Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 1998, Pages 87-88

Middle East History—It Happened in March

Battle of Karameh Establishes Claim of Palestinian Statehood

By Donald Neff

It was 30 years ago, on March 21, 1968, that an Israeli armored force of 15,000 men struck at the Jordanian village of Karameh just across the Jordan River and was humiliatingly repelled by Palestinian guerrillas aided by Jordanian army artillery and armor.1

Israel lost at least 28 killed and 90 wounded, and a number of knocked-out tanks and other vehicles were abandoned during the hasty Israeli retreat.2

Although militarily the fight was won by Israel—it inflicted at least 10 times more casualties on the Arabs than it suffered itself—Karameh represented the guerrillas' greatest victory up to that time. The battle of Karameh sent a surge of optimism through the Palestinian community and established the Palestinians' claim to being a national liberation organization.3

Karameh also was a forceful refutation of the claim by some Israelis that Palestinians did not exist. They had at last enlarged the conflict beyond a contest between refugee and Israeli into a revolutionary context where they were widely regarded, particularly in the Third World, as an authentic political movement.4

Yasser Arafat, leader of Fatah, whose troops bore the brunt of the fighting, 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."5

Observed Israeli diplomat Gideon Rafael: "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."6

Militarily, however, Karameh was the end of Arafat's strategy to emplace guerrilla bases just inside Jordan for attacks on Israel. Over the previous month Israeli attacks had been vicious, and the massiveness of its assault on Karameh forced Arafat to retreat from the border to hills deeper inside Jordan.7 Nonetheless, the dimension of the losses inflicted on the Israelis allowed the Palestinians to declare the battle the first Palestinian victory over a regular Israeli army unit.8

Never before had Palestinians stood and fought the Israel Defense Forces to a standstill in such a large battle, nor had they ever inflicted such casualties. Refugee camps throughout the Arab world hailed the rebirth of the Palestinian people and volunteers flocked to the guerrilla groups.9 Fatah reported that 5,000 volunteers applied to join within 48 hours of the battle.10

Karameh means "dignity," and to Palestinians everywhere their cause had finally been dignified by the blood of martyrs. So moved by the victory was King Hussein that he proclaimed: "We are all fedayeen!"11

The psychological boost and international support that Karameh gave the Palestinians more than offset their military casualties. Even outside the region there dawned a recognition that a new force was emerging and a new historic contest forming. The Palestinians were "surely...only doing what brave men always do, whose country lies under the heel of a conqueror," wrote Lady Fisher, the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury, in a letter to the Timesof London published five days after Karameh.12

The Palestinians had to win their war not on the battlefield but in world opinion.

The guerrillas discovered in their new popularity that they could operate openly in Jordan, which up to then had severely restricted their movements. After Karameh, they were able to move to Amman, establish recruiting offices in the capital and in other Arab countries and enjoy a degree of respect and legitimacy they had never known.13

From the time of the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964, the Palestinians had come a long way. Even the Soviet Union, which in the beginning had shown open opposition to the PLO and Fatah, began to see the guerrilla groups as representing a legitimate political movement.14

Before, the Soviets had deplored the extremist statements of the old PLO's leadership, urged restraint and refused to give aid. Moscow repeatedly told Fatah leaders that it supported the existence of Israel, urged them to accept U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 and refused to encourage Fatah's armed struggle.15 But after Karameh the Soviet attitude began slowly shifting from sympathy to outright support. By 1971 it began giving material assistance to Fatah.16

Still, Karameh was an exception. Most of the Palestinian attacks were isolated raids, mining of roads, occasional thrown grenades and hidden bombs, a mortar shell lobbed into a village. These were pinpricks, disturbing but not fatally threatening to Israel, evidence that in the final analysis the guerrillas were no match either in manpower or equipment against the overwhelming might of Israel's military forces.

Ironically, the lesson of the battle of Karameh was that the Palestinians had to win their war not on the battlefield but in world opinion. The Palestinians began winning that battle after Karameh. Within the next decade the United Nations General Assembly would affirm the Palestinians' "inalienable rights" as a people, their right to self-determination and their right to struggle while at the same time repeatedly condemning Israel's occupation. The United States stood by Israel and voted against almost all of these resolutions.

A Tragic Persona

But, tragically, the Palestinian leadership did not get the message. Shortly after Karameh, radical Palestinian groups launched a highly publicized campaign of airplane skyjackings and other high-profile terrorist attacks that had the effect of diverting attention away from their gains in the United Nations. Instead of being recognized in the public imagination as a people with rights, they had a new persona. They no longer were seen as homeless refugees or freedom fighters but as bloodthirsty terrorists. It was only in 1988, when Arafat unequivocally renounced terror, that the Palestinians began recouping the political gains they had earned at Karameh.17

Despite their mistakes, who could have imagined that 30 years after Karameh the Palestinians still would not have completely won their legitimate rights? To the shame of Americans, this is mainly because for U.S. domestic political reasons, various U.S. administrations have ignored American ideals and continued to stand against the opinion of the entire world by ignoring or defending Israel's flouting of international law decade after decade after decade.


RECOMMENDED READING:

Abu Iyad with Eric Rouleau, My Home, My Land: A Narrative of the Palestinian Struggle, New York: Times Books, 1978.

Cobban, Helena, The Palestinian Liberation Organization, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Cooley, John K., Green March, Black September: The Story of the Palestinian Arabs, London: Frank Cass, 1973.

Hart, Alan, Arafat: Terrorist or Peacemaker?, London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1985.

Heikal, Mohamed, The Sphinx and the Commissar: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Influence in the Middle East, New York: Harper & Row, 1978.

Hirst, David, The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.

Livingstone, Neil C. and David Halevy, Inside the PLO: Secret Units, Secret Funds, and the War Against Israel and the United States, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1990.

Nakhleh, Issa, Encyclopedia of the Palestine Problem (2 vols), New York: Intercontinental Books, 1991.

Rafael, Gideon, Destination Peace: Three Decades of Israeli Foreign Policy. A Personal Memoir , London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981.

Tomeh, George J., United Nations Resolutions on Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: 1947-1974, Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1975.

Yodfat, Aryeh Y. and Yuval Arnon-Ohanna, PLO: Strategy and Tactics, London: Croom Helm, 1981.

FOOTNOTES:

1James Feron, New York Times, 3/21-2/68.

2Hart, Arafat, pp. 261-63.

3Hirst, The Gun and the Olive Branch, pp. 284-85; Cooley, Green March, Black September, pp. 100-01. For a detailed description of the fierce fighting see Hart, Arafat, pp. 261-63.

4Hirst, The Gun and the Olive Branch , p. 299.

5Ibid.

6Rafael, Destination Peace, p. 203.

7Livingstone and Halevy, Inside the PLO, pp. 80-81.

8Cobban, The Palestinian Liberation Organization, p. 42.

9Thomas F. Brady, New York Times, 3/31/68. Also see Hirst, The Gun and the Olive Branch, p. 285; Cobban, The Palestinian Liberation Organization, pp. 39, 49.

10Cobban, The Palestinian Liberation Organization, p. 42.

11Abu Iyad, My Land, My Home, p. 61.

12Hirst, The Gun and the Olive Branch, p. 286.

13Hart, Arafat, pp. 270-71.

14Hart, Arafat, pp. 187, 277-81.

15Hart, Arafat, pp. 280-81.

16Hart, Arafat, 355. Yodfat and Arnon-Ohanna, PLO, pp. 87-88, contend that modest arms aid was promised by Moscow in 1970 but fail to substantiate the claim; also see Heikal, The Sphinx and the Commissar , p. 211; Abu Iyad, My Land, My Home, pp. 65-66.

17The text of Arafat's statement is in Journal of Palestine Studies, "Documents and Source Material," Spring 1989, pp. 161-71; excerpts as provided by the PLO appeared in New York Times, 11/17/88.