Taken from the book Israel and Palestine: The Complete History
39: Black September
The (Palestinian Liberation Organisation) PLO was founded in May 1964 and advocated legitimate resistance to Israel in the Occupied Territories. Exiled into neighbouring lands, the Palestinians launched cross-border raids from Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. In 1967, there were about 100 attacks, most of which were met by Israeli retaliation.
In March 1968, in the West Bank village of Karameh, PLO fighters aided by Jordanian soldiers defeated an Israeli force and inspired the Palestinian people to take up arms against the occupying nation. By 1970, there were more than 2,000 Arab guerrilla operations against Jewish military installations.
The freedom fighters formed themselves into several groups operating under the banner of the PLO, sharing its goals and providing a varied battle-front. Groups such as the Peoples Front for the Liberation of Palestine (the PFLP) operated independently but with the tacit approval of Yasser Arafat, the PLO chairman.
In November 1968, the PFLP hijacked an El Al plane flying from Rome to Tel Aviv and diverted the aircraft to Algeria, where they bartered the release of the hostages for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
The following month, spurred on by that success, a team of four terrorists attempted to take over another El Al flight at Athens airport. The plot failed when Mossad agents grew suspicious about two of the cell, who were Sudanese men holding passports with consecutive numbers.
With two of the team removed, it was left to the remaining pair to carry out the assault themselves. When they made their move, the pilot realised what was happening and placed the plane in a steep dive, throwing the hijackers off balance, and allowing the security personnel, which all Israeli planes have, to move in. One of the terrorists was killed. The other, a young woman named Leila Khaled, was captured.
Israel responded to the growing number of attacks by bombing Beirut airport, destroying 13 Lebanese planes as punishment for harbouring the Fedayeen.
Then, on the 6th of September 1970, the PFLP commandeered three aircraft simultaneously and diverted them to Dawson’s Field in the desert near Amman, Jordan.
Specially chosen for its isolated location and, as a geologist had pointed out to the group, the suitability of the terrain for landing aircraft, a runway was prepared, marked by oil drums filled with kerosene and rags for use at night. Then, ringed by PFLP fighters, the makeshift airport was cordoned off.
Two of the hijacked airplanes landed at the field within ten minutes of each other. The pilot of the third plane managed to convince the terrorists that the DC10 was too heavy for the improvised airfield and they put down at Cairo International instead where, after evacuating the passengers, the guerrillas blew up the plane.
The hijackers at Dawson’s Field, which they hastily renamed Revolution Airport, demanded that Leila Khaled and six other terrorists held in European jails, along with 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israel, be released in exchange for the 310 hostages on the two planes. A three-day deadline was imposed to meet their demands.
The European countries, taken by surprise, quickly acquiesced. Leila Khaled and six others were set free. Israel, however, had realised that giving in to the terrorists only encouraged them. The date for the release of the 1,000 prisoners came and went, and the PFLP fighters extended the deadline.
On the 12th of September, six days after the drama began to unfold, a third plane came to join the others at Dawson’s Field. Incredibly, the two Sudanese men who had been removed from the El Al flight in Athens were allowed to board a Pan Am aircraft heading for New York. They took control of the plane after producing hand grenades and pistols and went to join the others on the runway at Revolution Airport.
Jordanian tanks and soldiers formed a security cordon around the airfield. There was a tense standoff between the terrorists and the troops. In exchange for the release of 125 women and children, the army agreed to pull back one mile.
Israel still refused to release the prisoners, so the hijackers offered to free the remaining passengers in exchange for safe passage for themselves.
The Jordanians accepted. The hostages were then released, except for the crew and a number of Jewish people on board, who the PFLP kept for further bargaining with Israel. Then, in sight of the world’s media, they blew the three planes up on the runway.
The fighters and their captives went into hiding in the refugee camps of Jordan. King Hussein sent his army in after them, causing massive casualties amongst the Palestinian population as he sought to free the crew and Israeli passengers. Thousands of innocent people died before the 54 hostages were eventually released.
The month in which the Jordanians turned on their West Bank brothers became known as Black September.