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Battle of al-Karama

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Battle of al-Karama
A Triggering Moment For the Palestinian Resistance

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The battle of al-Karama took place on 21 March 1968, in and around the small Jordanian town of al-Karama, in the Jordan Valley north of the Dead Sea. The battle involved invading Israeli forces and a combination of Palestinian guerrilla fighters (fedayeen) and forces from the Jordanian army. It was the first major Israeli invasion into Arab territory since the end of the 1967 war. Although the Israeli army succeeding in destroying the fedayeen base at al-Karama, it suffered relatively heavy losses in the process, and the news of vastly outnumbered and outgunned fedayeen standing and fighting instead of retreating led to a massive upsurge in publicity and support for the Palestinian resistance movement, and Fatah in particular, launching it into the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) the following year. The battle thus became a key moment in the development of the Palestinian resistance movement. At the same time, it set the stage for a confrontation between Palestinian guerrilla organizations and the Jordanian state, which would come to a head in the events of September 1970.

After Israel occupied the West Bank in June 1967, al-Karama town and the small nearby refugee camp were only a few kilometers away from the new cease-fire lines separating Jordanian and Israeli troops. Palestinian fedayeen began launching attacks on Israeli targets from the eastern bank of the Jordan River, and al-Karama quickly became a major base for fedayeen from Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and other smaller organizations. These groups sought to return to the Palestinians—rather than the Arab states—the initiative in resisting Israel through armed struggle. Israeli attacks against the fedayeen in Jordan also led to clashes between Israeli troops and forces from the Jordanian army. A particularly noteworthy battle took place on 15 February 1968, prompting the Jordanian army to surround the town of al-Karama thereafter and demand that the fedayeen leave in order to prevent further Israeli attacks on Jordanian territory. The crisis ended a day later, and the fedayeen from Fatah and the PFLP stayed and eventually were joined by fighters from the newly created Popular Liberation Forces of the Palestine Liberation Army.

Israel decided to move decisively against the fedayeen at al-Karama shortly thereafter. By early March 1968, both the fedayeen and the Jordanian army began noticing a large build-up of Israeli forces across the Jordan River. Overconfident from their success in the recent June War, the Israeli army made no attempt to hide its build-up of troops and equipment, giving Jordanian and Palestinian forces ample time to prepare their defense. The Jordanian army began moving tanks and artillery into place. On the Palestinian side, PFLP commanders Ahmad Za‘rur and Ahmad Jibril favored adopting standard guerrilla tactics and withdrawing eastwards in the face of such a heavy enemy force. However, Fatah’s leader Yasir Arafat urged that the fedayeen stand and fight to send a message that some Arabs were willing to stand up to the Israelis. The PFLP did withdraw its forces, but approximately 200 fighters from Fatah, the Popular Liberation Forces, and the Palestine Liberation Army remained to face the attack.

On the morning of 21 March, Israeli infantry soldiers and paratroopers, along with tanks, armored cars, and other vehicles, crossed the Allenby Bridge south of al-Karama and the Damiya Bridge north of the town in a pincer movement designed to attack the fedayeen from two directions. (This was one of two major Israeli incursions into Jordan that day, the second occurring south of the Dead Sea near the town of Ghawr al-Safi.) Paratroopers were dropped east of al-Karama to cut off any Palestinian retreat. In all, the operation involved approximately 15,000 Israeli troops. Israeli aircraft eventually joined in the battle as well. The Jordanian army had moved many of its tanks and artillery pieces to the area in order to stop what was feared could be a major Israeli attack into Jordanian territory. Guns and tanks were placed in the hills overlooking the Jordan Valley to direct fire down on invading Israeli forces, and some 15,000 troops of the Jordanian 1st Infantry Division and other units faced the attackers, pouring down fire on the invading Israeli troops as Israeli paratroopers captured and destroyed the fedayeen base at al-Karama. Arafat stayed with his Fatah fighters and eventually escaped. About half of the Palestinian fighters in the town and the refugee camp died resisting the onslaught; a number managed to escape, while others were captured. Israeli aircraft attacked Jordanian tanks that attempted to advance toward the battlefield. Eventually, approximately 80 Jordanian tanks were destroyed and over 80 soldiers killed. By the time they withdrew late in the day, the Israelis, too, had suffered an unexpectedly high number of casualties: 28 killed, 69 wounded, plus 4 tanks and 4 other heavy vehicles destroyed. An Israeli jet was also shot down.

Though technically a military victory for Israel, in the sense that the Israelis accomplished their objective of destroying the fedayeen base at al-Karama, the battle of al-Karama was perceived by many as an Israeli setback and a victory, albeit a moral one, for the Arab world and particularly for Palestinians. This marked the first time since the June War that such a large Israeli force had been deployed across the 1967 borders, and the fact that it sustained an unusually (and unexpectedly) high number of losses did much to bolster morale throughout the Arab world, which was still reeling from the 1967 defeat.

Although Jordanian soldiers, tanks, and artillery played a major role in the battle, Fatah immediately seized upon the battle to portray it as an example of Palestinian steadfastness: lightly armed, heroic fedayeen fighting against the mighty Israeli army and inflicting heavy losses. The fedayeen’s prestige in the Middle East immediately rose, and thousands of young men volunteered to join the Palestinian resistance. The fighters’ increased prestige was evident four months later, in July 1968, when the Palestine National Council—the PLO’s “parliament-in-exile”—granted over one-third of its seats to representatives of Fatah. The huge growth in Palestinian forces in Jordan after the battle, and the confidence that the “victory” had given the leadership of the Palestinian guerrilla organizations, inspired further attacks by fedayeen based in Jordan against Israeli positions. These prompted further Israeli raids and a sense that the Palestinians were not subject to the authority of the Jordanian regime, or were even in open rebellion against it. Ultimately, this led to the fierce fighting between the fedayeen and the Jordanian army in September 1970, known as Black September, at a time when the Palestinian guerrilla organizations were more powerful than ever. Thus, the battle of al-Karama changed the course of history for the fedayeen, the PLO, and the Palestinian national movement.

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Selected Bibliography

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

Dupuy, Trevor N. Elusive Victory: The Arab-Israeli Wars, 1947–1974. New York: Harper & Row, 1978.

Sayigh, Yezid. Armed Struggle and the State: The Palestinian National Movement, 1949–1993. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.