Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 1998, Pages
Middle East HistoryIt Happened in March
Battle of Karameh Establishes Claim of Palestinian
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
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 Times
of 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
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
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.
Abu Iyad with Eric Rouleau, My Home, My Land:
A Narrative of the Palestinian Struggle, New York: Times Books,
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,
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.
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.
4Hirst, The Gun and the Olive Branch , p. 299.
6Rafael, Destination Peace, p. 203.
7Livingstone and Halevy, Inside the PLO, pp.
8Cobban, The Palestinian Liberation Organization,
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,
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.