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The Black September massacre 1970

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The media is using the Black September group’s hostage-taking of Israeli athletes in 1972 to attack Jeremy Corbyn. Nick Clark looks at the history of massacre, defeat and betrayal in the fight for Palestinian liberation that led to it
Issue 2618
Black September
Black September was a brutal military assault by the Jordanian government

Lost within the row over Jeremy Corbyn’s visit to Palestinian graves is a bloody and tragic story of oppression and resistance.

Corbyn’s enemies and supporters spent days last week arguing over the details of his participation in a memorial for Palestinians in Tunisia in 2014.

The facts point to a more complex truth about Palestinian history than those attacking Corbyn care to explain.

In September 1972 a small band of Palestinian fighters took 11 Israeli athletes hostage just ahead of the Olympic Games in Munich, West Germany.

All the hostages were killed during a botched rescue attempt by the police (see below).

In the aftermath, the press described the Palestinians much like they did last week—as irrational murderers, only motivated by hate. Just as now, few of them wanted to talk seriously about why Palestinians might look to terror as a way to win freedom.

Yet the name of the organisation that carried out the attack—Black September—gives a clue to the history that lay behind it.

Exactly two years earlier, in September 1970, thousands of Palestinians living in Jordan were killed in a brutal military assault by the Jordanian government. It’s one of many massacres that have been inflicted on the Palestinians over more than a century.

The target of the assault was the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO)—a coalition of Palestinian factions committed to armed guerrilla struggle against Israel.

Israel robbed the Palestinians of their land when it was created in 1948 and when it invaded the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in 1967.


Millions of Palestinians now lived in poverty and refugee camps in the surrounding states, including some two million in Jordan. The PLO fought for the right of Palestinians to return to all of Palestine, to live in a single, secular state.

The regular Arab armies of Syria, Jordan and Egypt had been defeated by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War. But the successes of the PLO guerrillas became a beacon of resistance for Palestinians, and an inspiration to ordinary people across the Middle East.

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In March 1968—less than a year after the Six Day War—Israel attacked the Jordanian town of Karameh, where the PLO had a base.

The Jordanian government wanted the PLO to withdraw before the attack. The PLO refused. Instead a few hundred guerrillas stayed and fought, drawing the Jordanian army into the battle and forcing Israel to retreat.

Israel had hoped to smash the PLO—but the battle had turned the PLO into heroes.

The PLO continued with the uneasy support of the Jordanian government and other Arab leaders. But as the organisation—and support for the Palestinian cause—grew, it became more of a threat to the rule of Jordanian King Hussein (see below).

Armed and supported by Israel and the US, Hussein launched a civil war against the PLO. Thousands of Palestinians were killed and the PLO was driven out of Jordan, relocating to Lebanon. The defeat was a crushing blow to the hope that guerrilla struggle had seemed to offer.

Leaders of the PLO’s main faction Fatah became more concerned not to upset other Arab governments.

They didn’t give up the struggle straight away. But they did start looking for ways to be accepted as legitimate negotiating partners among the rulers of Western states that had supported Israel against them.

One big consequence of this was that they came to abandon the goal of reclaiming all of the lost Palestinian land.

They were tempted with the prospect of a “mini state”—something rejected by the poorest Palestinians in the refugee camps, and which they have never been granted.

Other Palestinians turned to desperate and daring acts of “terror”—hijackings, bombings and hostage takings—in small clandestine groups.


Through mass revolts and armed struggles, Palestinians had fought first the British Empire, then Israel and the US imperialism that propped it up. Each time they had been brutally repressed.

Now some of them tried to hurl back just a fraction of the violence that had been dealt out to them for decades.

Palestinian fighters from the PLO formed a new group in 1970. They called it Black September, after the defeat in Jordan. At first their aim was to take revenge against Hussein and the Jordanian monarchy. But they soon took up the struggle against Israel.

PLO leaders denied they had anything to do with the Black September group. But some Black September members claimed they were overseen by the PLO.

At the very least there was an ambiguous relationship between the two. PLO members that wanted to fight could join Black September while Fatah leaders kept a respectable distance.

It was a sign of the confusion inside the Palestinian resistance after the defeat in Jordan.

Either way it was futile. For all the shock, outrage and attention Black September’s actions brought, they couldn’t defeat US imperialism which gripped the Middle East and underpinned their oppression.

It wasn’t until the First Intifada—a mass uprising—erupted in Palestine in 1987 that liberation once again seemed possible.

But in the 1970s, as now, the reaction of Western governments and the press to Palestinian violence reeked of hypocrisy.

Just three days after the Munich attack, Israel bombed refugee camps and villages in Lebanon and Syria as punishment, killing 70.

None of the newspapers condemned the tragic massacre.

Munich hijack was attempt to free Palestinian prisoners

The media’s description last week of the attack in Munich focused on the murderousness and brutality of the Black September “terrorists”.

Black September were called “Jew killers”—as if their aim was to kill the Israeli athletes simply because they were Jewish.

Actually the athletes were taken hostage by Black September.

The idea was to use them to bargain for the release of hundreds of Palestinians locked up in Israeli prisons.


Black September demanded a plane to take them and the hostages to Egypt. They were allowed to travel with the hostages to a nearby airbase by helicopter. West German police replaced the crew of the waiting plane with their own officers.

But when the Palestinians arrived, the police aboard the plane decided they were outnumbered and backed out of their planned ambush.

When police snipers fired on the Palestinians it launched a gun battle in which all the hostages were killed.

Yet at first the papers reported that all the hostages had all escaped safely. West German police allowed that story to run for more than two hours after the fighting had finished.

It was better than the embarrassing truth that their botched operation had led to the deaths of the hostages. It’s a point that’s missing from most versions of the story in the media today.

Oppressed have right to resist

People who support the Palestinian resistance are always called on to unequivocally condemn the Palestinians if they use violence when fighting back.

Mealy mouthed Labour MPs rush to speak out against violence on “both sides,” as they did when Israel massacred scores of protesters in Gaza this year.

But when forced to focus on violence by Israel, those who condemn the Palestinians scramble to find excuses and justifications. The same goes for the actions of Britain and its other allies around the globe.

Then we’re told Israel “has a right to defend itself”—a right the Palestinians seemingly aren’t allowed.

Corbyn claimed he was working to find peace and dialogue when he visited a Palestinian conference in Tunisia in 2014. But as his enemies pointed out, he has always sided with the Palestinians.


Richard Angell, director of the right wing Labour faction Progress, accused Corbyn of wanting “victory for one side over the other”.

The easy answer to that should be, yes—he does.

Israel is a powerful state—armed and funded by the US and Britain—that has violently oppressed the Palestinians for more than 70 years.

The Palestinians fighting back are resisting that oppression.

Anyone who’s against injustice—as Corbyn has been for all of his political life—wants the victory of the Palestinians over Israel.

That’s why Corbyn spent time with Palestinians, and unlike most Labour politicians has always stood on their side. His record on that is partly why he has such wide support among Labour members.

He shouldn’t be ashamed of that.

Relying on Arab states that were in hock to Western interests

The PLO’s defeat in Jordan was down to the fact that its leadership relied on the support of Arab rulers—and not mass action by ordinary people—to win freedom.

Fatah’s founders were mostly wealthier middle class Palestinians who had become business owners, government officials and professionals in Gulf Arab states.

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They weren’t the same as the millions of Palestinians in the refugee camps.

Their plan was to wage a national liberation struggle to set up a Palestinian state much like the other Arab states in the region. They relied on the support of Arab governments.

The problem was that many of those rulers had ties with the US and Britain, which dominated the Middle East.

The US and Britain need Israel to prop up their power in the region.Israel couldn’t have existed or expelled the Palestinians without their support and funding.

Fatah wanted to make sure the PLO never interfered with the rule of other Arab governments.

This broke down in Jordan, where a huge proportion of the population was of Palestinian origin.

Fatah wouldn’t organise struggles among Jordan’s two million refugees—who lived in poverty in camps—against the Jordanian government which treated them as a problem.

Yet as the PLO grew, it was dragged into confrontation with the Jordanian regime. The PLO ran its own army, its own welfare and administration, and governed in the refugee camps. It was effectively a “state within a state” that threatened the authority of the Jordanian regime.


The PLO had mass support among Palestinians and some Jordanians. Under the flourishing resistance movement, Palestinians began raising their own demands against the Jordanian government.

Factions in the PLO raised the slogan “all power to the resistance”—a challenge to the Jordanian state.

If this had gone ahead, it would have shaken Arab rulers across the region—and meant a direct confrontation with the US imperialism that underpinned Palestinian oppression.

Instead Fatah held back until it was too late. When it was eventually pushed into endorsing a general strike for Palestinian representation in Jordan’s government, king Hussein sent loyal battalions of Jordan’s army to crush the PLO in the refugee camps.

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