The term Black September refers to the war between Palestinian guerrillas and the Jordanian military during September 1970. It is so called (by the Palestinians especially) because of the brutal nature of the fighting in the conflict, and because of the many civilians who were tortured, raped or killed during the course of the conflict.
During the late 1960s, Jordan was the stronghold for the PLO. The West Bank, which is now territory in Palestinian hands as of this writing (April 22, 2002), was then in Jordanian hands. (Jordan originally annexed the West Bank, which was originally set aside to be Palestinian territory, on April 3rd, 1949.)
As time went on, Palestinian militant organizations were turning into lawless armed gangs, and were beginning to create havoc in many Jordanian cities. These Palestinian forces began increasingly to have military conflicts with the Jordanian army, to the degree that between mid 1968 and the end of 1969, there were no fewer than five hundred violent clashes between these two groups. Serious incidents escalated the tension, including many kidnappings and rapes and unprovoked attacks on Jordanian offices and soldiers. These armed gangs of Palestinians extorted illegal levies, molested women, and insulted the Jordanian flag to the face of loyal Jordanians.
On 6 September 1970 the PFLP hijacked a TWA Boeing 747, Swissair DC-8, and BOAC VC-10, diverting them to Dawson Field near Amman. These hijackings happened concurrently with the hijacking and destruction of a Cairo-bound Pan Am flight.
Jordan was divided on how to deal with the hijackers. Jordan's Prime Minister (Abdel Munim Al Rifai), a staunch PLO supporter, was determined that a settlement should be negotiated. Other Jordanian politicians supported him. Crown Prince Hassan, former Prime Minister Wasfi Tel, and several other important senior officers and diplomats were of the opposite opinion, that it was time to crack down on the Palestinians.
The planes were destroyed by the impatient terrorists, and the next day King Hussein declared martial law, dismissed the minister Rifai, appointed a new commander in chief, and established a new military government. Yasser Arafat, then as now leader of the PLO, stormed around Amman making statements but there were no last minute moves to salvage the situation, even after the Arab governments showed little inclination to stand between Hussein and the Palestinians.
The fighting began the following day, with the Jordanians laying down an artillery barrage against the PLO stronghold of Zarqa. Within hours similar attacks were taking place throughout Amman, at the strategic Jabal Al Hussein, and against refugee camps such as Al Wahdat (which had been the first to raise the flag of the Republic of Palestine). Arafat used the word 'genocide' to describe what was happening to the Palestinians, while urging his fighters to resist. The Palestinians fought well, but there were already discouraging events in the works. Iraqi army units which Arafat had counted on refused to come to his aid and were seen retreating to a distant safe area.
On September 18th, Arafat’s men were still holding out, and the Jordanian army was failing to make any progress at all, let alone the easy victory that was expected. The Arab League issued appeals for a cease to the fighting, but little real action was taken. By the end of the day, poor logistics and disorganization among the Palestinians began to take a toll, and several units were running out of ammunition. By early morning on the 19th of September, armored units from the Palestinian Liberation Army and and regular units from Syria invaded northern Jordan, driving towards Amman. Arafat's propensity for propaganda was put to use as he declared northern Jordan a liberated area.
The fighting in the streets of Amman was bloody. Neither side took any prisoners, many innocents were raped and killed, and much of the city was set ablaze. Following this battle, there were several meetings to attempt to bring an end to the violence between the sides. Despite ever-rising animosity between Arafat and Hussein, a truce was hammered out between the sides by Sharif Nasser. However, immediately after this truce was set, Nasser died suddenly, and the agreement was never observed.
Arafat returned to Jordan after the negotiations and set up headquarters in Ajlun, a city in the north. He sent repeated messages to Hussein professing moderation and promoting a policy of live and let live, but the atmosphere had already become too poisoned for any amicable settlement. The final Jordanian move to liquidate the Palestinian resistance took place in July 1971. The Jordanian army pushed the Palestinian forces to a corner of the country, bordering Israel and Syria, and crushed them there. Arafat’s screams of genocide drew Arab protests and led to the closure of the Iraqi and Syrian borders with Jordan and suspension of Kuwaiti aid, but these measures could not alter the fate of the Palestinian fighters. Another three thousand Palestinians died in the next two weeks of fighting. The ferocity of the onslaught forced many of the Palestinian fighters to flee across the Jordan River to seek asylum in Israel. After hiding in a cave for some time, Arafat managed to call in a favor from Munib Masri, a member of the Jordanian Cabinet, and escaped into Lebanon with two thousand of his fighters.
The Black September terror group, which was is now thought to have actually been a part of Fatah, takes its
name from this event in Palestinian history. Further reading on the subject can be found at: