Fifty years ago, an armed confrontation between Israel, Jordan, and Palestinian guerrillas created a new phase of Middle East diplomacy and conflicts. What does the battle’s legacy tell us about Jordan and its place in the troubled region today?
In March 1968, a battle largely forgotten in the Western annals of Middle East conflicts was waged along the Israeli-Jordanian border. The fifteen-hour engagement east of the Jordan River between the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and the Jordanian Armed Forces, was something of a draw, with all sides heralding a victory.
The Battle of Karameh’s mixed legacy
The Israelis felt they had met their objective by destroying the Palestinian militant camps in the small Jordanian town of Karameh. The Jordanians and Palestinians, by holding their ground and forcing the IDF to retreat, celebrated the battle as a victory against the unstoppable Israelis, who had earlier vanquished three Arab armies in the Six Day War of June 1967. Fatah, the dominant party that heads today’s Palestinian Authority, notched the battle as the moment the Palestinians stood their ground, scoring political points since the other, smaller Palestinian groups, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) had to pull its fighters out. Especially notable for the Palestinians is the village name of Karameh, which means dignity.
In Israel, the battle is seen to have a mixed legacy. Amir Oren, writing in a 2011 piece for Haaretz titled, Debacle in the Desert, detailed the IDF’s intelligence, planning, and debriefing of the mission’s results. The IDF’s Chief of General Staff Haim Bar-Lev wrote in his report, that although the operation was completed,
“The blow that this operation has delivered to the enemy and the contribution that it has made to the IDF’s image in the public’s eyes were not what should have and could have been attained…and the fact that IDF weapons were abandoned in Jordan portray the IDF as an army that has not shed its weak spots. That can serve as an encouragement to the enemy.”
Karameh itself was a product of the Six Day War. Jordan lost control over the West Bank but formed a tenuous alliance with Arafat’s Fatah Party. After Karameh, King Abdullah’s father, Hussein bin Talal, soon became vulnerable. The PLO’s power had significantly increased in Jordan to the point of threatening the stability of the Hashemite Kingdom. It then set the stage for Black September and the Lebanese Civil War. The Black September conflict (which also drew in the Syrians) of 1970 forced the Palestinians out of Jordan, where they regrouped in Lebanon. It would also be one of the last moments Jordan and Israel openly fought each other before setting about quiet relations forged over the Black September incident that eventually led to the 1994 peace treaty.
An anniversary at a critical time
King Abdullah of Jordan journeyed to the battlefield on 18 March to mark the occasion with a 21 gun salute, speeches, and meetings with the battle’s veterans.
This anniversary comes at a critical time for Jordan, as the government is reeling after the United States’ policy change regarding the status of the city of Jerusalem.
Jordan’s monarch has shrewdly played a difficult diplomatic balancing act between the U.S., the Israelis, the Palestinians, and Saudi Arabia’s simultaneous maneuvers against Iran and Qatar. Recently, he has rejected taking on more aggressive foreign policy positions against Syria and Iraq. There has also been a push in the Jordanian parliament for Amman to reestablish relations with isolated Qatar, in defiance of Saudi Arabia.
Jordan and other advocates of a two-state solution are alarmed that the Trump Administration has removed the U.S. from its role as the so-called “neutral broker” in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. On top of this comes a significant cut from the U.S. in aid to Palestinian refugees. The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) recently said there was a $446 billion USD gap needed to provide aid to the Palestinians. With the exit of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, often regarded as a stabilizer in the administration, the near future will likely fare no better for the administrations’ approach to Middle East peace talks.
Before Tillerson’s ouster, Amman managed to secure $1.3 billion USD in U.S. aid. This is came after the Trump Administration threatened to retaliate against any country that stood against its position on Jerusalem in the UN. King Abdullah continues to offer up crucial support to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas even as the PA works to cut off ties with the U.S. most recently boycotting the White House’s special meeting on the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.
Fears of renewed conflict and economic insecurity
At the new tank museum that opened in Amman in January, where an entire section is devoted to Karameh, history’s forgotten battles still yield insights into how a country like Jordan can steer itself towards striking the diplomatic balance. However, just across the Jordan River in the West Bank, another museum is opening. The Palestinian Museum aims to build a digital archive of the stateless people’s history. Another important consequence of the Battle of Karameh was the rekindled spirit of Palestinian nationalism. As tension between Israel and Iran’s presence in the Syrian conflict continues, the ghosts of Karameh and the many other Middle East wars linger.
Another costly war between Hezbollah and Israel in Lebanon could undo Israel’s diplomatic gains with the Arab countries in recent years. Israel has made it clear that it has little patience for any type of distinction between the Lebanese government and the country’s Iranian-backed political movement.
As tension increases between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Jordan is also keen on maintaining good relations with Ankara. As the unanticipated nature Karameh showed, any new military offensive can lead to new circumstances for both the parties that set the stage for future conflicts.
Apart from the fear of new conflicts, there are also economic woes for Jordan to contend with. In February, Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki reshuffled his cabinet for the sixth time, and installed King Abdullah’s Chief of Staff, Jafar Hassan, as the deputy for economic affairs. Rising commodity prices and unemployment still remain sensitive issues for Jordanians. Protests have been ongoing and financial support from the Gulf States is dropping. Jordan’s hope lies in regional stability and trade. It is already on the path towards economic cooperation with Iraq. Baghdad has exempted 540 Jordanian products from customs duties. Jordan stands to play a pivotal role in Iraq and Syria’s reconstruction phase should the conflicts wind down. Jordanian Minister of State for Investment Affairs Mohanad Shahada noted to a visiting U.S. business delegation that his country was set to be a “key gateway” for rebuilding the two devastated nations.
Fifty years after the battle, Jordan is perhaps the most essential security and diplomatic keystone in the Middle East. The King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Centre outside of Amman is just one example of how the Kingdom has put itself at the deposal of the region’s security needs, all the more pressing in the wake of the Syrian conflict and war against Da’esh.