Filmmaker: Suhaib Abu Doulah
King Hussein of Jordan: On a Knife Edge is the second of a two-part series telling the story of the Jordanian king from 1952 until his death in 1999.
The first 10 years of King Hussein’s reign were difficult and marked by a series of crises that threatened the stability of the Jordanian monarchy.
By the early 1960s the king was approaching his 30s and the relationship with neighbouring Israel had become his highest priority. He initiated secret talks with the Israelis, beginning an ambiguous relationship that would last for more than 30 years.
In September 1963, Hussein met Israeli diplomat Yaakov Herzog in London to discuss security, politics and the future of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Hussein insisted upon an Israeli commitment not to attack Jordan and the West Bank.
“It was an unusual thing for an Arab king to do,” explains Iraqi-born British Israeli historian Avi Shlaim of St Antony’s College, Oxford.
Schlaim recalls meeting King Hussein in 1996. “I‘d always assumed that the initiative came from the Israelis’ side,” he says. “But the king himself told me it was he who took the initiative to contact the Israelis, and I said to him ‘Why did you do that?'”
“His answer went roughly as follows: ‘The Jews were in our midst, we didn’t want them here, history placed them in our midst and unless we find a peaceful way out, there would be more war, more conflict, more violence, more bloodshed.”
“From the beginning, Jordan wanted peace with the Zionists,” says Palestinian writer and political analyst Abdul Sattar Kassem. “It was the guardian of Israel’s security from the eastern side. This was probably the real reason why Britain established the Emirate of Transjordan. It was meant to be the first line of defence so Israel could prevent any Arab army advancing towards it.”
But King Hussein had not anticipated developments within the Palestinian liberation movement. In January 1965, Fatah and its leader, Yasser Arafat, announced the start of what they called “the armed struggle”.
During 1965 and 1966, Fatah’s military wing, Al Assifa, meaning “The Storm”, launched raids into Israel from Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan. Hussein opposed them. The Israelis retaliated.
One of the most violent retaliations took place in the village of al-Sammoua, south of Hebron in the West Bank, in November 1966. It was in response to the death of three Israeli soldiers in a landmine explosion a few days earlier. The Israelis responded with aircraft and heavy artillery, killing many civilians.
King Hussein was shocked and considered Israel’s raid to be an act of war. It came at a time when he was still engaged in secret talks with the Israelis and he felt that they had failed to honour their commitment to respect the safety and stability of Jordan, despite his efforts to stop Palestinian operations across Jordanian borders.
The al-Sammoua attack sparked protests across Jordan, and widened the gap between Hussein‘s government and the Palestinians living in Jordan who considered that the king had failed to protect them. The Palestinian liberation movement demanded Arab intervention in Jordan to protect the Palestinians from Israel.
By May 1967, tensions were building across the Middle East.
Fearing that conflict was imminent, King Hussein decided to visit Egypt to make his peace with President Gamal Abdul Nasser, with whom relations had been strained. The two signed a mutual defence treaty in preparedness for a potential Israeli attack.
“He thought it over seriously before he went to Egypt,” explains Adnan Abu Uda, a historian, researcher and former chief of Royal Protocol in Jordan. “If there was a war and an Arab victory, he would have contributed to that. But if the Arabs lost, he would be blamed.”
The 1967 Arab-Israeli War
The war started on Monday, June 5, 1967.
The Israelis warned King Hussein not to get involved but he ignored them.
In the space of a few days, the Israeli army defeated the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian forces and captured Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Syria’s Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and Jerusalem.
“I think he knew we’d be defeated but not in such a dramatic way,” reflects Leila Sharaf, a former Jordanian information minister. “Losing the West Bank and all of Palestine like this wasn’t expected. Nasser might have thought the superpowers would intervene to stop the war. He might have thought the international community would force Israel to withdraw. But it wasn‘t possible for Hussein to opt out [of] this war. If he had, everyone would have blamed him for the defeat.”
Privately, in his last days, Hussein “admitted he’d made a mistake”, says former Jordanian MP Mustafa Hamarneh. “[But] If he hadn’t participated, left-wing and nationalist tendencies would have overthrown him on charges of treason and conspiracy with the Zionists and Americans.”
In the wake of the 1967 defeat, Palestinian action against Israel intensified. Yasser Arafat became chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the body that united all the resistance factions.
Jordan struggled to find a way to limit the Palestinian action and began to view the PLO as operating like a state within a state.
Qais Samarral, also known as “Abu Leila”, was the founder of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. He says: “The leaders of the Palestinian resistance had no intention of creating a state within a state. It was more a desire to avoid restrictions of their ability to act against the Zionist occupation. Most of the Palestinians were refugees in Jordan, so the resistance movement was based there.”
In September 1970, a different group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked three Western aircraft and forced them to land at an abandoned airport in Jordan. The hijackers demanded the release of Palestinian prisoners from Western jails. Then they released the hostages and blew up the planes. Serious questions were asked by the international community about Hussein’s ability to continue to rule Jordan and it started to feel as though he was on borrowed time. He felt that he had to act.
On September 15, 1970, he announced the formation of a military government to combat the Palestinian fighters. This sparked an armed confrontation between the Jordanian army and the Palestinian resistance in the Jordanian capital Amman. It lasted for 10 days and resulted in civilian casualties. It became known as Black September.
The Syrian army advanced towards Jordan’s northern border to come to the aid of the Palestinians, but had to stop when they were confronted by Jordanian forces. The Israeli air force was also in the vicinity, and King Hussein was accused of enlisting Israeli help against the Syrians.
“The Israelis intervened on the side of the king by mobilising their army on the border with Syria and also by having the air force in the air,” says Avi Schlaim. “They did not bomb the Syrian army but they were there in a very threatening way and they sent a clear message that they were going to intervene if the Syrians persisted.”
President Nasser called for an emergency Arab League summit in the Egyptian capital Cairo at which King Hussein was made to sign a ceasefire agreement with Yasser Arafat. But the deal also insisted that all Palestinian resistance groups leave Jordanian cities. It would ultimately lead to the expulsion of the PLO from Jordan within 10 months.
The 1973 Arab-Israeli War
That summit was Nasser’s very last act. Within hours, he had died of a heart attack.
His successor was Anwar Sadat and he wanted to make his mark on the international stage by restoring the Arab pride lost in the wake of the 1967 war. He and Syrian President Hafez al-Assad planned to attack Israel on two fronts in order to regain the territory they’d lost in 1967 – the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights.
The war began on October 6, 1973. Hussein came under pressure from his own military to get involved. But while he refused to open a third front in the war, he did send troops to the aid of Syria in the Golan Heights. Jordanian and Iraqi troops helped to halt the Israeli advance, but did not ultimately regain the Golan Heights, which remain under Israeli control today.
A year later, in 1974, the Arab League Summit in Rabat passed a resolution recognising the PLO as the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, a decision to which King Hussein acquiesced.
By this time, Hussein had been in power for more than two decades. He had managed to hold on to power. But the complex network of relationships he needed to maintain left him vulnerable to criticism from all sides. He simultaneously had close ties with the West, held secret talks with Israel and maintained relations with Arab monarchies.
In 1977, The Washington Post‘s Bob Woodward published an article detailing his relationship with the US’ Central Intelligence Agency and alleging that it made regular payments to him.
Peace with Israel
In 1993, Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Accords with Israel. Hussein was shocked, not least because he expected Arafat to have consulted him. “For Jordan, if the owner of the land negotiated directly with Israel and if the two sides agreed, Jordan would have Palestinian-Israeli borders,” says former Jordanian Prime Minister Taher Al-Masri.
“In this respect, Jordan didn‘t have problems with the Palestinians or their borders. But it did have a problem with the Israeli borders.“
But Hussein saw the positive side and capitalised on his own close relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to negotiate his own peace deal with the Israelis, the Wadi Araba agreement. At the signing ceremony, King Hussein said: “This is peace with dignity, this is peace with commitment, this is our gift to our people and the generations to come.”
A former adviser to Yitzhak Rabin, Eitan Haber, explains: “The relationship between King Hussein and Rabin was exceptional. Each saw the other as a full peace partner.”
In August 1998 it was officially announced that the 63-year-old king had lymphatic cancer and was being treated at the Mayo Clinic in the US.
Since 1965, the Crown Prince had been Hussein’s younger brother, Prince Hassan bin Talal. But in January 1999, Hussein issued a royal decree, appointing his oldest son, Abdullah, as the new Crown Prince and heir to the throne.
On February 7, 1999, King Hussein died. He was 64.
His funeral was attended by world leaders and major figures from numerous countries, factions, backgrounds and political affiliations.
It seemed a fitting tribute to a man who had to deal with some of the most complex problems and relationship the Middle East – and the world – has had to face.
His dynasty remains in power while others in the region have fallen. But the issues he had to face outlived him.