Black September and the Palestinians’ lost decade
BEIRUT - Forty-five years ago, the Jordanian Army crushed Palestinian groups posing a threat to the Hashemite monarchy in what became known as Black September.
Looking back, one can learn many lessons about the hubris in the Palestinian leadership and how its strategy with regard to the Arab countries ultimately backfired. This had dramatic consequences for the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
On a personal level, I arrived in Lebanon at the time and, though a child, immediately got a sense of its taut political environment. The Air France passenger plane on which my mother and I flew to Beirut was delayed for several hours because Palestinian gunmen had taken over the airport’s control tower.
As Palestinian groups fled Jordan, they relocated to Beirut, which became their de facto capital. An early memory in the city was watching a procession commemorating the death of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who died September 28, 1970.
In his last days Nasser had tried to protect the Palestinians from the onslaught of King Hussein’s forces. His death allowed the Jordanians to pursue their military offensive, until the Palestinians were defeated in June 1971.
The PLO’s move to Lebanon showed that the Palestinians, like the Bourbons, had learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Their armed groups behaved with the same arrogance as they had in Jordan, while some sought to alter Lebanon’s political system.
Under the Cairo agreement of 1969, the Palestinians were allowed to control their refugee camps and launch armed attacks against Israel from Lebanese territory. The autonomy they enjoyed led to a military escalation with the Lebanese state, a major contributing factor to the Lebanese civil war of 1975-90.
Black September seemed to underline that the road to Palestine would come at the expense of Arab states. This would embroil the Palestinians in side wars detracting from the conflict with Israel.
After the start of the Lebanese conflict, the Palestinians sided with the Lebanese National Movement against an alliance of Christian militias. Palestinian gains provoked a Syrian entry into Lebanon in 1976, amid fears that a triumph might invite Israeli intervention and lead to a war between Syria and Israel.
The Syrian deployment in Lebanon, which led to a violent confrontation with the Palestinians, gave the regime of Syria’s then-president, Hafez Assad, greater latitude to shape Palestinian affairs. While the two sides would draw closer after Egyptian president Anwar Sadat normalised relations with Israel, the PLO would always have to factor Syrian interests into whatever it did.
Yasser Arafat, the PLO chairman, would seek to retain the independence of Palestinian decision-making. However, the growing conflict between Syria and Lebanon’s Christian militias, now backed by Israel, would have far-reaching consequences for the future of the Palestinians in Lebanon.
In 1981 the Israeli government of prime minister Menachem Begin intervened on behalf of the Christians as they battled Syrian forces around the Lebanese town of Zahle, shooting down two Syrian helicopters. Assad deployed anti-aircraft missiles to Lebanon to counter the Israelis.
The so-called missile war not only reinforced the Christian-Israeli alliance, it pushed Begin and his defence minister, Ariel Sharon, to consider a more radical approach in Lebanon.
The Israelis formulated a plan to invade Lebanon in the summer of 1982 and achieve several aims: force the PLO out of Lebanon; bring the Christian militia leader Bashir Gemayel to power in the Lebanese presidential election; and impose a Syrian military withdrawal from the country.
Ultimately, the Israelis hoped that by uprooting the PLO from Beirut, its leadership would fall under the sway of Damascus. Palestinians in the West Bank would have no choice but to negotiate with Israel, on Israel’s terms, while the absence of an effective leadership would push Palestinians to pursue their political aspirations in Jordan. This corresponded to a view on the Israeli right that “Jordan was Palestine”.
We had come full circle from September 1970. Black September, ironically, created dynamics allowing the Israelis to imagine that a Palestinian takeover in Jordan would allow them to resolve their own Palestinian problem at Jordan’s expense. That was not to be, but not because the PLO undermined the Israeli scheme. In fact, the exit from Beirut nearly marginalised the Palestinian leadership, which relocated to Tunis. What again made it relevant was the Palestinian intifada of 1987-91.
The decade or so between 1970 and 1982 were important years for the Palestinians, showing that Palestine would not be regained on the wreckage of Arab countries. By the end of the 1980s, the PLO focused on negotiations, under American tutelage, adopting a strategy very different than the one it had pursued after 1970. Today the Palestinians may be no closer to their goal of an independent state but they have recognised that the lost decade after Black September set them back, perhaps decisively. They may still be paying a price for that momentous deviation.