In the annals of Arab history, September 1970 stands as a somber period known as “Black September.” Often referred to as the “era of regrettable events,” it witnessed a series of tragic incidents that shook the region to its core.
During this fateful month, Hashemite King Hussein of Jordan took decisive action to suppress the autonomy of Palestinian organizations and regain control over his monarchy. The ensuing violence resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of lives, with the vast majority being Palestinians. The armed conflict persisted until July 1971, culminating in the expulsion of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and numerous Palestinian fighters to Lebanon.
The turning point came on September 15 when King Hussein declared martial law. The very next day, Jordanian tanks, led by the 60th Armored Brigade, launched an assault on the headquarters of Palestinian organizations in Amman. Simultaneously, the army engaged in fierce clashes at camps in Irbid, Salt, Sweileh, Baq’aa, Wehdat, and Zarqa. Notably, the head of the Pakistani training mission to Jordan, Brigadier Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who would later become the Chief of Army Staff and President of Pakistan, assumed command of the 2nd division. Furthermore, the Iraqi army in Jordan, serving as reserve forces since the 1967 war, extended support to the Jordanian army.
The Jordanian armored units struggled in the confined city streets, prompting the army to conduct house-to-house searches for Palestinian fighters. This urban warfare pitted the Jordanian forces against inexperienced and undisciplined Palestinian combatants, leading to heavy casualties.
The epicenter of the Black September turmoil was Amman, which bore the brunt of the intense fighting. The American-backed Jordanian army bombarded the PLO headquarters in Amman and engaged in street battles with Palestinian guerillas. Syrian tanks crossed the Yarmouk River into northern Jordan, bombarding Amman and other urban areas. Outdated missiles fired by the PLO rained down on Amman for over a week. After weeks of bitter fighting, Jordanian infantry eventually drove the Palestinian Fedayeen out of Amman.
Brigadier Zia-ul-Haq’s pivotal role in the Black September operations, leading Jordan’s 2nd division in street-to-street urban warfare, earned him high respect in Jordan. However, these events shed light on the complex dynamics of Arab nations’ relationships with the Palestinian cause. Despite the Arab world’s general support for Palestinians, the situation on the ground during Black September illustrated a different reality.
Surprisingly, Brigadier Zia-ul-Haq drew parallels between Pakistan and Israel, stating that both were ideological states. He believed that removing their respective religious foundations would lead to their collapse. He even called on the PLO to recognize the Jewish state in 1986, showing his intriguing alignment with Israel.
The intensity of the violence during Black September was staggering, with Moshe Dayan, one of the founders of Israel, remarking that King Hussein, with assistance from Zia-ul-Haq, killed more Palestinians in eleven days than Israel could in twenty years. Zia-ul-Haq was even awarded Jordan’s highest honor for his role in the operations.
Upon his return to Pakistan, there were suggestions to subject Brigadier Zia-ul-Haq to a Court Martial due to his involvement in the Palestinian situation. However, for undisclosed reasons, the Chief of Army Staff at the time removed his name from the list sent to President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. This led to his promotion to Major General and later to Lieutenant General through “special attention.”
Within just six years after Black September, he ascended to the position of Chief of Army Staff. It was this same individual who later orchestrated the overthrow of the elected government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and subsequently had him executed.
These events raise questions about the depth of support for the Palestinian cause, particularly in a country like Pakistan, which often vocalizes its support for Palestine.