Forty years since the battle for Dignity
THE historic battle which gave birth to the Palestinian national movement as a factor in world politics took place 40 years ago. In the early hours of March 21, 1968 an Israeli force comprising 15,000 men and armoured vehicles crossed the river Jordan heading for the village of Karameh, which with its Palestinian refugee camp had become a headquarters for Fatah, the main Palestinian guerrilla group, and training base for its commandos.
Less than a year after its triumph in the Six Day War, Israel was still consolidating its grip on the territories it had seized. For the Palestinian guerrillas, the Israeli expansion had temporarily made it easier to operate within Israeli lines. Unlike the Arab armies, and unlike 1948, the mass of people in the West Bank had stood their ground, although they were shocked by the sudden conquest, and resistance remained small-scale. But after an Israeli bus hit a Fatah roadmine in the Wadi Arava the Israeli forces were determined to hit out and teach the Palestinians a lesson.
Having failed to persuade King Hussein of Jordan in negotiations to cede his rights on West Bank territory, Israeli leaders may also have thought they could bully him into submission by this massive operation.
The lesson of Karameh turned out to be not the one they intended.
As the Israeli forces advanced in three columns, with air support, the Fatah command was tipped off in time to evacuate civilians, and take up defensive positions. Israeli forces came under fire from Palestinian fighters in caves along the routes into the town. Jordanian forces too, which the Israelis may have expected to withdraw giving them a clear run to attack the Palestinians did not do so. Instead, their artillery opened up on the Israeli armour, helping to repel this invasion.
Although the Israeli assault on Karameh inflicted heavy casualties - at least 100 Palestinian fighters killed and another 100 wounded, - it did not bring the easy victory they had expected after 1967. The Israeli force eventually withdrew with 28 of its soldiers killed and 90 wounded, and leaving behind four tanks, three half-tracks, and two armoured cars destroyed, and one aircraft downed by Jordanian fire.
Israeli leaders like Golda Meir had arrogantly declared that there was "no such people as Palestinians", but at Karameh these people who did not exist had given the cocksure Israeli Defence Forces(IDF) a bloody nose. The truth was, as IDF commanders knew when they launched the Es Samu raid against Palestinians in Jordan two years earlier, foreshadowing the 1967 war, that Israel's real ongoing war was not with the Arab states, but with this people whom it had displaced.
The Palestinians could not be ignored. And far from being humiliated, at Karameh the Palestinian fighters had stood and fought the Israeli military, which five Arab states with all their weaponry and regular officers had failed to withstand in 1967. The world, and above all the Arab world, began to take notice.
Yasser Arafat, leader of Fatah, said: "What we have done is to make the world...realize that the Palestinian is no longer refugee number so and so, but the member of a people who hold the reins of their own destiny and are in a position to determine their own future."
Israeli diplomat Gideon Rafael was to agree: "The operation gave an enormous lift to Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization and irrevocably implanted the Palestine problem onto the international agenda, no longer as a humanitarian issue of homeless refugees, but as a claim to Palestinian statehood."
Karameh means "dignity". How very appropriate. In the Palestinian towns and villages and perhaps even more so the refugee camps, Palestinians felt they could hold their heads up high. Within 48 hours of the battle of Karameh some five thousand volunteers had applied to join Fatah alone. Even King Hussein, sensing the new mood among the Palestinians and other Arabs, including those of Jordan, proclaimed: "We are all fedayeen!"
Although militarily the Palestinian leadership now had to retreat from maintaining bases near the frontlines, politically it began a major advance, raising the guerrilla's profile in both the Arab and world arena. They were able to open recruiting offices in Arab capitals, and to send representatives abroad to raise support. Above all, Fatah and other militant groups were able to take over the near moribund Palestine Liberation Organisation(PLO), ousting discredited old leaders who had run it as little more than an Arab governmental asset.
This meant turning the PLO into something more like a state in exile, complete with its political parties, cultural institutions, educational and welfare bodies. It meant reaching out to mobilise the mass of Palestinians, wherever they were, and at the same time establishing the PLO as the authentic Palestinian voice seeking recognition from governments, and its place at the United Nations.
Internationally, the great powers began to realise they must reckon on this new nation, whose name had been wiped off the map in 1948. The Soviet Union had insisted on the permanency of 1948 borders and told Fatah leaders it could not support their armed struggle. (The Palestinian Communists were not allowed to establish a party for many years, since Moscow only recognised the parties of existing states, Israel and Jordan). But after Karameh, the Soviet and East European states began modifying their attitude, and from 1971 they were prepared to give the PLO some recognition and assistance. (Though asked about Soviet weapons in 1976, senior Palestinian commanders stressed "whatever we got had to be paid for".)
Within a few years of the battle of Karameh, the self-confidence of some Palestinian groups which resorted to air hijackings and ill-thought actions and gestures brought them headlines, but at the cost of losing lives and shelter for their people, as in Jordan's Black September.
Within a decade, the Palestinians had been embattled in Lebanon too, not only by Israeli and right-wing Christian forces but by supposed Syrian allies. But the United Nations General Assembly had recognised their "inalienable rights" as a people, and their right to self-determination.
Three Fatah leaders in command at Karameh emerged as leaders in the PLO, which was also able to claim itself sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, whatever Israel said, and despite some Arab governments' efforts while paying lip service to undermine it. With Yasser Arafat stood Saleh Khalef (Abu Iyad), and Khalid al Wazir (Abu Jihad), the latter very much involved in efforts to win support from the Eastern bloc and later in preparing the groundwork for the first Intifada.
Two other figures who were to win later attention for pursuing peace initiatives, for which they paid with their lives, were a unit commander who later became the PLO's ambassador in London, Said Hammami, and a medical officer, Issam Sartawi.
All these who fought at Karameh, and whom Israeli forces failed to destroy, later fell in other ways. Said Hammami was murdered in his London office on January 4, 1978, by one of Abu Nidal's gunmen probably backed by Iraqi intelligence. Issam Sartawi was gunned down in his hotel lobby at Albufeira, Portugal, on April 10, 1983, when he had been due, despite Israeli lobbying against him, to address the Socialist International. On April 16, 1988, Israeli commandos assassinated Abu Jihad at his house in Tunis, where the PLO leadership had set up after being driven from Lebanon. (In 1997 Ha'aretz revealed that the leader of the Israeli unit in this raid had been Ehud Barak, who went on to be Israeli Labour Party leader and prime minister).
On March 14, 1991, Abu Iyad was murdered in Tunis by Abu Nidal's men. Known in Fatah for his efforts to keep good relations with more left-wing guerrilla groups, he may have been targetted because he had opposed Arafat's ill-fated alliance with Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War. But with his death following that of Khalid el Wazir the Israeli military had the satisfaction of knowing the PLO leadership had ben robbed of its two top strategists. That left Yasser Arafat, who died in a French hospital on November 11, 2004, after two years of siege and humiliation at his Ramallah headquarters, having gained a Nobel Peace Prize but in the end perhaps little else for his people from the gamble he took at Oslo, of trusting the Israeli government and the Americans. (Not for the first time. In 1982 the PLO withdrew its forces from Beirut on the promise of US protection for its people. There followed the massacres at Sabra and Chatila carried out by Christian Falangist killers under the gaze of their patron Ariel Sharon's Israeli forces).
Nowadays, in the light of what has happened since Oslo, disappointment with the Palestinian Authority and disillusionment with Fatah, on which Hamas thrived, and the threat of open civil war encouraged by the Palestinian people's enemies, it may be easy to forget some past achievements. But in striving to find new leadership, respect is still due to those past fighters and leaders, whose heroism at Karameh did so much to raise the Palestinian cause, and who did take it forward.