Following Jordan’s defeat in the Six-Day War and loss of control over the West Bank, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) began to launch attacks from Jordanian territory. These provoked Israeli counterattacks which threatened the peace King Hussein hoped to achieve with Israel.
PLO head Yasser Arafat ignored Hussein’s warnings and, with the support of Egypt and Syria, hoped to gain control over Jordan. Fighting between Jordan’s army and the PLO began in November 1969, but Hussein hoped to avoid an escalation.
The Palestinians gradually built up what amounted to their own state within the kingdom. They controlled the refugee camps, smuggled in weapons that they openly brandished, ignored officials of the Jordanian government, and undermined Hussein’s authority. The king attempted to negotiate an understanding with the Palestinians, but they were unwilling to compromise and flouted his authority.
The final straw for Hussein occurred when Palestinian terrorists from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) flew three hijacked planes to Jordan on September 6, 1970, and blew them up on the 12th after releasing the passengers. From that point on, Hussein’s forces increasingly clashed with the Palestinians, who were openly trying to depose him. He declared martial law on September 16 and deployed his troops to Palestinian-controlled areas.
The Israelis were naturally alarmed by a conflict not far from their borders and were worried that a PLO takeover of Jordan would pose a grave threat to their security. The United States and Great Britain were also concerned by the developments because King Hussein was viewed as a pro-Western moderate in the region, whereas the Syrians and Egyptians were backed by the Soviets.
The United States was also concerned about the possible intervention of Syria or Iraq. The State Department incorrectly assessed that Iraq was more likely to back the Palestinians. Instead, on September 19, Syria sent tanks to Jordan to support the Palestinians. But these were not supported by the requisite air forces, which were held back by their commander Hafez Assad.
Hussein was so afraid of being defeated he asked the British on September 21 to intervene and to contact Jerusalem to request help from the Israelis. The British decided, however, that Hussein’s regime was “not worth prolonging” and passed the king’s request to the United States.
At 3 a.m. on the 21st, the King called the U.S. ambassador in Jordan and asked him to pass on an urgent message to the president. “Situation deteriorating dangerously following Syrian massive invasion…. I request immediate physical intervention both air and land as per the authorization of government to safeguard sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of Jordan. Immediate air strikes on invading forces from any quarter plus air cover are imperative.”
Hussein requested that the United States launch air strikes to support his forces. President Nixon moved the Sixth Fleet closer to Jordan but preferred to have Israel intervene. On September 20, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger informed Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Yitzhak Rabin that Hussein wanted Israel’s air force to attack the Syrians and later told Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, that the United States “would look favorably upon an Israeli air attack.” Israel did not attack but demonstrated its willingness to intervene by sending troops to the border with Syria and fighter planes over Syrian tanks in Jordan
Hussein was prepared to accept the Israelis’ help, but his troops rallied and drove the invaders out before it became necessary for Israel to join the fight. After Hussein’s forces repulsed the Syrians, they turned on the PLO, killing and wounding thousands of Palestinians and forcing thousands more to seek refuge in Syria and Lebanon. Most of the Palestinian leadership, including Arafat, wound up in Lebanon where they soon set about undermining the central government of that country.
A ceasefire was signed on September 27, 1970, in Cairo during a meeting of Arab leaders attended by Hussein and Arafat. The terms included “withdrawal of both army and Fedayeen forces from Amman, release of detainees, return of military and civilian conditions in other towns to what they were before the crisis, restoration of security responsibility to the police and an end to the military government.”
The events in Jordan came to be known among Palestinians as “Black September.”
The fighting had several significant repercussions:
- Israel’s willingness to come to the king’s aid, albeit out of its own self-interest, created warmer relations between Hussein and the Israeli leadership, which facilitated periodic secret meetings to try to make peace. Jordan has never again been involved in military action against Israel.
- Israel’s willingness and ability to defend a U.S. ally demonstrated its strategic value to the United States.
- The flood of Palestinian refugees destabilized Lebanon, the PLO leadership created its own state within the state, which later contributed to the Lebanese civil war and the first Israeli-Lebanon war.
- By not providing air support Assad doomed the Syrian invasion and the humiliating defeat paved the way for him to seize power.
- The crisis in Jordan had prompted Nasser to call a meeting in Cairo of the Arab heads of state. During the talks, Nasser died of a heart attack and was replaced by his little-known vice president, Anwar Sadat.
Click here to read related State Department documents.
Sources: Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, Vol. XXIV, DC: U.S. State Department, pp. 601-925;
“1970: Hijacked jets destroyed by guerrillas,” BBC, (September 12, 1970).
Uri Dan, “Jordan Asked Israeli Help Vs. Syria Troops,” New York Post, (January 3, 2001);
“Black September plea to Israel,” BBC, (January 1, 2001).
Sean Durns, “Black September Remembered: How The PLO Forged The Modern Middle East,” National Interest, (August 21, 2020).