Today In History: The Battle Of Karameh

On this day in 1968, Israeli military forces battled Jordanian and Palestinian forces on the East Bank of the Jordan River, inside of Jordan.  Though Israel succeeded militarily in dispersing the Palestinian military camp there, the engagement entailed more problematic military and political consequences.

Prior to the 1967 war, Israel occasionally sustained attacks from Jordanian forces stationed in the Jordan Valley on the West Bank of the Jordan River. After the war, those attacks now came from the East Bank of the Jordan, generated both by Palestinian forces as well as the Jordanians. These attacks and the general strategic problem of defending the Jordan Valley led Israelis to consider various solutions.

One approach to security expressed itself in the Allon Plan.  Authored by Yigal Allon, a leading political and military Israeli figure, this plan maintained the importance of an ongoing Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley, regardless of what other territory would revert to the Jordanians as part of a comprehensive peace settlement. 

 Jordanian Artillery Units

Jordanian Artillery Units

The other approach centered on military responses to the emergence of increasingly independent and militarized Palestinian forces now located in the westernmost part of Jordan, i.e. the East Bank of the Jordan River. The military wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Fatah, based itself in the town of Karameh.  Due to its location inside Jordanian borders, a degree of cooperation between Palestinian and Jordanian forces was in effect, with King Hussein going so far as to proclaim, "We are all fedayeen."

In response the Israelis attacked, and succeeded in destroying the Palestinian presence in Karameh. The "victory" came at a steep cost: approximately two-hundred Israeli military personnel were wounded and killed.  Israel lost military supplies including artillery, which became a part of the political propaganda counter-attack of the Jordanians and the Palestinians.  Perhaps the greatest significance of the Battle of Karameh is that it marked the first time Palestinians resorted to the now-familiar method of deploying suicide bombers.

 A Jordanian with captured Israeli military equipment

A Jordanian with captured Israeli military equipment

The Palestinians marketed the engagement as a victory, claiming that they pierced the Israeli's aura of invincibility. This in turn enabled Fatah to grow as a fighting force, recruiting much more widely throughout the Arab world. This increase would lead to increasing tension between the Palestinians and their Jordanian hosts.

More importantly, the Palestinian leadership went on the offensive, arguing that the Palestinians comprised not just a social but increasingly a political community with national aspirations. The engagement also drew world attention, much of which emerged as criticism of Israeli military tactics. The episode signalled that the transformative events of 1967 begat unintended consequences, not the least of which featured the growing radicalization of Palestinian Arabs.