Next Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of the Palestinian uprising in Jordan, and the accompanying wave of hijackings, that came to be known as Black September. In 1967, the Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser—looking for a way to strike back at Israel after losing the Six-Day War—had set the stage for the revolt by supporting Yasir Arafat in his takeover of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Under Arafat’s leadership, the group, based in Jordan, launched frequent guerrilla attacks against Israel—taking advantage of the weakness of the Jordanian monarchy. Sean Durns explains what happened next:
In November 1969, clashes erupted between Jordan’s army and the PLO. Low-level fighting went on intermittently for months with King Hussein still desperate to avoid a full-on confrontation. The king even sought to placate Arafat by offering him a government post, which he refused.
On September 1, 1970, shots were fired at Hussein’s motorcade. Five days later, Palestinian terrorists [affiliated with the PLO] hijacked three airplanes, two American and one Swiss. [Finally]. Hussein, belatedly, chose to act, deploying his troops to crush Arafat and his supporters. The PLO, in turn, called for the king’s overthrow. Pitched battles erupted on Jordan’s streets. Worse still, on September 19, elements of the Syrian military crossed Jordan’s northern border to assist the PLO fighters.
Washington saw Jordan was one of its few reliable allies in the region, in contrast to Soviet-backed Egypt and Syria. But, with its military bogged down in Vietnam, it was reluctant to heed Amman’s calls for help:
On September 20, Secretary of State Henry Kisssinger told Israel’s ambassador to the United States, the future prime minister Yitzḥak Rabin, that King Hussein had asked to have Israel’s air force attack the Syrian invaders. . . . Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir ordered the reconnaissance flights and Israel sent troops to its border with Syria. Israeli jets, meanwhile, flew low over Syrian tanks in Jordan—sending an unmistakable signal that Israel would intervene.
While the IDF never engaged the Syrians, its air cover was sufficient to allow Hussein’s forces to push them back; thereafter Jordan crushed the uprising and expelled the PLO to Lebanon. Both Amman and Washington learned that, rather than be a liability, Israeli military prowess could help them protect their interests and maintain stability.