Hussein of Jordan:
The Bloody King
of Black September

Revolutionary Worker #995, February 21, 1999

After the death of King Hussein of Jordan on February 7, U.S. President Clinton and other heads of governments from around the world converged on Amman for his funeral and heaped high praise on the deceased ruler. They called him a "man of peace" and a "wise statesman." They pictured him as a "benevolent" and "gallant" monarch loved by the people.

The fact that these imperialists and reactionaries think so highly of King Hussein tells much about who he really was. From the beginning of his reign in 1952, Hussein was a faithful servant of the interests of major powers, especially the U.S. He collaborated with the Zionist settler-colonial state of Israel and the oppressive Arab regimes in the region. He unleashed the secret police and armed forces against opposition to his rule. And he carried out many crimes against the oppressed Palestinian people.

Among these many crimes, the bloodiest was the September 1970 assault by the Jordanian army on Palestinian guerrilla camps. Thousands of Palestinians were killed in this attack--which came to be known as "Black September."

The story of Black September reveals the truth behind King Hussein's mask of "peace" and "benevolence."

Battle of Karameh and the Surge of Palestinian Resistance

The period leading up to September 1970 was very tumultuous for the Palestinian people and the whole region. In the June 1967 war, Israel routed the armies of the Arab regimes. The Zionist state--originally founded on land stolen from the Palestinians--further expanded its territory by grabbing the West Bank of the Jordan River from King Hussein's control. Hundreds of thousands more Palestinians became refugees, as they fled the West Bank to Jordan and other nearby countries.

Karameh, located three miles east of the Jordan River, began as a huddle of tents thrown up by Palestinian refugees in 1950 on a barren part of the river valley. They named their camp Karameh--the Arabic word for dignity. With the new flood of refugees following the June 1967 war, Karameh's population doubled to some 40,000.

Fatah, the main Palestinian resistance organization at the time, chose Karameh as a base. Fatah had initiated armed struggle against Israel in 1965. Fedayeen fighters of Fatah and other groups began to launch hit-and-run guerrilla operations against Israel from Karameh and other towns and villages in the Jordan valley.

Israel responded with vicious reprisals. In November 1967, for example, Israeli aircraft bombarded Karameh, hitting Palestinian children as they left school and dropping high-fragmentation antipersonnel bombs right down the main street. A total of 14 civilians were killed, and much of the town was leveled. But the people picked themselves up and rebuilt the town.

By March 1968, the fighters in Karameh knew that Israel was preparing a major assault against their base. Fatah leaders argued that the situation required a stand against the Israelis at Karameh. The June war had spread demoralization among the Palestinian people. If the Israeli forces were successfully engaged, it would have a galvanizing effect. As one guerrilla commander said after the battle: "It was we who decided to take the responsibility of resisting the Israelis at Karameh. This was despite the fact that all the rules of guerrilla warfare tell you never to stand and fight against a conventional army which has air and artillery support. But for our own survival and success, it was essential to break all the rules this time."

The Israeli attack came in the predawn hours of March 21. The Zionist invasion force amounted to nearly an entire division of the Israeli army, about 15,000 troops. The Israeli commanders arrogantly expected to annihilate the fedayeen stronghold at Karameh, and then penetrate further into Jordan.

But at Karameh, the Israelis encountered fierce resistance. The fedayeen were vastly outnumbered and outgunned by the Israeli troops. But the Palestinian fighters more than made up for this with their determination and sense of purpose. A 22-year-old guerrilla later said: "At Karameh, the Israelis had tanks and planes; they were trying to crush the fedayeen. We, on our side, deployed our forces as best we could and fired on the enemy; we took part in that engagement from 5 in the morning till 10 at night... Many of our men who had run out ammunition hurled themselves under the tanks, carrying explosives. The first martyr to do that was Rarbi; he threw himself under a tank. I knew him well. We stuck it out that day, so as to wipe out the memory of June 1967."

The battle of Karameh was an electrifying political victory for the Palestinian resistance. And, in an important sense, it was a military victory as well. The Israelis were unprepared for the stiff resistance they met from the fedayeen, and they suffered unexpectedly high casualties. They were unable to carry out their plan of dealing a decisive blow against the fedayeen and seizing another chunk of Jordanian territory. Although the fedayeen suffered 50 percent casualties, they were not driven from the Jordan valley, and strengthened their foothold there.

But the greatest impact of the battle at Karameh was the effect on the Palestinian people and the masses throughout the Arab world. Less than a year after its much-touted "lightning" victory in the June war, Israel had been staggered by a force of a few hundred Palestinian fighters.

This was a major turning point in the Palestinian resistance. The Palestinian struggle, which many thought had perished forever in the flames of June 1967, had risen again like a phoenix from the ashes. World prestige of the fedayeen soared. Thousands of Arab youth--Palestinian and non-Palestinian, men and women--rushed to enroll in the guerrilla training camps. The number of volunteers exceeded the ability of the groups to train and arm them. Mao Tsetung's Red Book was very popular among these young fighters.

After Karameh, fedayeen operations on Israel's borders increased greatly. By early 1969, some 15,000 fedayeen were operating from bases in Jordan alone.

The Growing Confrontation

The Hashemite kingdom of Jordan was artificially carved from historic Palestine after World War I by the British. Most of Hussein's "subjects" were Palestinians who were not particularly supportive of the king. Hussein depended for his survival on his army, with loyal Bedouin troops at the core. And to pay and equip this army, Hussein depended on U.S. economic and military aid. The U.S. paid for half of Jordan's budget. And Hussein received personal payments from the CIA starting in 1957.

Despite the U.S. backing, the June 1967 war and the growth of the Palestinian resistance movement left King Hussein in a very weakened position. With the guerrillas of the Palestine Liberation Organization controlling many towns and villages and even the capital city of Amman, there was a situation of "dual power" in Jordan. Hussein himself recalled later: "Amman became a virtual battlefield. No Regular Army people could enter the city in uniform, as they would be fired on by the PLO. I tried my best. Twice, I was ambushed. And I almost lost control. The people in the armed forces began to lose confidence in me..." Palestinian guerrillas rode around Amman in trucks, openly brandishing their weapons and shouting revolutionary slogans.

Hussein was strongly opposed to the fedayeen operations against Israel from bases in Jordan. And there were a series of inconclusive clashes between his army and the guerrillas. But for some time, Hussein was forced to stay his hand, lacking the political strength to openly oppose the fedayeen at a time when they were galvanizing the Arab world. He even made statements like, "We are all fedayeen." But all the while, he was planning for the moment when he could drown the Palestinian resistance in blood and drive the PLO out of Jordan.

Within the Palestinian movement, there was fierce debate over whether or not to seize on the favorable circumstances to participate in and even lead an armed struggle to overthrow the king. The leadership of Fatah, the dominant group within the PLO, promoted a policy of conciliation with Hussein and "working within the system" in order not to jeopardize the PLO position in Jordan. But the problem was, as long as King Hussein remained in power, Jordan could not be considered "secure" as a base area for waging a revolutionary struggle for national liberation. Either Hussein was going to "get" the revolution, or the revolution was going to "get" Hussein.

In late 1969, the U.S. put forward the "Rogers Plan" which offered Jordan and Egypt the possibility of the return of land occupied by Israel--in exchange for a "peace treaty" with Israel and withdrawal of any backing for the claim of the Palestinian people to their homeland. Hussein wanted to endorse the Rogers Plan but was politically too weak to do so, given the radicalized mood of the people. In April 1970, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Sisco planned to visit Jordan as part of promoting the "peace plan." But his visit had to be cancelled after Palestinian demonstrators in Amman burned down the U.S. Information Center and damaged the U.S. embassy.

Hussein began collaborating directly with the U.S. and Israel to prepare a move to crush the fedayeen presence in Jordan. According to an account drawn from the diaries of former Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban: "On February 4, 1970...Hussein, using the avenue of the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, approached Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban with what must have seemed like an unprecedented request. He asked that Israel not take advantage of Jordanian military redeployment geared to counter PLO efforts to overthrow his regime.... He requested further that Jordan make use of IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) intelligence should outside forces, meaning Syria, invade Jordan...This is only one specific example of Israeli-Jordanian cooperation. The list of Israeli political and military leaders who have met with the king is extensive."

In Washington, the U.S. policy makers were worried about the stability of Hussein's rule. Henry Kissinger--the national security advisor in the Nixon administration--wrote in his book White House Years: "I considered it essential to preserve Hussein's rule; it was important to demonstrate that friendship with the West and a moderate foreign policy would be rewarded with effective American support. It was necessary to arrest the progressive radicalization of the Middle East..."

Kissinger ordered "a study of operational consequences of a protracted American military engagement in Jordan." The aircraft carrier Independence and six destroyers were sent off the coast of Lebanon. C-130 transport planes were readied at an air base in Turkey. Troops units from North Carolina to West Germany were put on alert.

On August 29, 1970, Hussein officially accepted the Rogers Plan. Then on September 13, Hussein ordered all fedayeen to turn in their weapons. The Palestinians responded with a call for a general strike to demand the participation of fedayeen representatives in the government. On September 16, Hussein announced the formation of a military government and declared martial law.

Hussein Attacks

On September 17, the National Security Council was on the alert in Washington. Kissinger, along with the heads of the Defense Department, CIA and Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with Israeli and Jordanian ambassadors. Israel planned a military intervention in case Hussein's army failed to defeat the guerrillas or Syrian forces invaded Jordan.

In Jordan, Hussein's tanks surrounded the Palestinian camps in and around Amman at 5 a.m. The army imposed a curfew, shooting on sight anyone caught in the streets. The tanks began firing, catching the guerrillas unprepared. The battlefield diary of a young fedayeen caught in the attack recorded the scene:

"Then something totally unexpected happened. The cannons of the tanks shelled the houses in a totally unnecessary way. Savagely, without even differentiating between homes and commando offices. It was really frightening. We were paralyzed, seeing the houses collapse in suddenly and seeing in the unexpected rubble many of the small private things of people..."

Jordan's U.S.-supplied air force swooped in, dropping canister after canister of napalm and setting uncontrollable fires throughout the camps. Those fleeing the camps ran into a Jordanian ring of armor and were killed on the spot.

One account of the fighting gives a sense of how the guerrillas heroically fought back: "As the tanks advanced, supported by infantry, they would draw the fedayeen fire. They replied to it with devastating effect. The noise echoing between the stone-built houses was deafening. Dust thrown up by the tank tracks hung low in the sultry early-morning air, coating the tank crews as they searched for targets.... Meanwhile the fedayeen were fighting back fiercely, contesting every inch of the way. They had plenty of ammunition and their anti-tank rocket launchers imposed caution on the tanks.... More and more troops were brought in, only to find that even more were required... After 15 hours of continuous firing the fedayeen were still full of fight by the end of the day."

But it was clear that the PLO was unprepared, politically and militarily, for the savagery and suddenness of Hussein's assault. Many within the PLO had believed that Hussein, fearful of divisions within the army, would not dare carry out such an operation.

The Palestinians fought for 11 days against the unremitting assault. In the last entry in his battlefield diary, the Palestinian guerrilla wrote: "I am afraid that here at least everything is coming to an end. I can see only that people prefer to die resisting. Death is in every square inch of the Hussein refugee camps. Also thirst and hunger... Now our men fight starvation in the first line as they face the tanks..."

After the fighting stopped, the survivors went out into the streets of Amman. Among the bodies and ruined buildings, they found thousands of ammunition cartons stamped with the words "Made in the USA."

5000 Palestinians were killed and 20,000 wounded in Black September. Hussein continued to hunt down Palestinian guerrillas in the following months. In July 1971, Hussein's army moved on the last major fedayeen base at the forest of Ajloum. A force of 1800 guerrillas held out heroically for four days. After 96 hours of artillery and napalm strikes, only 50 guerrillas remained. Jordanian troops dragged the body of Fatah's popular military commander, Abu Ali Iyad, behind a tank through neighboring towns as a gruesome message to the Palestinian people.

In the aftermath of Black September, the U.S. sent in more weapons and supplies to support Hussein, giving him $35 million in emergency aid.


In recent years, King Hussein has been a key figure in the U.S.-directed "peace process" in the Middle East. This is a "peace" aimed at securing U.S. imperialist interests, a "peace" that sells out the interests of the oppressed Palestinian people.

For the Palestinian people who still dream of genuine national liberation, Hussein will be remembered as a long-time tool of imperialism, willing collaborator with the Zionist oppressors and a mass murderer. He was the bloody king of Black September.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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