Wednesday June 12, 2024

Zia and the Palestinians

August 14, 2010
President Zia’s air crash, like other political deaths in Pakistan, still remains a mystery. His personality and policies evoke extreme comments and emotions, based on a thicket of fact and fiction. One such subject is Zia’s alleged role in the killing of Palestinian in September 1970 in Jordan (“Black September”). There have been fanciful scenarios. The facts are as follows, based on my personal observations and involvement, because I held the charge of the mission in the ambassador’s absence.

Following the June 1967 military debacle, the Arabs requested Pakistan for military training. Pakistan sent training contingents to Syria, Jordan and Iraq. The mission in Jordon consisted of some 20 senior officers drawn from the three services. The team was led by Maj Gen Nawazish Ali, assisted by Brig Ziaul Haq (Armoured Corps), Brig Iftikhar Rana (Artillery), and Col Yaseen Malik (Infantry). The air force was led by Commodore Anwar Shameem, who later became chief of the PAF.

The team’s mandate was limited to training the formations of the Jordanian Defence Forces and had no combat role. In June 1970, an antiaircraft regiment arrived in Amman at the request of King Hussein for the protection of Jordan’s air space against violations by Israeli and Syrian planes, but it had no combat role or capacity.

The presence of the Pakistan training mission against this backdrop soon pulled it into the vortex of Arab intrigues and conspiracies. Its presence was magnified and exaggerated by vested groups. Our ambassador in Delhi had cautioned us against the surreptitious induction of Indian army officers belonging to RAW in PLO and PFLP ranks. Their assignment was to sow doubts and misgivings regarding Pakistan among Palestinians.

It was Sept 2 when I received a call from Brig Zia, informing me that the king had asked him to take over the command of the 3rd Armoured Division stationed in Irbid, a town close to the Syrian border. Syria had moved with an armoured brigade into Jordan. Maj Gen Qasim Motta, the Jordanian commander, had deserted and Zia was asked to take over.

Since the ambassador and Gen Nawazish were both out of Jordan, I was chargé d’affaires, and Zia the senior-most army officer. Zia told the king that he would need political clearance from the embassy before he responded to the request. I told Zia that the contingent’s mandate was not to fight, and hence I would need permission from Islamabad.

Telephone connections were dead. There were no cipher links either. The only communication link was telex based on Morse code. After a few hours’ effort, I established contact with Foreign Secretary Sultan Mohammad Khan, who declined to give any instructions and advised me to contact the military brass. Finally, I reached Mr Ghiasuddin, then Secretary General, Defence.

To my utter horror, without a moment’s hesitance, Ghias gave me the green signal. When I tried to explain the implications, I was cut short with a brief remark: “We had Istikhara, Hashmite Kingdom’s star is ascendant [sic]. Go ahead. Follow king’s commands [sic].” That the foreign and defence policy of Pakistan was formulated not on a dispassionate analysis of the situation but on the dubious religious invocation still amazes me.

Brig Zia accordingly took over the command in Irbid, but before any major military operation could be taken the Syrians, under intense pressure from the US and Israel, withdrew. This was the sum total of Pakistan’s involvement or Zia’s role in the alleged massacre of the Palestinians.

It is generally believed that Zia had been instrumental in the killing of thousands of Palestinians and that Arafat had vowed never to trust Pakistan or forgive Zia. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Arafat visited Pakistan three times during Zia’s regime and met him at summits of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and the Non-aligned Movement. During my assignment in Cairo as Pakistan’s ambassador (1997-1999), I had quite a few occasions to meet Arafat during Arab League meetings and found no bitterness in him about Zia’s alleged role as “Butcher of Palestinians.”

The writer is a former ambassador. Email: