The Battle of Karameh (Arabic language: معركة الكرامة) was fought on March 21, 1968 in the town of Karameh, Jordan, between the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and combined forces of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Jordanian Army. It was planned by Israel as two concurrent raids on PLO camps, one in Karameh and one in the distant village of Safi — codenamed Operation Inferno (Hebrew: מבצע תופת) and Operation Asuta (מבצע אסותא), respectively — but the former turned into a full-scale battle.
The attacks were in reprisal for a series of raids by the PLO against Israel, mostly by the Fatah faction, which culminated in an Israeli school bus hitting a mine. Israel assumed that the Jordanian Army would ignore the invasion, but the latter fought alongside the Palestinians and inflicted heavy losses upon the Israeli forces. The Israelis withdrew at the end of a day's battle, having destroyed most of the Karameh camp and taken hundreds of prisoners.
Both sides declared victory. On a tactical level, the battle did end in Israel's favor and the purpose of the mission was achieved. However, for the Palestinians it became a victory that established their national claims. At first, the battle was seen as unifying the Hashemite Jordan with its many Palestinian refugees and residents, as King Hussein had proclaimed "I think we may reach a position where we are all fedayeen." After the battle however, the PLO's strength began to grow, and Palestinians spoke openly of taking over Jordan as part of Palestine. This situation eventually led to Black September in Jordan, in 1970.
Following the seizure of West Bank from Jordan in the June 1967 Six-Day War, Israel destroyed the existing Fatah networks there. Starting in early 1968 however, Fatah guerrillas began raiding Israel from bases on the Jordanian side of the river. Most of these attacks were successfully blocked by the IDF. Jordanian Army infantry and artillery units gave the Fatah squads covering fire at times, leading to frequent direct skirmishes between the IDF and the Jordanian Army. On February 14–15, Jordanian mortars hit several Israeli settlements in the Beit Shean Valley and along the Jordan Valley. IDF artillery and the IAF retaliated against Jordanian bases and artillery batteries, as well as the American-financed East Ghor Main Canal. As a result, thousands of Jordanian farmers fled eastwards, and fedayeen moved into the valley. An American-sponsored ceasefire was arranged and King Hussein declared he would prevent these groups from using Jordan as a base for attack. In February, he sent twenty carloads of troops and police to order a Fatah unit to leave Karameh. When it arrived, the column found itself surrounded by men wielding machine guns; their commander said "You have three minutes to decide whether you leave or die". They withdrew. By March, several hundred civilians lived in the camp, along with about 900 guerrillas, mostly from Fatah, and PLO leader Yasser Arafat, who had his headquarters there.
Aharon Yariv, Chief of the Military Intelligence Directorate, stated that a raid would damage Fatah's prestige. On the other hand, Israeli Foreign Minister, Abba Eban, and his chief of bureau, Gideon Rafael, being mindful of an adverse American reaction, were afraid it might result in killing innocent civilians and be a political disservice to Israel. Chief of Staff (Ramatkal) Haim Bar-Lev promised a "clean action". Israeli Defense Minister, Moshe Dayan, asked for a "principal approval" for a raid but this was denied by the cabinet. He warned the other ministers that a bus might strike a mine. On March 18, an Israeli school bus was blown up by a mine near Be'er Ora in the Arava, killing two adults and wounding ten children. It was the 38th Fatah operation in little more than three months. That night, the cabinet approved the attack. The U.S. tried to prevent it by forwarding Israel a message from King Hussein. Israeli Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol, called the cabinet in for further counseling, but only the National Religious Party leader, Haim-Moshe Shapira, vocally opposed it, while Israeli Education Minister, Zalman Aran opposed it but remained silent.
On March 4, Jordanian intelligence began to detect Israeli activity near the border, as IDF troops began to concentrate near the Allenby and Damia Bridges. Jordan ordered the 1st Infantry Division to take up positions near those bridges and around Karameh. On March 17, Dayan warned that the Arabs were preparing for a "new wave of terror," which Israel would take steps to contain if King Hussein of Jordan could not. Eshkol repeated that message to the Knesset, and on the same day, Israeli Ambassador Yosef Tekoah filed two complaints with the United Nations against what he termed the Arabs' "repeated acts of aggression."
By March 20, Jordan had identified parts of the Israeli 7th Armored Brigade, 60th Armored Brigade, 35th Paratroop Brigade, 80th Infantry Brigade, a combat engineer battalion and five artillery battalions between those bridges. The Jordanians assumed the Israelis were planning an attack with a drive on Amman, and the army took up positions near the bridges, with the 60th Armored Brigade joining the 1st Infantry Division. Jordan also added most of its armored car, antitank and artillery units to the 1st Infantry Division. The total firepower was 105 Patton tanks and 88 artillery pieces. The infantry divisions were deployed near the bridges, each with a tank company. The artillery was mostly deployed on the higher Jordan Valley ridges overlooking Karameh for topological advantage.
The Israeli forces amounted to less than a brigade of armor, an infantry brigade, a paratroop battalion, an engineering battalion and five battalions of artillery. The units were divided into four task forces. The largest of these was to cross the Allenby Bridge and reach Karameh from the south; a second one was to cross the Damiyah Bridge, and reach Karameh from the north, thus completing a pincer move. Meanwhile, paratroopers were to be lifted by helicopters into the town while the fourth force would make a diversionary attack at King Abdullah Bridge to draw the Jordanian forces from Karameh and to cover the main attack.
Prior to the attack, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) dropped leaflets telling the Jordanian army that Israel had no intention to hurt them, and that they should not intervene; the leaflets went unheeded. Time magazine reported the fedayeen had been warned in advance by Egyptian intelligence, and most of the 2,000 Arab commandos who used Karameh as a training base had pulled back into the surrounding hills to snipe at the Israelis. Some 200 guerrillas stayed inside to defend the town. Later, Arafat's deputy, Abu Iyad, claimed in his memoirs that he and Arafat had been tipped off about the Israeli attack by Jordanian officers, who learned it from the CIA.
At 5:30 AM on March 21, the Israeli forces attacked simultaneously on the three bridges. Combat engineers built a pontoon bridge in the north and the troops crossed the river. The Israeli spearheads pushed across the Hussein Bridge and were advancing towards Shunat Nimreen. At 6:30 AM, Israeli helicopters started landing the bulk of the paratrooper battalion north of Karameh. An Israeli aircraft was supposed to drop leaflets addressed to Fatah after the paratroopers had surrounded the town. However, due to difficult weather conditions, the helicopters flying the paratroopers arrived twenty minutes too late. When the southern task force began their drive north towards Karameh, they encountered a Jordanian infantry brigade supported by armor, artillery and antitank weapons. The Israeli Air Force launched airstrikes, but was only able to inflict minor damage on the dug-in Jordanians. Fighting from their entrenched positions, the Jordanians repelled several Israeli assaults. In the south, Jordanian artillery shelling prevented the Israelis from erecting another pontoon bridge on the site of the Abdullah bridge, halting the Israeli advance there. Gonen's force spread in three directions from Shuna: One or more companies drove north to Karameh, An infantry battalion and a tank battalion moved east to block the Salt road, and another infantry battalion moved south to assist the force trying to break across the Abdullah Bridge. Gonen later claimed that the action on the Abdullah bridge was merely a diversion. Meanwhile, the force that crossed the Damiya Bridge established itself on the east bank. Engineers began constructing a new bridge and the force advanced east to the Musri junction, where it was supposed turned south to Karameh.
The force driving on Karameh via the Allenby bridge broke through and proceeded to the town. They reached Karameh shortly before 7:00. Some of the paratroopers and armor drove north to operate in the Fatah camp. The paratroopers destroyed most of the camp; many of the Palestinians, including Arafat, fled eastward. By 8:00 the Israeli forces had taken control of the town, which turned out to be a bigger PLO base than the Israelis originally thought. At this point, the Damiya force held Musri, but could not advance south, as the advance was repulsed by the northern brigade of the Jordanian 1st Division. The paratroopers at Karameh were met with resistance by Fatah commandos and Jordanian regulars supported by Jordanian artillery. The paratroopers suffered heavy losses, and were joined by the northern column of the Hussein Bridge force. The combined force was engaged in heavy fighting against the central brigade of the 1st division and a number of Fatah fighters. The rest of the Hussein Bridge force was blocked to the east and south of Shuna by elements of the 1st Division's central and southern brigades and by a tank battalion from Salt.
A small force of Israeli infantry and armor tried to protect the right flank of the forces invading from the south from attacks by the Jordanian forces deployed near the King Abdullah bridge. The Jordanians attacked with some armor, but the Israelis put up resistance, and the battle turned into a stalemate.
A large force of Israeli infantry and armor went east to block the road from Salt to the Allenby bridge, and they encountered the Jordanian 60th Armored Brigade which tried to join the defense of Karameh. In the resulting battle, the Jordanians lost eight Patton tanks without destroying any Israeli tanks, and withdrew to the hills, where they dug in and continued to fire down on the Israelis. The Israeli Air Force launched airstrikes against Jordanian armor and artillery positions, but was unable to stop the firing. Within the next two hours, Israeli artillery fire and airstrikes were launched against Jordanian defenses on the Musri-Karameh road, the Salt road, and east of Abdullah Bridge. The Israelis also consolidated their hold on Karameh with of airstrikes and artillery, and began demolishing the camp. A total of 175 houses were blown up.
Meanwhile, Operation Asuta was mounted against a few smaller guerrilla bases south of the Dead Sea, near Safi, where the school bus had struck the mine. The bases were raided by Israeli ground forces with close air support. About 20 Jordanian soldiers and policemen and 20 Fatah fighters were killed, and 27 were taken prisoner. The Israelis suffered no casualties.
Frustrated in their hopes of entrapping the entire PLO force, the Israelis quickly pulled out, but had to fight their way back to Israeli territory. At 11:00 the Israelis began to withdraw, with Sikorsky H-34 helicopters evacuating the troops. Because orders came down to recover as many vehicles as possible, they only completed their withdrawal by 20:40.
Casualties estimates vary:
- Israel: Chaim Herzog and Kenneth Pollack estimate 28 dead and 69 wounded; Shabtai Teveth gives 32 killed and 70 wounded out of a force of 1,000 soldiers. Benny Morris writes that Israel lost 33 dead and 161 wounded. Israel also lost four tanks, three half-tracks, two armored cars and a 113 Squadron Dassault Ouragan, although the pilot succeeded in parachuting to safety. A Mirage had to crash land.
- Jordan: Zeev Maoz and Morris cite a figure of some 84 Jordanian soldiers killed and another 250 wounded. Four were captured. 30 tanks were destroyed. Maoz notes that two Jordanian aircraft were shot down.
- PLO: Herzog: 200 dead, 150 captured; Morris: 156 dead, 141 captured; Pollack: 100 dead, 100 wounded, 120–150 captured. According to Morris, a further 20 PLO guerillas were killed and 27 captured during the corresponding Operation Asuta. Teveth states 170 killed and 130 taken prisoner.
Israeli command structure
|Israel Defense Forces — Lieutenant General Haim Bar-Lev|
|Central Command — Major General (Aluf) Uzi Narkiss|
|80th Brigade (elements)||Colonel Rafael Eitan||Tovia Force (reduced battalion)|
|Uzi Force (reduced battalion)|
|7th Brigade||Colonel Shmuel Gonen||Rotem Company|
|Paratroopers Brigade (35th)||Colonel Danny Mat||890th Battalion||Lieutenant Colonel Dan Shomron|
|50th Battalion||Lieutenant Colonel Tubi Shapira|
|202th Battalion (elements)||Lieutenant Colonel Zvi Bar|
|Paratroopers Reconnaissance Unit||Captain Matan Vilnai|
|Air Force (elements)||Major General (Aluf)
|116 "Flying Wing" Squadron (leaflet drop)|
|101 "First Fighter" Squadron|
|105 "Scorpion" Squadron|
|110 "Northern Knights" Squadron|
|113 "Hornet" Squadron|
|117 "First Jet" Squadron|
|119 "Bat" Squadron|
|124 "Rolling Sword" Squadron|
|114 "Night Leaders/Super Frelon" Squadron|
|Combat Engineering Corps (elements)|
|Artillery Corps (elements)|
Israel accomplished its objective of destroying the Fatah camp, and on a tactical level, the battle did indeed end in Israel's favor. "The Karama operation exposed the vulnerability of PLO units deployed along the Jordan River and so they moved their concentrations up into the mountains. This imposed additional strains on them and made their operations into the West Bank even more involved and difficult than they had been hithero." Politically however, Israel was heavily condemned by the world opinion. U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Arthur Goldberg, said "We believe that the military counteractions such as those which have just taken place, on a scale out of proportion to the acts of violence that preceded it, are greatly to be deplored." US Ambassador to Israel, Walworth Barbour, said that in twenty years time, a historian would write that day down as the beginning of the destruction of Israel. Eban reported the Ambassabor's statement to the cabinet, and Menachem Begin said such an utterance must not be cited in a cabinet meeting.
The battle of Karameh did provide Fatah with a propaganda boost. Gideon Rafael later said that "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". Uzi Narkis, who commanded the operation, resigned as chief of the Central Command for a position in the Jewish Agency shortly after the battle.
Jordan claimed to have won the battle and stopped an Israeli drive on Amman. Hussein said on television after the battle, "I think we may reach a position where we are all fedayeen", while Arafat 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". Palestinians and Arabs generally considered the battle a psychological victory over the IDF, which had been seen as 'invincible' until then, and recruitment to guerilla units soared. Fatah reported that 5,000 volunteers applied to join within 48 hours of the battle. By late March, there were nearly 20,000 fedayeen in Jordan.
Iraq and Syria offered training programs for several thousand guerrillas. The Persian Gulf states, led by Kuwait, raised money for them through a 5% tax on the salaries of their tens of thousands of resident Palestinian workers, and a fund drive in Lebanon raised $500,000 from Beirut alone. The Palestinian organizations began to guarantee a lifetime support for the families of all guerrillas killed in action. Within a year after the battle, Fatah had branches in about eighty countries.
After the battle, Fatah began to engage in communal projects to achieve popular affiliation. The battle of Karameh and the subsequent increase in the PLO's strength are considered to have been important catalysts for the 1970 events of Black September in Jordan.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Battle of Karameh.|
- "S/PV.1406 of 23 March 1968 — The United Nations discussion on the battle". http://domino.un.org/unispal.nsf/59c118f065c4465b852572a500625fea/e51eb57a95fd2c72052567fb0053748f!OpenDocument. Retrieved 2008-09-03. [dead link]
- "Jordan celebrates the 31st anniversary of al-Karamah battle". Arabic News. 1999-03-22. Archived from the original on 13 October 2008. http://web.archive.org/web/20081013054441/http://www.arabicnews.com/ansub/Daily/Day/990322/1999032227.html. Retrieved 2008-09-03.
- "The Karameh action, from the documentary "The Pillar of Fire"". 2008-03-12. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R06eBN8WXj4. Retrieved 2008-09-03. (Hebrew)
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