Britain Overruled U.S. Concerns, Gave In To Terrorists, Documents Reveal

By Patrick Goodenough | January 2, 2001 | 7:09pm EST

London ( - Newly-declassified UK documents reveal how the British government in 1970 overrode Washington's objections and gave in to Palestinian terrorists during a Mideast crisis that threatened the regime of the late Jordanian leader, King Hussein.

Not only did Edward Heath's government capitulate to PLO hijackers by agreeing to release captured terrorists, it also decided against coming to the aid of the embattled Hussein, who was engaged in a civil war initiated by the PLO. Britain apparently viewed a Palestinian victory as a possibility and chose to keep its options open.

The documents, released by the Public Records Office under a law that declassifies certain papers after 30 years, also confirm long-held suspicions that Hussein - almost certainly the only Arab leader ever to do so - asked Israel to come to his aid when the Syrians threatened to intervene on behalf of the PLO.

But the documents reveal that Britain decided against passing on Hussein's appeal to the Israelis, and that Britain doubted whether there were "any advantages to be derived from prolonging, possibly only for a short time, the increasingly precarious regime of King Hussein."

The UK government appeared to view the prospect of a victory by Yasser Arafat in a positive light.

Hussein, who died in early 1999, at the time regarded Britain as his oldest ally. In the 1990s, the U.S. became Jordan's main diplomatic and military partner.

Terror drama

The crisis began with a spate of hijackings by a PLO faction in early September 1970. A Pan Am plane was flown to Cairo and blown up after passengers and crew had been released. Another three, from TWA, BOAC and Swissair, were diverted to a remote airfield in Jordan.

The attempted hijacking of an Israeli El Al plane which had just taken off from Amsterdam, failed. One hijacker, a Nicaraguan, was killed and the other, Palestinian Leila Khaled, was captured.

The plane landed at Heathrow Airport and she was taken into custody. The terrorist, a member of the PLO's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), was already wanted for another hijacking a year earlier.

Just three days later, the documents reveal, Britain was offering to free Khaled as part of a deal being negotiated with the hijackers holding hundreds of hostages, including 65 Britons, on the three commandeered planes in Jordan.

The cabinet pondering its dilemma: "Advantages: We should get her [Khaled] out of our area of responsibility and should be seen to have fulfilled the PFLP demands thereby saving the lives of the United Kingdom Nationals.

"Disadvantages: The pilots and the airlines share the view that there should be no capitulation to blackmail. We should also be throwing overboard our previously declared attitude on hijacking and should lose all credibility in international civil
aviation circles. We should also be in breach of the Tokyo Convention of 1963."

Signatories to the Tokyo International Convention on Hijacking pledged not to negotiate with hijackers.

Britain nonetheless decided to negotiate, and its willingness to do so apparently upset the United States. The documents record a conversation between senior UK Foreign Office diplomat Denis Greenhill and Joseph Sisco, a White House official.

The American warned Greenhill: "I think your government would want to weigh very, very carefully the kind of outcry that would occur in this country against your taking this kind of action."

Greenhill answered: "Well, they do Joe, but there is also an outcry in this country ... Israel won't lift a bloody finger and ... our people get killed. You could imagine how bad that would look, and if it all comes out that we could have got our people [British hostages] out but for the obduracy of you and other people so to speak ... I mean people say, why the bloody hell didn't you try?"

On September 12 the terrorists - who had moved their hostages by that time - blew up the three aircraft at the Jordanian airfield. The next day, Britain announced it would free Khaled.

Khaled was eventually released on September 30, along with other Palestinian terrorists being held in Swiss and German prisons. In exchange the hijackers freed their remaining hostages.

Black September

The incident occurred during - and contributed to - a major crisis in Jordan, where King Hussein was facing a campaign of growing lawlessness from the PLO, which had set up an effective "state within a state" inside the kingdom.

As the situation spiraled out of control, Jordan's northern neighbor, Syria, amassed troops on the border and threatened to invade, sparking fears of a wider regional conflict.

Pushed to the edge by the terrorists' blowing up of the three planes in front of the world's television cameras, Hussein eventually sent in his forces against the PLO strongholds, while appealing for outside help.

UK cabinet minutes of the time say, "A series of messages has been received from King Hussein, reflecting the extreme anxiety with which he now regarded the situation.

"The clearest of these had not only appealed for the moral and diplomatic support of the United Kingdom and the United States, coupled with a threat of international action, but had also asked for an air strike by Israel against the Syrian troops."

Britain decided not to pass on the message to Israel, although the cabinet secretary was authorized to inform the Americans.

(The U.S. apparently alerted Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. Israel deployed its army in the Jordan Valley, and historians suggest that it also threatened to bomb the Syrians, who pulled back a tank column, which had crossed the border into Jordan on September 20. Three years later, when Syria and Egypt launched a devastating coordinated attack on Israel on Yom Kippur Day, Jordan stayed out of the fray.)

The historian Martin Gilbert records that 2,000 Palestinian fighters and several thousand more civilians were killed by Jordanian forces in what the PLO later dubbed "Black September."

Yasser Arafat and his defeated organization retreated to Lebanon, where they succeeded in achieving the "state within a state" goal denied them in Jordan.

Leila Khaled, now living in Jordan and a member of the Palestinian parliament, told the BBC that Britain's willingness to negotiate had been an important victory.

"The success in the tactics of hijacking and imposing our demands and succeeding in having our demands implemented, gave us the courage and the confidence to go ahead with our struggle," she said.



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