whose leftist faction led by Baath chieftain Jadid had ordered the attack. Jadid’s rival, defence minister Assad, flatly refused to give air cover to the ground attack, and thus the attackers were vulnerable from the skies. Once Amman realized this, it gleefully capitalized: air marshal Salah Kurdi had a field day, his planes bombarding the Syrians from the field, with several hundred slain. Thus bruised, Damascus refused to provide the fidayin any more assistance.

One by one the fidayin were losing their cards, but they still maintained a glimmer of hope in state intervention of another type: diplomacy. A very senior embassy of Arab state officials, led by the young Sudanese dictator Gafar Numairi, soon arrived in Amman to procure a ceasefire: it included Kuwaiti foreign minister Saad bin Salim, Tunisian foreign minister Bahi Ladgham, Masri defence minister Mohamed Sadek, and Saudi deputy foreign minister Umar Saqqaf.[xxv] They found Hussein unwilling to abandon his offensive just yet, and additionally armed with several senior fidayin captives from the Amman battle: the veteran Palestinian fighter Bahjat Abu-Gharbieh[xxvi], Ibrahim Bakr, and – humiliatingly belying their early confidence – Khalaf and Qaddoumi as well. While negotiating with these envoys, Hussein also dispatched his own prime minister, the Palestinian officer Daud, to Cairo in order to reassure Nasser. But to Amman’s surprise, once in Cairo Daud spectacularly announced his resignation: he had apparently been induced to do so by his daughter Muna, whose public statements condemning her father’s links with the monarchy and threatening to disown him had been broadcast by pro-fidayin media. Equally surprising to Hussein was the appearance in Cairo of Arafat, who was supposed to have been underground in Amman with the army on his trail. It emerged that Numairi’s embassy had secretly located the Fatah emir and spirited him to safety.

These tricks, largely made possible by the Arab embassy’s blandishments toward Hussein, showed that a little investment by Arab states in the fidayin could dent the regime attack yet. But it was the fidayin’s turn for another nasty shock, when Amman suddenly broadcast a statement by Khalaf urging a ceasefire. Khalaf protested his innocence, saying that he had been tricked into reading the statement out loud off a paper, but the episode once again showed the scattered state in which the fidayin found themselves; it occurred even as Udwan and Wazir, the seniormost commanders left in Amman, were ruminating on a coup to put Mashhour in power.[xxvii] Eventually it was not Palestinian efforts, but the pressure brought to bear by Numairi’s embassy, that prompted Hussein to yield. Appointing another Palestinian-Jordanian official, Ahmad Tuqan, as prime minister with instructions to heal the rift, he flew to Cairo and signed with Arafat a ceasefire under the rheumy eye of Gamal Nasser, who passed away hours later. Black September was over, and in addition to the thousands of casualties in the war had marked an inglorious end to the career of the premier Arab leader of the day.


In spite of the enormous trauma and cost to human life – largely on the Palestinian side – “Black September” ended with a fidayin foothold still in Jordan. The fidayin parties entered an uneasy period of recalculation and introspection: most agreed that they had overstepped the mark even as they bewailed the regime crackdown, but the exact cause and remedy caused considerable divisions even as they tried to organize. Attempts by Yahya, the most professionally-minded fidayin commander, to integrate their forces largely failed under Syrian pressure. Within a year Arafat had been forced to replace him by Syria, who so controlled the Munqada military wing that within months it broke away entirely from Munqada into a separate organization that remains under Damascus’ control to this day.[xxviii]

The most militant stand at this point was taken by Shaabia, partly as a result of Habash – who had been embarrassingly absent throughout the conflict – tried to salvage his position within his party by investing more firmly in a Marxist position that attacked more conciliatory fidayin factions as opportunists. This enraged Fatah commanders such as Udwan, who went as far as to accuse Shaabia as conspiring with the Jordanian state to give them a pretext to oust the fidayin for good; this was more reflective of the predicament in which Fatah had found themselves, between Marxist maximalism and monarchic control, than reality. More accurately, Udwan accused the Marxists for “gambling on the capability of Fatah” because they themselves did not have to “pay the price of the decision, and so were not too concerned by the calculations.”[xxix]

There was good reason for fidayin unease. In October 1970, Hussein replaced the shortlived dove Tuqan with his more hardline compatriot Wasfi Tal, and by the winter a slow but steady army advance had recommenced. The ceasefire had not secured the state monopoly on violence, and – even as he negotiated terms with the fidayin, most of whom were largely compliant by necessity at this point – Hussein permitted the army to encircle and slowly clear them out. Amman’s position was that only “honourable” guerrillas, who were strictly under its supervision – Jordanian paramilitaries, that is, rather than independent Palestinian militias[xxx] – remain intact. Meanwhile, on the Jordan river’s other side, the Israeli occupation took advantage to root out the fidayin fronts in the occupied territories.

In April 1971 – with only muted protest by Arab capitals – Hussein forced the fidayin to quit Amman entirely; led by Wazir, they trooped off to Ajloun, the last holdout where Iyad still held out; ironically, it had been these two commanders who had most opposed confrontation with Amman but were now paying the price. With Wazir summoned abroad for diplomacy, Iyad was left in command when the army moved in and captured Ajloun in July 1971. His summary execution in custody outraged the fidayin, who blamed Ghasib personally and prime minister Tal more broadly.

The Jordanian monarchy had restored its exclusive statehood in Jordan, but the cost reverberated in the region. September 1970 was followed by a series of tumults, not least in the factionalism-ridden Baathist regimes. In Baghdad, defence minister Hardan, whom Khalaf had accused personally for the Iraqi betrayal, was scapegoated, exiled, and soon murdered, marking another advance for the civilian faction of the Iraqi Baath and its strongman Saddam Hussein, who would seize power before the decade was up. In Damascus, by contrast, defence minister Assad seized power in November 1970, ousting his rival Jadid and the latter’s figurehead Nuraddin Atasi in a bloodless coup to set up a familial dynasty that rules Syria to the present day. The flight of the Palestinians to Lebanon had major repercussions and would, inflamed by Israeli cross-border attacks, help catalyze the civil war there. In Masr, Nasser’s compromise successor Anwar Sadat belied expectations by militarily challenging Israel, lasting a decade at the top, and unexpectedly betraying the fidayin by its end in his treaty with Israel. Hussein himself survived yet another coup attempt by Hizbut-Tahrir, but thereafter entrenched himself.

The major pattern across the region in the 1970s was the reentrenchment of state power as opposed to militant power, a pattern in which the Palestinians – as non-state actors by default – were naturally the losers. If 1967 had discredited state power, the 1973 war – carried out exclusively by Arab capitals – largely enabled the state to reemerge at the centre of regional politics; in this sense, the relatively small Jordanian state set off an unlikely pattern of coldly ruthless state entrenchment. Yet frequently misrule or outright tyranny by these states would provoke a new round of militant violence by the 1980s and 1990s. States as varied as radical Libya and conservative Saudi Arabia would agree in their criticism of Hussein’s tactics, yet – as subsequent years would show – most showed no less fervour in crushing non-state actors that challenged them.

The fidayin also changed in this period. With several hundred Jordanian army defectors now in their ranks, senior fidayin leaders attempted to use them to both “professionalize” Munqada as a parastate and also within their own internal competition; both attempts were largely unsuccessful. Such defectors who advanced to the top of the Palestinian military command included Saad Sayel, a brigade commander before his defection in September 1970; Abu Moussa Muragheh, the leftist commander whose coup offer Arafat had rejected the previous month; and Attaullah Attaullah. Yet with the exception of Sayel, killed in battle against Israel in 1982, these commanders would prove too independent, and in 1983 both Muragheh and Attaullah would mount mutinies, backed secretly by Syria and Jordan respectively.

The failure to form a “parastate” in exile was also revealed in the increased fragmentation of activity; where once hijacks had been the preserve of the Marxists, a number of other fidayin including Fatah’s senior leaders flirted with the field. The most infamous was Banna, whose “Abu Nidal” network – named after his patronymic – would, with Iraqi backing, both mutiny against Fatah and turn itself into a mercenary outfit by the 1980s. But more “respectable” fidayin commanders also dabbled; short-lived outfits, with such evocative nicknames as “Black September” and “Abu Ali Iyad”, briefly abounded, some of them experiments by such senior Fatah leaders such as Oudeh and the prospective kingmaker Khalaf.

The first notable case of such tactics came in November 1971, when a team of assassins mounted in Cairo the spectacularly grisly murder of Jordanian prime minister Tal, blamed as a “more loyal than the king” quisling by fidayin hardliners. In October 1974 Khalaf aimed higher, unsuccessfully attempting the assassination of Hussein at Rabat. In this sense, an increase in regional “terrorism” was directly related to the Jordan war’s outcome, whether revenge or a loss of territory to produce more respectable forms of militancy. With corresponding attacks and the contest between entrenched states to make it their proxy, the Palestinian movement was badly hit for a generation. Fidayin fragmentation, whether operational as in the case of these clandestine groups or open as in the 1980s mutinies, would continue until the 1980s intifada in the occupied territories. This uprising, which coincided with the birth of the more pointedly Islamist Hamas movement, would give Palestinian militancy a shot-in-the-arm as potent as had seemed fleetingly possible in the two-and-a-half years between the Battle of Karameh and Black September.

[i] I have written a separate summary of this conflict for the Pakistani magazine The Truth International, which will be published on 29 September 2020. My thanks to Oroba Tasnim and Ashraf Malkham for assistance there; I also owe thanks to Abdulla “Karakmufti” and a chap known variously as “Gleaming Razor” and “Da Masked Avenger” for help in this project.

[ii] Yezid Sayigh, Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian national movement, 1949-1993 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), p. 143. Sayigh was the son of former Munqada leader Yusif Sayigh and the historian Rosemary Sayigh.

[iii] Rex Brynen’s Sanctuary and Survival: The PLO in Lebanon (Boulder: Westview Press, 1990) gives a comprehensive account about Palestinian politics in Lebanon.

[iv] These links were uncovered by the liberal Israeli historian Avi Shlaim, who heaped his resultant admiration on Hussein in such works as his biography Lion of Jordan: The life of king Hussein in war and peace (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008).

[v] Habis Mujali had led the Latroun battle to Jerusalem’s north during the 1948 war, which helped limit the Israeli advance. A staunch royalist, however, he had captained Abdullah I’s guards when the king was murdered – venturing out too openly against Habis’ advice, irritably snapping, “Ya Habis, la tahbisni” (“Habis, don’t restrain me” – a play on the commander’s name) – only to get shot down by a Palestinian assassin, Mustafa Ashou, whom Habis’ troops immediately slew and who was accused as having been hired by Amin Hussaini, the Palestinian mufti who had long opposed Abdullah. As such, it is not surprising that Habis would support the monarchy against Palestinian militants. This sympathetic account of Abdullah’s murder comes from the Jordanian officer and future deputy premier Maan Abu-Nowar, another loyalist officer, in The Jordanian-Israeli War, 1948-1951: A history of the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan (Ithaca Press, 2002), which rather exaggeratedly portrays Jordan as the main bulwark against Israel but is nonetheless excellent on the operational facets of the 1948 war. I have covered Habis’ role in the 1948 war in my earlier article

[vi] Sayigh, p. 202.

[vii] Sayigh, p. 184. Fatah accused Dablan as a Jordanian provocateur, but Sayigh doubts the claim.

[viii] Suha Taji-Farouki, A Fundamental Quest: Hizb al-Tahrir and the search for the Islamic caliphate (London: Grey Seal, 1996), p. 27. It should be noted that the writer cites “some internal sources” as blaming Arafat. We can’t know this with certainty, but it would seem to be in tune with Arafat’s opposition to Maswadeh, whose suspected role in the plot is mentioned by Sayigh, p. 226. Interestingly Nimr Saleh, the leftist Fatah commissar, was also suspected as having been involved; he was dismissed at the end of 1969, but would resurface in future Fatah power struggles as a partisan of the left and even in league with the Syrian Baath.

[ix] Ibid. The mufti’s aides Omar Abdul-Karim and Hasan Abu-Raqaba helped set up these camps, which included a young ideologue called Abdullah Azzam who would later come to fame in Afghanistan. They were, interestingly enough, investigated by another former aide to the mufti, Ghazi Hussaini, who was assigned to this task by Fatah spymaster Salah Khalaf. The remaining Islamist fronts would disband during the September 1970, when they refused to take part in a war between Muslims.

[x] Sayigh, p. 259.

[xi] For Hawatmeh’s links to South Yemen, see Russian diplomat Vitali Naumkin’s Red Wolves of Yemen (Oleander Press, 2004), which sympathizes with the Marxists.

[xii] Sayigh, in Chapters 9 and 10, deals considerably with the muzayyada or outbidding process between the Marxists. Ironically the September 1970 war to some extent reversed their positions: the radical Hawatmeh was suitably chastened, while the supposedly less radical Shaabia became more aggressive as a result.

[xiii] Sayigh, p. 244.

[xiv] Abu-Nowar, whose career has been discussed in Footnote 2, was also the cousin of Ali Abu-Nowar, the former army commander who had allegedly plotted a coup against Hussein in April 1957; I have briefly covered this plot here. As with Rushaid, Ali was soon reconciled. See Lawrence Tal, Politics, the Military, and National Security in Jordan, 1955-1967 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002, on the subject.

[xv] Joseph Massad’s excellent book Colonial Effects: The making of national identity in Jordan (Columbia Press, 2001) covers this campaign in Chapter 4, and in particular pages 204-17. Massad notes that the campaign to contrast the “pious” regime with the impious fidayin was “more believable as the more radical elements of the Palestinian guerrillas committed certain irreligious acts horrifying many people. One such reported act was the hoisting of red flags and Lenin’s portraits from the minaret of an Amman mosque on the occasion of Lenin’s birthday. This drew the ire of many Transjordanians and Palestinian Jordanians alike.” Most fidayin also condemned such acts, but were unable to confront them in any way. Interestingly, in the late 1970s similar provocations, which involved superimposing Soviet leaders onto Islamic rituals and symbols, helped turn Afghan society against the communists who seized power there.

[xvi] Rashid Khalidi, Resurrecting Empire: Western footprints and America’s perilous path in the Middle East (Beacon Press, 2004), p. 130.

[xvii] Cited in Sayigh, p. 256-57.

[xviii] Sayigh, p. 750, n. 145, cites Palestinian sources that indeed suspected Ghasib and another bedouin officer, Kasib Safouq, as threatening an anti-fidayin coup against the monarchy that was perceived as insufficiently active. “If the Hashemite family would not protect them, they hinted darkly, then it was time for native Transjordanians to rule themselves.” Sayigh, p. 259. Whether or not such a coup was really in the works or simply suspected, Ghasib would play a major role in the war and the monarchy could only have been further hardened by such rumours.

[xix] Abdullah Moussa, from the Abu-Sitta family, had been linked with rural assistance to the fidayin on the Jordanian border with Israel since the 1948 war; I have briefly covered his role in my article thereabout

[xx] Sayigh, p. 261.

[xxi] Ayesha Jalal, The Struggle for Pakistan (Harvard University Press, 2014), p. 213, notes that Gul Hassan – briefly army commander in 1971-72, but at that point the Pakistani ground forces commander –saved Ziaul-Haq from court martial. Gul later helped transition the defeated Pakistani military junta to Zulfikar Bhutto’s regime after the 1971 Bangladesh war, only to be sacked by Bhutto three months later; Bhutto later fell prey to Ziaul-Haq’s coup.

[xxii] Sayigh, p. 263, notes that the senior commanders Yahya and Udwan ahd in fact drawn up precuationary plans in case of a showdown earlier, but these were ignored.

[xxiii] Sayigh, p. 265. Abbas later became leader of the internationally recognized Palestinian “government” succeeding Arafat, a post he still holds today.

[xxiv] The attacking force comprised Palestinian units loyal to Damascus – and particularly to the leftist faction in the regime led by Jadid – as well as the newly founded Ninth Division in southern Syria, which appears to have been led at that point by Turkmani who did lead it against Israel three years later; as a rule, such praetorian regimes as Syria’s tended to keep their commanders in their positions for years. See an account by Israeli army spymaster Chaim Herzog, The Arab-Israeli Wars: War and peace in the Middle East from the 1948 war of independence to the present (New York: Vintage Books, 1982), p. 285. Turkmani later became army commander, defence minister, and was serving as a security advisor to Hafez Assad’s son Bashar when he was killed along with other regime heavyweights in a Damascus blast during the 2012 campaign.

[xxv] Kuwait and Saudi Arabia had been major points of early Fatah organization, and Tunisia would later serve as Arafat’s base after his expulsion from Lebanon in the 1980s.

[xxvi] Bahjat Abu-Gharbieh had a particularly long career in Palestinian militancy; he fought the British mandate during the 1930s revolt, led a small unit of mujahideen during the 1947-48 battle for Jerusalem, and later joined the Baath before his switch to Munqada, where he mainly played a military role. He later published several books including his memoirs, and he passed away in 2012 aged nearly a hundred years.

[xxvii] Sayigh, p. 266.

[xxviii] The subsequent spliter group, the “Palestinian Liberation Army”, has remained under the Syrian regime’s control since the mid-1970s, participating in the assault on the Lebanon-based fidayin early on. Led since the 1980s by Tariq Khadra, it served as a loyalist militia in the 2010s Syrian war.

[xxix] Sayigh, p. 271.

[xxx] A parallel can perhaps be drawn with Syria’s “Southern Front” coalition of “rebel groups”; formed in 2014 as an ostensible umbrella of southern insurgents against Damascus, it made one major campaign over the 2014-15 winter and remained largely inactive for over three years until its dissolution upon the Russian conquest of the south in summer 2018.

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