On Wednesday, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan announced he would work together with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to mobilise international opinion against Israel over the ongoing military operation in Gaza.

Reporting on the telephonic conversation between the two leaders, The News International said, “the two leaders strongly condemned Israel’s actions… saying that the attacks on civilians and the revered Al-Aqsa Mosque have violated all norms of humanity and international law”.

On Wednesday, Imran also tweeted his solidarity with Gaza and with Palestine.

Pakistan has, over the decades, highlighted its commitment to the Palestinian cause. Pakistan’s professions of support have, arguably, grown more vocal as India has expanded ties with Israel since the 1990s.

However, there is one chapter in Palestinian history that Pakistan’s leaders would be uncomfortable talking about: Events in Jordan in September 1970.

The Palestinians refer to the period as ‘Black September’, when the Jordanian military launched an operation to expel militants of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and other groups from the country.

Why was the operation launched?

The census in Jordan in 2015 stated the country had a population of about 9.5 million, of whom approximately 6.6 million were native Jordanians and 634,000 were Palestinian.

However, global experts and human rights groups claim at least half of Jordan’s population comprises Palestinians. The fear of Palestinians destabilising the ruling Hashemite dynasty in Jordan has persisted for decades.

The vast majority of these Palestinians arrived as refugees following the formation of Israel in 1947. After the Six-Day War of 1967, when Israel routed a number of Arab states, around 300,000 more Palestinians fled into Amman and other parts of Jordan.

The presence of Palestinian militants led to tension with the government of King Hussein, who ascended to the throne in 1952. In an obituary of PLO leader Yasser Arafat in 2004, The New York Times stated that in the run-up to Black September, “Palestinian guerrillas began interfering with highway traffic, controlling Palestinian refugee camps, clashing with the Jordanian Army and systematically defying the government.”

In addition, Palestinian militant groups like the Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) launched attacks from Jordan against Israel, triggering retaliation by the Jewish state. Another worrying factor for King Hussein was the presence of a sizeable Iraqi Army contingent in Jordan, ostensibly to protect against Israel. Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer, wrote an article on 50 years of Black September for the CIA website. Riedel noted the Iraqi Army in Jordan at the time had 20,000 troops and 200 tanks. To exacerbate a complicated situation, both Iraq and Syria supported separate Palestinian militant groups operating in Jordan.

King Hussein was the target of at least two assassination attempts in 1970. In June, his motorcade was attacked. The incident led to the Jordanian Army shelling Palestinian refugee camps around Amman. A second assassination attempt was launched against King Hussein’s motorcade on September 1; the PFLP claimed responsibility for the incident. On September 16, King Hussein ordered the formation of a military government in the country to restore order as clashes with Palestinian militants continued.

Pakistani involvement and conflict

The Jordanian army and air force had been battered by Israel in the 1967 war. While the US and UK supplied equipment to rebuild the military, one of the nations Jordan turned to for training the newly equipped army was Pakistan. One of the experts dispatched by Pakistan was a brigadier named Mohammed Zia-u-Haq. Zia-ul-Haq would rise to become a general and overthrow civilian rule in Pakistan and rule the country from 1978 to 1988.

On September 17, 1970, King Hussein ordered the Jordanian Army to target militants operating from the refugee camps around Amman.

ON September 18, Syrian tanks entered Jordan in support of the Palestinian militants near the town of Irbid, which Palestinian militants had captured. Riedel wrote, “Hussein sent Zia-ul-Haq to the scene to make an on-the-ground assessment of the situation. Zia reported that the situation was serious but not dire. Jordan could handle the Syrian tanks with its own forces and prevail. Zia effectively took charge of part of the Jordanian counterattack…”

The tide of the operation turned as Syria opted to stay out of the hostilities.

On September 26, then Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser summoned King Hussein and Arafat to Cairo to push for a ceasefire, which was signed the next day.

Casualties and significance

Riedel writes, “Between 3,000 and 4,000 fedayeen (Palestinian militants) died, 600 Syrians were killed or wounded, and the Jordanian army reported 537 killed in action. Civilian casualties are unknown but were sizeable.” However, Arafat claimed the Jordanian Army’s operation in Black September killed up to 25,000 people.

British-Pakistani writer Tariq Ali refers to the significance of Black September in his book The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power, published in 2008. Ali refers to a quote by Moshe Dayan, the legendary Israeli military commander and statesman, who said that in Black September, King Hussein, “killed more Palestinians in 11 days than Israel could kill in 20 years”.

Black September effectively ended the influence of Palestinian militants in Jordan and led to the ouster of the PLO and other Palestinian groups, most of whom switched base to Lebanon.

Zia-ul-Haq’s role

Zia-ul-Haq’s exact role in Black September is still a matter of debate. While many have even called him a ‘butcher’ of Palestinians, a retired Pakistani diplomat argued claims about Zia’s involvement in the conflict were exaggerated.

Writing in The News International in August 2010, Tayyab Siddiqui stressed the mandate of the Pakistani military was training the Jordanian defence forces and did not involve combat.

Siddiqui, who was chargé d’affaires of the Pakistani embassy in Jordan at the time, wrote, “… I received a call from Brig Zia, informing me that the king had asked him to take over the command of the 3rd Armoured Division stationed in Irbid, a town close to the Syrian border. Syria had

moved with an armoured brigade into Jordan.” He added Zia took command in Irbid, but the Syrians withdrew under pressure from the US and Israel before any combat operation. “This was the sum total of Pakistan’s involvement or Zia’s role in the alleged massacre of the Palestinians,” Siddiqui wrote.

Siddiqui disagreed that the episode led to Arafat distrusting Pakistan. “Arafat visited Pakistan three times during Zia’s regime and met him at summits of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and the Non-aligned Movement. During my assignment in Cairo as Pakistan’s ambassador (1997-1999), I had quite a few occasions to meet Arafat during Arab League meetings and found no bitterness in him about Zia’s alleged role as ‘Butcher of Palestinians’,” he wrote.

Source minus title: https://www.theweek.in/news/world/2021/05/14/remembering-the-pakistani-dictator-accused-of-slaughtering-palestinians.html

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