Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

The Political Mythology of the Battle of Karameh

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

The Political Mythology of the Battle of Karameh

Article excerpt

The March 1968 battle of Karameh was a conflict with limited military importance fought primarily between the Israelis and Jordanians with some Palestinian guerrilla participation. Despite the limited guerrilla role, this battle, nevertheless, became a pivotal event in the emergence of a new Palestinian political identity. It also became an important case study in the role of political mythology in supporting emerging and evolving nationalisms. Demoralized Palestinians seized upon the heroic image of the small group of Palestinian guerrillas who had fought bravely during the battle. The myth about Karameh grew, for the most part, spontaneously because it met critical human needs among the Palestinians. This growth also occurred despite Jordanian and Israeli efforts to provide alternative descriptions of the same events. Distortions created by this myth and the Israeli countermyth can now be assessed using new and more candid sources. Additionally, Karameh also provides an interesting example of how political myths erode as they become less relevant to changing needs among the community they previously served.

on 21 March 1968 a strong Israeli force of around 15,000 troops supported by aircraft entered Jordan and clashed with Jordanian army regulars and Palestinian guerrillas near the town of Karameh (Al-Karama). The town itself is a few kilometers across the Jordan River from the West Bank and about 35 kilometers west of Amman. The 15-hour battle in this area was unexpectedly difficult for the Israelis, but it was not a significant military setback for them. Veteran troops from Jordan's First Infantry Division were the Israeli Army's toughest opponents in this battle, and these Jordanian soldiers fought in a highly professional manner, using armor and infantry forces with artillery support. The approximately 300 Palestinian fighters in the battle, by all accounts, showed great bravery but probably did not inflict many Israeli casualties, due to poor training, limited organization, and an almost total lack of heavy weapons.' The Karameh battle, nevertheless, became one of the most important confrontations of the Arab-Israeli conflict despite its limited military significance. This importance resulted from the battle's emergence as a central political myth for Palestinian nationalists and their supporters. To many Palestinians, this clash represented a significant battle in which heroic guerrillas fought off a superior enemy force and set the stage for subsequent political and military victories. Conversely, the role of Jordanian troops was often severely minimized in Palestinian nationalist versions of these events. Such omissions were partially the result of deliberate distortion by the Palestinian resistance, but they also occurred as the result of the Palestinian population's willingness to seize upon and embellish any optimistic news in the aftermath of the gloom following the Arab defeats of June 1967. Having been given an important source of pride, the Palestinian masses were not readily accepting of any accounts that minimized the importance of guerrilla resistance at Karameh.

In light of this situation, it is useful to examine how a relatively minor action became an important epic supporting Palestinian nationalism at a key point in its development and reemergence. It is also valuable to examine how the rivals and adversaries of Palestinian nationalism reacted to the symbolism of Karameh. This reaction involved earlier Israeli attempts to ridicule and disparage the significance of the action, as well as Jordanian efforts to explain and interpret the events of March 1968 to their own advantage. Finally, it will be useful to consider reasons for the erosion of the Karameh myth that has clearly taken place over the last several decades.

THE CONCEPT OF POLITICAL MYTHOLOGY In contemporary times, the word myth is often used as a term of derision in both scholarly writing and common usage. To apply the word mythological to a theory or historical occurrence usually suggests that it is a fabricated and possibly bizarre account of the events its purports to represent. …

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