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A reporter’s firsthand account of the unintended conquest.
Abraham Rabinovich is author of The Battle for Jerusalem: An Unintended Conquest, a recently published eBook. He arrived in Israel five days before the Six Day War as an American reporter and covered the battle. He subsequently interviewed 300 persons for the print edition of the book, published by the Jewish Publication Society.
If Israel had its way when the Six Day War broke out 46 years ago, Jordanian soldiers might still be walking the ramparts of Jerusalem’s Old City.
With the bulk of its army deployed opposite Egypt in the weeks leading up to the war, Israel sought to avoid another front with Jordan. Hours before his appointment as Defense Minister, Moshe Dayan came up to Jerusalem to make this clear to General Uzi Narkiss, commander of the Jordanian front. The coming war, he said, must be focussed entirely on Egypt. Narkiss was to avoid initiating or escalating a confrontation that would necessitate diversion of forces from the Egyptian front.
The civilian sector, meanwhile, was making its own calculations. Only 19 years before, in the War of Independence, the Israeli half of divided Jerusalem had been subject to a months-long siege by Arab forces that cut it off from the coastal plain. The traumatic memory of severe rationing and heavy shelling compelled the civil authorities in1967 to prepare for the worst.
In Jordanian Jerusalem, euphoria prevailed in anticipation of a swift victory. There was virtually no preparation of the civilian sector for war – neither blood donations, or readying hospitals for mass casualties, or expanding food stocks.
On the Israeli side, thousands of people donated blood during the waiting period. So many showed up for first-aid courses at Magen David Adom that they were shortened from 16 hours to eight. High school boys and girls wearing post office caps and carrying mail sacks could be seen studying house numbers along routes they had taken over.
2,000 volunteers turned out each day to dig trenches. Hundreds were yeshiva students.
With virtually all able-bodied men mobilized, 2,000 volunteers turned out each day to dig trenches in areas where there were no shelters. Hundreds were yeshiva students. Residents of the Musrara quarter were startled one Shabbat to see a group of yeshiva students being led to a digging site by two bearded rabbis who took off their jackets and joined the students in the trenches with shovels. Rabbinical authorities had declared the crisis to be one of pikuach nefesh, a matter of life and death when Sabbath labor is permitted. The Tnuva dairy plant received permission from the rabbinate to remain open one Shabbat to lay in a store of hard cheese and milk powder. An elderly rabbi appeared on that day and in a symbolic gesture helped push a milk cart. In a mortar unit, religious squad leaders, including one in hassidic dress, rode unhesitatingly in their platoon leader’s car on the Sabbath to learn their firing positions in case war suddenly broke out.
The woman who normally gave advice on etiquette on Israel Radio’s program for housewives treated the security crisis as sensibly as she handled other social complications. She advised mothers to let their school-age children play where they usually did and to explain to them that if the siren sounded they should go to the nearest shelter where an “auntie” would look after them. The listeners would, of course, be “aunties” to any child that came into their shelters. Small children, she advised, had best be kept in sight.
War began on Monday morning, June 5, with a devastating air force attack on Egyptian air bases at 7:45 a.m. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol sent a message to Jordan’s King Hussein through the UN saying that Israel would not attack Jordan if Jordan held its fire. The king, however, fearing that his own people would rise up if he stayed out of the war, had entered into a military pact with Cairo and turned over command of his front to an Egyptian general. About 10 a.m., a sputtering of rifle and machine gun fire in Jerusalem was followed by the thump of artillery. Jordan had joined the war.
Eshkol told his Cabinet that if Israel was forced to counterattack on the ground, it could not keep any territory it captured.
Israeli troops along the line separating the two halves of the city were ordered to return fire only in kind – rifle fire for rifle fire, machine gun for machine gun – and not to escalate. It was hoped that Jordan’s gunfire “salute” would be sufficient to satisfy its honor. But the fire did not abate. Eshkol told his Cabinet that if Israel was forced to counterattack on the ground, it could not keep any territory it captured. Following the 1956 Sinai Campaign Israel had been forced by the superpowers to pull out from Sinai completely and it was assumed that would happen after this war too. “We are going forward,” said Eshkol, “in the knowledge that we will be obliged to pull out from (Jordanian) Jerusalem and the West Bank.”
The decision to counterattack came only after Jordanian troops crossed into Israeli Jerusalem in one sector and Radio Cairo announced the capture of Mount Scopus, an enclave a mile behind Jordanian lines. In an anomaly left over from the War of Independence, Scopus was still secured by a 120-man Israeli garrison, rotated regularly through Jordanian territory in UN-protected convoys. The hill had not in fact been attacked but the radio announcement was seen as a clear statement of intent.
A paratroop brigade commanded by Col. Motta Gur was dispatched to Jerusalem with orders to fight its way through the heart of the Jordanian defenses at Ammunition Hill and link up with Scopus.
Atop the Histadrut Building overlooking northeastern Jerusalem, Dennis Silk, a member of a searchlight team, prepared to go into action as darkness set in. A dreamy, English-born poet, Silk worked as a proofreader at the Jerusalem Post. He recalled a story he had once handled describing a raid on a Syrian position. The Syrians had thrown on a projector that was eliminated by Israeli fire in 20 seconds. Silk saw tracers and explosions lacing every part of the city and knew that once his light went on it would be the most visible target in Jerusalem. An officer on the roof shouted “light” and ducked behind a parapet. Like a man pulling the switch of an electric chair in which he himself was sitting, Silk reached up and yanked the projector handle.
The light’s beam moved slowly across Ammunition Hill and its surroundings as an artillery officer called down precise fire. The commander of the reserve paratroop battalion that would attack there, Lt. Col. Yossi Yaffe, a farmer from the center of the country, told his officers that they would have to cross a minefield before reaching the enemy trenches. They would cross in single file. It was hoped that the artillery barrage had detonated the mines. But if anyone set off a mine, the man behind would step on the fallen man and continue forward. No one would stop to tend the wounded until the bunkers overlooking no-man’s-land had been taken.
No one stepped on a mine but the savage face-to-face battle on Ammunition Hill would last for hours.
Gen. Narkiss, in briefing Col. Gur before the attack, told him to send some of his troops towards the Old City to be in a position to attack it. The government had issued no directive regarding the Old City. In fact, most of the ministers opposed attacking it, particularly the religious ministers. The world, they said, particularly the Vatican, would not permit Jewish custody of the Christian holy places. Interior Minister Moshe Haim Shapira, head of the National Religious Party, was the most outspoken opponent. If the walled city had to be captured for tactical reasons, he said, the best solution was internationalization. “To Jordan we will not return it,” he said. “To the world, yes.” [i]
Reuniting Jerusalem became an historical dictate a Jewish state could not avoid embracing.
However, as the troops began to surround the walled city, its reunification came to be seen by the ministers as an historical dictate a Jewish state could not avoid embracing.
By the second night of the war, the Old City was the last Arab position in Jerusalem still holding out. There were 500 soldiers inside the walls as well as numerous armed civilians. Firing had stopped by midnight but loudspeakers mounted on Israeli jeeps could be heard calling on those inside the walls to raise white flags. At 3 a.m., Brigadier Ali Ata, the Jordanian commander, entered the office of Jerusalem Governor Anwar al- Khatib’s next to the Temple Mount. There was no electricity and the two men sat in darkness that was relieved only by the light from falling flares. Ata Ali’s report was blunt. “The battle for Jerusalem is lost,” he said. A relief column from Jericho had been mauled by the Israeli air force. Jordanian brigades in Ramallah and Hebron, to the north and south of Jerusalem, had been ordered to retreat. All but two of his officers had deserted. The troops were demoralized and exhausted and could not be controlled without their officers. He had no more communication with Amman.
In these circumstances, said the brigadier, he had no option but to retreat. “Jerusalem will definitely be assaulted by dawn and my troops are in no condition to resist.” Shortly before dawn he led his men out of Dung Gate, the one gate the Israelis did not control, and trekked through the Judean Desert to Jericho where they crossed the Jordan River. Had Ali Ata chosen to fight in the alleys of the Old City, he may well have been able to delay an Israeli conquest until the UN called for a cease-fire in place later that day.
At 9 a.m., the Israeli Cabinet formally approved the conquest of the Old City. An hour later, a halftrack with Col. Gur aboard crashed through the thick wooden doors of Lion’s Gate and raced onto the Temple Mount. Anticipating a fierce fight, the brigade fanned out through the alleys but met only faint resistance from a few dozen Jordanian soldiers who had remained behind. Three Israeli soldiers were killed in this final skirmish.
But even as the final shots were being fired, the focus of history had shifted to the narrow alley facing the Western Wall where hundreds of troops, soon to be joined by the leaders of the nation, were reclaiming their national heritage.
[i] Jordan in the 1967 War by Samir A. Mutawi, p. 124