Six Day War: When Israel reclaimed Jerusalem, its eternal capital

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: Retracing the 54-year-old events leading to Israel's stunning 1967 victory

IDF SOLDIERS stand at the Western Wall in June 1967 after it was captured during the Six Day War. (photo credit: DEFENSE MINISTRY/REUTERS)
IDF SOLDIERS stand at the Western Wall in June 1967 after it was captured during the Six Day War.
Capture of Jerusalem’s Old City was not even a passing thought when the Six Day War began, but within 48 hours the Israeli flag was flying over its ramparts. It was an unintended conquest whose reverberations still grip Israel and Palestinians in a violent embrace.
On the eve of the 1967 conflict, defense minister Moshe Dayan cautioned army commanders in Jerusalem to avoid provocation of the Jordanian forces opposite them. A preemptive strike was soon to be launched against Egypt, whose army was rapidly deploying in Sinai, and Syria was waiting in the wings. Israel did not want to open yet another front.
“You must not complicate Israel’s position vis-a-vis Jordan,” Dayan said. If things went badly elsewhere, it might be impossible to reinforce Jerusalem if needed.
On the morning of June 5, as 200 planes were returning from a preemptive strike against Egyptian air bases, prime minister Levi Eshkol sent a message to Jordan’s King Hussein, who had signed a defense pact with Egypt the week before. If Jordan made no hostile move, Eshkol wrote, neither would Israel.
At 10 a.m., Jordan opened fire along the line dividing Jerusalem and elsewhere along the border. Gen. Uzi Narkiss, OC Central Command, ordered troops to reply in kind – rifle fire for rifle fire, machine-gun fire for machine-gun fire – but not to escalate. He hoped that Jordanian honor would be satisfied by their opening “salute.” However, the first of some 6,000 artillery shells soon began to descend on Israeli Jerusalem, drowning out the sound of small arms.
As the air force collated its pilots’ reports, it became evident that the preemptive attack had been devastating. After a rapid turnaround and a second air strike, the Egyptian Air Force virtually ceased to exist before noon.
Egyptian armored divisions in Sinai were by then also beginning to crack. An Israeli paratroopers brigade slated to drop behind Egyptian lines that night was informed that its target had already been overrun by Israeli tanks. The brigade was instead being bused to Jerusalem to bolster the city’s defenses.
Israel had been braced for two weeks for an existential struggle, possibly against several Arab countries; tourists had fled the country, and thousands of graves were excavated in major cities. Now, as optimistic battle reports began to filter through from Sinai, mindsets began to shift, but the General Staff was still loath to expand the fight with Jordan into a war of movement.
The turning point came in the early afternoon when a report on Radio Cairo was picked up that Jordanian troops had captured an Israeli enclave on Mount Scopus in northern Jerusalem.
The enclave, half a mile behind Jordanian lines, included the original campuses of Hadassah Hospital and the Hebrew University. Its defenders had held out during the War of Independence 19 years before; under an armistice agreement the strategic ridge had remained under Israeli control, its 120-man garrison rotated every month under UN protection.
Despite the Radio Cairo report, Scopus had in fact not been attacked, but Narkiss took the announcement as a statement of intent. With approval of the General Staff, he set a counterattack in motion. (He would afterward maintain that had it not been for the radio report, the West Bank and the Old City might well have remained in Jordanian hands at war’s end.)
The paratroopers brigade was ordered to break through the formidable Jordanian defenses guarding the route to Scopus and relieve the garrison.
Narkiss told the brigade commander, Col. Mordecai Gur, to position one of his battalions at the Rockefeller Museum opposite the Old City walls in the event the government decided to break in. There had been no indication thus far that it was considering it.
MINISTERS LIVING on the coast drove up to Jerusalem on the afternoon of day one to attend a cabinet meeting in the Knesset, their cars incongruously mixed in with an armored column. The Knesset building, just one year old, was filled with parliamentarians and journalists exchanging rumors about the progress of the war. The major subject was Jerusalem. Would – should – the army take the Old City?
As the cabinet meeting got under way in the Knesset shelter, renewal of shelling could be heard outside. Two ministers from opposite ends of the political spectrum called for the first time for capture of the Old City – Menachem Begin on the right wing and Yigal Allon, of the kibbutz movement, on the left. Both said history would not forgive the government if it did not grasp the opportunity for restoring Jewish rule over the site of biblical Jerusalem 2,000 years after its fall to the Romans.
Ironically, ministers from the National Religious Party, whose nominal political heirs would spearhead the settler movement into the West Bank, opposed the idea. They voiced concern that the Christian world, led by the Vatican, would never accept Jewish rule over the holiest sites in Christendom.
The head of the party, interior minister Haim-Moshe Shapira, spoke forcefully against annexation. The best solution, he said, was the Old City’s internationalization.
“To Jordan we will not return it,” he said. “To the world, yes.”
One minister, noting that Jews had prayed for Jerusalem for the past 2,000 years, suggested that it might be best to just go on doing so instead of getting politically embroiled with the international community. Another, from Eshkol’s party, warned that the UN might decide to internationalize the entire city, including the Israeli side, if Israel sought to annex Jordanian Jerusalem.
Israel’s leaders were still haunted by the memory of how in 1956, following the Sinai Campaign, threats of economic sanctions from Washington and military intervention from Moscow forced prime minister David Ben-Gurion to relinquish his hopes of maintaining Israel’s hold on Sinai. That memory was clearly on Eshkol’s mind when he addressed the cabinet. “In the Jordanian sector we are moving forward in the knowledge that we will be obliged to pull out from [Jordanian] Jerusalem and the West Bank [after the war].”
Dayan “showed scant enthusiasm” for the conquest of the Old City, historian Ami Gluska would write. Ben-Gurion’s diary records a conversation with his former aide, now working for Dayan. “Moshe doesn’t want to conquer it [the Old City],” the aide said, “because he doesn’t want to have to give back the Western Wall.” Dayan had on the eve of the war told the cabinet “We have no territorial aim whatsoever.”
The Old City was a prize so monumental that some ministers questioned whether a country with a population of less than three million could dare claim it. On the other hand, how could the reborn Jewish state not claim it? Israel’s roots were not in Tel Aviv or even in modern Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, but in the city bearing the same name that lay across a narrow strip of no-man’s-land a mile from where they sat.
The General Staff, which had contingency plans in its safes dealing with potential targets around the Middle East, had none for Jerusalem’s Old City, literally a stone’s throw from Israeli neighborhoods – no designation of which gate to breach, no battle plan inside the walls.
The Israeli public was kept in the dark all day about battlefield developments after the initial announcement of war at 8 a.m. Those who understood Arabic could hear exuberant claims from Radio Cairo and Radio Amman, but the Israeli high command feared that prematurely revealing Israel’s successes would prompt the UN to call for a ceasefire before victory had been sealed.
It was not until an hour after midnight – 17 hours after the initial announcement of clashes with Egypt – that Israel Radio introduced army chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin without prior notice. Despite the hour, almost all adults in the country were awake and listening.
Speaking calmly, Gen. Rabin reported that Israeli troops had reached El Arish in Sinai and that Jenin, on the West Bank, had fallen. It was the first confirmation that the war was being fought not inside Israel but on enemy territory.
Rabin was followed by the commander of the air force, Gen. Mordecai Hod. In a dry voice he described the blow inflicted by his planes on the air forces of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq, letting drop the incredible figure of 400 enemy planes destroyed this day, the bulk of them on the ground. Israeli losses were given as 19 planes.
The paratroopers brigade linked up with Mount Scopus after dawn on day two after a fierce battle at Ammunition Hill and Sheikh Jarrah in which it took heavy casualties. From the ridge, its commanders looked down at a spectacular view of the adjacent Old City.
Given the divisions within the cabinet, foreign minister Abba Eban proposed that the mooted capture of the Old City be announced as a tactical response to Jordanian shelling, thereby deferring the question of its future status and leaving open the possibility of a pullback. (Close to 1,000 buildings in Israeli Jerusalem were hit by shells, but their stone facing limited damage.) Eshkol adopted Eban’s suggestion.
Surviving Jordanian soldiers who had been fighting outside the Old City pulled back within its walls by dusk and the large wooden gates bolted shut.
That night, the Jordanian commander, Brig. Ata Ali Haza’a, sought out the governor of Jordanian Jerusalem, Anwar al-Khatib. Electricity had been cut off, and the two men sat in Khatib’s office adjacent to the Temple Mount in darkness relieved only by periodic Israeli flares. Jeep-mounted loudspeakers outside the walls called on residents in Arabic to hang white flags outside their homes.
“The battle is lost,” said Haza’a. All but two of his 23 officers had deserted, and the troops could not be controlled without them. The men were demoralized and exhausted. To save them, he said, he had no choice but to pull out before the Israelis attacked. Khatib was shocked. He tried to argue that Haza’a’s 500-600 men, with Jerusalemites volunteering as officers, could put up an effective fight in a maze like the Old City.
“My troops are in no condition to resist,” the brigadier replied. Shortly before dawn, he led them through Dung Gate, the only gate not blocked by Israeli troops, and headed for the Jordan River.
It was Begin who set in motion the final act. He had been overruled in the cabinet the night before when he called for an immediate attack on the Old City. Waking from a troubled sleep, he tuned into the BBC. The lead news item was about a Middle East ceasefire that the Security Council was planning to call this day. Begin telephoned Dayan and said “we can’t wait anymore.”
Dayan agreed. At 5:30 a.m. Narkiss was contacted by Dayan’s deputy, Gen. Haim Bar-Lev. The paratroopers were to attack the Old City as soon as possible. The cabinet had not yet approved, he said, but there was no doubt that it would in a telephone poll. Any lingering ambiguity had been cast aside by the fast-moving developments.
The departure of Haza’a’s force spared the paratroopers who broke through Lion’s Gate at 10 a.m. a bloody fight. (Two Israelis would be killed inside the walls in skirmishes with a scattering of Jordanian soldiers who had remained behind.)
When Dayan arrived on the Temple Mount he ordered that an Israeli flag raised by soldiers on the Dome of the Rock be taken down. He would shortly order de facto control of the Temple Mount returned to the Muslim religious authorities.
At the Western Wall, Dayan read a statement to the press: “We have returned to the holiest of our sites and will never again be separated from it. To our Arab neighbors, Israel extends the hand of peace; and to the peoples of all faiths we guarantee full freedom of worship and of religious rights. We have come not to conquer the holy places of others, nor to diminish their religious rights, but to ensure the unity of the city and to live in it with others in harmony.”
Though generous and statesmanlike, Dayan’s words meant that the Old City would not be relinquished.
A committee consisting of senior civil servants and a general was appointed to draw up Jerusalem’s new eastern boundary. Three weeks after the war, the Knesset adopted their recommendations, annexing 28 square miles that included land belonging to two dozen Arab villages.
Overnight, Israeli Jerusalem tripled in size and Jordanian Jerusalem ceased to exist. The annexed area was carved out primarily on the basis of security, not sanctity. Choosing high ground, the planners created a buffer to serve – militarily and demographically – should war threaten again from the east.
What had been Jordanian Jerusalem, including the half-mile square Old City and the Mount of Olives, constituted only 6% of the land taken. But the walled entity, with its ramparts and holy places, would remain the heart of Jerusalem, harboring narratives capable of inspiring both sublime contemplation and rocket wars. Jerusalem’s Arabs and Jews would begin praying in proximity while jostling for position at the gateway to heaven.
The writer, a former reporter for The Jerusalem Post, is author of The Battle for Jerusalem, The Yom Kippur War and The Boats of Cherbourg.