City under siege

Just days before the 6 Day War, a young American finds himself on the frontlines of a battle.

six day war 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
six day war 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The woman I stopped to ask directions of in front of the King David Hotel froze when she heard me speak English. "Haven't you left the country yet?" she asked. When I told her I had arrived only the day before, she relaxed and pointed the way. It was June 1, 1967, four days before the outbreak of the Six Day War. Foreigners had been streaming out of the country since Egypt began moving its army into Sinai two weeks before, giving Israelis the sense that they were being abandoned to a grim fate. This sense of existential peril would recur again in the decades ahead, but that first encounter would somewhat inure me.
Jerusalem celebrates 40 years of unification
The plane from New York had been half empty. One of the passengers was Mandy Rice-Davies, who had had a role four years before in the Profumo Affair, a sex scandal which brought down Britain's secretary of state for war. She had subsequently married an Israeli nightclub owner and was returning now to her Tel Aviv home. She agreed to talk to a reporter. When I asked whether she was aware that war might be imminent, she said that was the reason she was coming back now. "This is where I should be." On Sunday, June 4, I called on Reb Amram Blau, the notorious head of the anti-Zionist Natorei Karta, in Jerusalem. He had a beatific face - rosy-cheeked, white-bearded, the expression of an innocent who had reached a venerable age with his strong views uneroded by doubt or earthly calculations. Behind him sat his wife, a formidable French convert to Judaism whose marriage two years before to Reb Amram - 22 years her senior - had rocked the haredi world as much as the Profumo Affair had rocked London. If war broke out, I asked Reb Amram, which side would he want to win, Israel or the Arabs? The rebbetzin leaned forward and whispered into his ear in Yiddish a sensible suggestion of caution. "Whichever side God chooses," he responded. Little more than 100 meters from his spartan apartment, in the "Hungarian Houses," no-man's-land between Israeli and Jordanian Jerusalem lay somnolent, awaiting the script being written for the morrow. The sirens that sounded the next morning at eight were followed a few minutes later by six beeps on the radio and an announcer cutting into the regular broadcast. Egyptian armor and aircraft had begun moving toward the border and bitter fighting had broken out, he said. No mention was made of the Israel Air Force, which was at that hour carrying out a devastating preemptive strike on Egyptian air bases. The Jordanian front was still silent. Salesgirls downtown stood barefoot in display windows fixing tape to the plate glass to prevent shattering. Men slapped blue paint over car headlights, leaving a tiny gap in the center as blackout lights. Outside Bikur Holim Hospital, a column of high school boys and girls arrived, breathing hard after a forced march from their school. Assigned to fill sandbags and carry stretchers, they sat down on the steps inside the main entrance and waited to be called. A short doctor was directing workers setting up cots in the corridor on the ground floor. His urgent demands for speed seemed excessive to someone stepping in from the tranquil streets. (Twenty-four hours later, the students would be back on the steps, slumped over from exhaustion, their blue school uniforms stained red with the blood of wounded.) With the outbreak of war with Egypt, prime minister Levi Eshkol sent a message to Jordan's King Hussein via the commander of the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) in Jerusalem saying that Israel had no intention of attacking Jordan. If, however, Jordan intervened, said the message, Israel would fight it with all the means at its disposal. Hussein feared the war's outcome but was in no position to resist the pressure to join the battle coming from the Arab world and from his own army and largely Palestinian population. The week before he had signed a defense pact with Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and placed his armed forces under the command of an Egyptian general. About 10 a.m., the sound of distant rifle fire could be heard downtown. Soon after, machine gun fire joined in. The Israeli command still hoped not to be diverted from the battle with Egypt by the opening of another major front. It ordered the Jerusalem Brigade, the home guard defending the capital, to respond in kind to the Jordanian attack - automatic weapon fire for automatic fire, artillery fire for artillery - but not to escalate. The arrival of a handful of Sherman tanks in the Russian Compound off Jaffa Road appeared to be final confirmation that war had come to Jerusalem. In the old commercial center outside Jaffa Gate, gunfire echoed off the buildings, making it impossible to know from which direction it was coming. The proprietor of a shoe store, the only premises there which had opened this morning despite the siren, beckoned me inside. He seemed at ease and said he was waiting for the shooting to ease off a bit before making his way home to his wife and 11 children. Asked where he had been during World War II, he said "Dachau." As he spoke the name, his eyes reddened and he became agitated. "We've got to stop them now," he said. "The people want this war. We will fight to the last child." SHORTLY AFTER 11 a.m., the first artillery shells hit. The entranceway I ducked into turned out to be that of City Hall. The mayor, a little-known figure named Teddy Kollek, agreed to see me in his top-floor office. He wore the resigned look of someone who knew that events were out of his hands. The army had just informed him of an intercepted telephone conversation between Nasser and Hussein in which the king was asked to attack Israel in order to ease the pressure on Egypt. "We didn't know if he would do it," said Kollek. From his window, the mayor and two aides watched dirty plumes of smoke march across the city as shells struck. "That one's by Terra Sancta. There's the King's Hotel." Dense smoke drifting over Yemin Moshe from burning scrub made it seem as if the entire neighborhood was on fire. The mayor said he was going down. He asked me not to join him, but I followed at a discreet distance. Taking shelter periodically behind parked cars, he made his way to the rear of City Hall and dashed across a square to a tenement 50 meters from the Old City wall. The residents were sitting on the ground floor landing, the only space without windows. "What's going to happen, Mister Teddy?" a woman asked. He assured her that "our boys are fighting well in the south." On the first floor, a soldier with a bazooka stood on a bed. The sight of boots grinding into white sheets was as jarring as the explosions and gunfire, close-up affirmation that the world was now living by new rules. The soldier slowly nudged aside a curtain and revealed a sandbagged Jordanian gun position atop the Old City wall opposite. As Kollek was leaving the building, the backblast of the bazooka followed him. Despite Hussein's rejection of Eshkol's olive branch, Jerusalem hoped that fighting on the Jordanian front would be contained after the king had satisfied honor by his artillery "salute" and a dozen air sorties that had done almost no damage. Long-distance Jordanian guns on the West Bank had been directed at Tel Aviv suburbs, the international airport at Lod and the Ramat David air base in the North, but the High Command stayed its hand. It rejected repeated requests by the commander of the Central Front, Maj.-Gen. Uzi Narkiss, for limited attacks at Latrun and in the Jerusalem Corridor. This mind-set began to shift imperceptibly around midday. Radio Cairo announced at 10:30 a.m. that the Jordanian army had captured Jebl Mukaber, the hill in southern Jerusalem occupied by Government House (Armon Hanatziv), built for the British high commissioner during the Mandate. Israeli spotters could detect no movement in the compound, which served now as UNTSO headquarters. But two hours later an outpost reported Jordanian troops emerging from it and moving toward the nearby Talpiot neighborhood, the first ground incursion into Israel. A counterattack drove the Jordanians back. Radio Cairo, meanwhile, quoted an official in Amman as claiming that the enclave on Mount Scopus had been captured. The 1949 armistice ending the War of Independence had left Israel in control of the Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital complex on Mount Scopus, a kilometer inside Jordanian Jerusalem. The two institutions would build alternate campuses in west Jerusalem, but for two decades an IDF garrison had been maintained there, supplied and rotated by UN-guarded convoys every two weeks. Despite the broadcast, there had not been any attack on Scopus. But the Israeli command took the announcement as a statement of intent, particularly since the announcement about Jebl Mukaber had proved accurate if premature. Relief of the 120-man garrison now became the pivot of IDF operational considerations in Jerusalem. Narkiss would later maintain that were it not for these two seemingly marginal episodes - the Radio Cairo report of the capture of Mount Scopus and the takeover of Government House by Jordanian troops, which lent credibility to the Scopus report - the High Command would not have begun thinking of setting its ground forces in motion and the West Bank would have remained Jordanian. If the Six Day War was born of misreadings by the parties of each other's intentions, the battle for Jerusalem and the West Bank was, at least from Israel's point of view, an afterthought, almost an accident, not conceived of when the day began. The High Command's reluctance to push home the confrontation with Jordan was slowly dissolving as the hours passed under a flood of good news. The IAF reported the almost total destruction of the Egyptian Air Force in three hours, while in northern Sinai Maj.-Gen. Yisrael Tal's armored division broke through the Egyptian defenses and reached El-Arish earlier than planned. At 1:15 p.m., a reserve mechanized brigade under Col. Uri Ben-Ari was ordered to move out from its staging area in the Ben-Shemen Forest to the Ma'aleh Hahamisha area near Jerusalem. There was still no decision to take the offensive, however, and Ben-Ari was told not to cross the border without further orders. Meanwhile, the 55th Paratroop Brigade, a reserve unit which had been scheduled to jump that night near El-Arish, learned that its mission had been made redundant by the fast-moving tanks. Early in the afternoon, one of its three battalions was detached and sent to Jerusalem to bolster the city's defenses. Shortly thereafter, a second battalion was sent up to Jerusalem and then the third. BY NOW, the High Command's mind-set had made the switch to offense. The 55th's commander, Col. Mordechai (Motta) Gur, was ordered to link up with Scopus after dark. Ben-Ari was ordered to cross the border as soon as he reached Ma'aleh Hahamisha. His mission was to reach the Jerusalem-Ramallah road north of Mount Scopus and block Jordanian armor coming up to from the Jordan Valley. With the main road to the city under Jordanian fire, Gur's paratroopers, in civilian buses, were brought up to the city on back roads, including a dirt track alongside the rail line. The buses deposited the force along streets running off the central square in the Beit Hakerem neighborhood in late afternoon. While the troops rested, many of them in apartments to which residents invited them, their commanders moved up to the front to scout their assigned attack sectors between Ammunition Hill and the Beit Yisrael neighborhood a kilometer south. The only ground action authorized until now was a linkup with Scopus, but Narkiss ordered Gur to have forces in position near the Old City should the government decide to take it. Firing tapered off toward dusk as both sides prepared for what the night would bring. For a brief interval, Jerusalem was the most peaceful city on earth. The streets were empty and there was almost no sound. An exception was the loud humming on a street in the Musrara quarter from a transformer gone berserk. Streetlights remained off and residents adhered to the blackout. All there was to see were the silhouettes of tapering cypresses against the fading light and stars emerging in greater numbers than were ever seen from the lit-up city. JORDANIAN SHELLING resumed after dark. Seeking shelter in a building on Rehov Shivtei Yisrael, I heard voices coming from a side room and knocked. It was pitch-black inside and I was helped by unseen hands to a place where I could sit. The tiny, windowless room was unbearably stuffy, and the occupants refrained from adding to the heat by lighting candles. Someone struck a match and said they were nine persons. No one had a transistor radio. All that could be heard was the furious din of fire from Israeli positions in the nearby Notre Dame Hospice opposite the Old City walls and the sound of artillery explosions. The residents professed no fear that the Arabs might be coming across the border, just 200 meters away. "We are strong," said a woman who had been praying aloud. The Jerusalem Post, which served me as a base, had been publishing instructions for days about sandbagging windows of rooms where people would be gathered, but nobody had bothered to sandbag the numerous windows of the busy newsroom. In the evening, Mayor Kollek came to the paper, located then on Rehov Havatzelet a block from Kikar Zion, to dictate a message to the citizens of Jerusalem for the morning edition. He lingered for a while to chat with editor Ted Lurie and staffers. Although many of the paper's personnel had been mobilized, those remaining met the regular deadline. After typing up a story for my American newspaper, I had to feel my way through pitch black streets to the censor's office in the Russian Compound and then the telex office in the main post office, touching the sides of buildings and tapping for the curbs with my foot. A sliver of the waning moon would not rise till 2:30 a.m. Toward midnight, shelling intensified as the Jordanians sensed an imminent attack. A shell struck the roof of the Post or an adjacent building, and staffers descended for safety to the basement, where the press had begun to roll with the morning's edition. The thunder of the press did not altogether drown out the explosions outside, but it was comforting to see the thick-armed pressmen going about their tasks as if nothing unusual was happening. Venturing out after the shelling abated, I came on movement of people and vehicles around the Histadrut union building on Rehov Strauss. A guard led me down to the basement where a curtain was thrown open, revealing a large, brightly-lit room that looked the way one imagined a fighter command headquarters during the Battle of Britain. Women sat at long tables answering phones and typing reports. There were radio sets, maps on the walls and at the far end a command room from which men in uniform emerged every few moments. This was civil defense headquarters for the northern district. After describing the goings-on, an officer escorted me back up to the street. As we emerged, the darkness was broken by a shaft of light projected from the roof of the building toward the Arab lines. Looking up, the officer said, "We're going to attack." THE PROJECTOR handle had been pulled by reservist Dennis Silk, a soft-spoken British-born poet who worked as a proofreader at The Jerusalem Post. He was now the most visible target in Jerusalem, but the Jordanian gunners ignored his projector as they continued to pound the city at random, as if venting their rage. At the beginning, the light was kept on only for 10-12 seconds as Israeli artillery spotters called in ranging shots. But as the night wore on and the light remained untargeted, it would brazenly grip a target for 10 minutes or more. Meanwhile, out in the darkness, the IDF gunners, silent for most of the day, waited for their signal. It came at 2:20 a.m. On the roof near Silk, the Jerusalem Brigade artillery officer, who had been pacing like a restless conductor before a concert, contacted his batteries. "Iron. Repeat, Iron." Much of the ensuing barrage was directed at the most heavily fortified Jordanian position in the city, Ammunition Hill. But the Jordanian soldiers there were secure in their deep trenches. When the barrage lifted, the paratroop battalion opposite Ammunition Hill started forward. On nearby Rehov Shmuel Hanavi, a Jerusalem Brigade intelligence officer was transfixed by a keening sound. It was a moment before he recognized it with a chill as the sound of men charging into battle. The paratroopers had to cross 150 meters of no-man's-land, parts of it sown with mines. The intensive shelling had been intended in part to detonate them, but the results could not be known. The men were to run forward in single file. If someone stepped on a mine, those behind were to pass over him and continue forward. In the event, the entire battalion crossed safely. But in a fierce battle that continued well after sunrise, 24 paratroopers died in the trenches of Ammunition Hill together with 80 Jordanians. Fifty Israelis were wounded. In all, half the men in the two-company attack force were casualties, including 10 of the 14 officers. But the main obstacle on the way to Mount Scopus had been cleared. The other two paratroop battalions crossed the border relatively easily from Beit Yisrael, entering Jordanian Jerusalem near the American Colony Hotel. I had returned to Musrara to sit out the rest of that first night with the border residents. When I emerged from a ground-floor shelter after dawn, the air was heavy with the pungent smell of cooking gas from outdoor canisters holed by the shelling. All the cars on the street were pocked by shrapnel and their tires were flattened. (In two days of fighting in the city, the Jordanians would fire 6,000 shells into the city, most in the first 24 hours, damaging 1,000 apartments. By contrast, in last summer's war, Hizbullah fired 4,000 rockets into the North over the course of a month, only one quarter hitting in built-up areas.) ON TUESDAY NIGHT, the second night of the war, the government met to decide the fate of the Old City. The generals were making preparations to break in, but defense minister Moshe Dayan did not want to risk the casualties involved in fighting through the winding alleys or the political fallout if there were damage to the holy places. He advocated instead laying siege to the walled city, as in times of yore, and waiting for the defenders to raise a white flag. At least two ministers opposed capturing the Old City. The international community, including the Vatican, they argued, would not tolerate Jewish sovereignty over the Christian and Islamic holy places. Best to leave the return to the Old City as something to be prayed for, said one. At foreign minister Abba Eban's suggestion, the cabinet decided to declare the conquest of the walled city to be a military response to the Jordanian shelling, leaving the political aspects for later consideration. History and religion were set aside to get on with the war. But they would return to the fore soon enough. At 4 a.m. Wednesday, right-wing leader Menachem Begin, who had joined the national unity government on the eve of the war, telephoned Dayan to pass on a BBC report that the UN Security Council would this day call for a cease-fire. "We can't wait any more," he said. Dayan agreed. An hour later, the order reached Narkiss to capture the Mount of Olives and prepare to break into the Old City at its foot. Midmorning Wednesday, a piercing wail woke me as I caught up on sleep on the grass of Independence Park. In the sky, something was hurtling south, leaving behind a white trail. Whatever it was, it was being fired in support of IDF troops who had begun to move toward Bethlehem. Walking over to the Post, I heard rumors that IDF troops were inside the Old City, only 48 hours after the first shots were fired in Jerusalem. With an editor from the Post, Charlie Weiss, I made my way to Mandelbaum Gate, the intersection at the edge of Mea She'arim which served as a crossing point between the two Jerusalems for clergy and diplomats. The Israeli border control post, which had been taken over by the army when the war started, was empty. So too seemed to be the Jordanian border control post opposite. We crossed the intersection and entered Jordanian Jerusalem. The streets were empty except for occasional IDF soldiers. They pointed the way to Lions' Gate through which the paratroopers had broken into the Old City. Near Damascus Gate, was a burned-out Jordanian army tender. The body of its helmeted driver was still behind the wheel, an arm raised in rigor mortis. On the monumental stage of the Temple Mount, an epic drama was being played out. Arab prisoners, silhouetted against the sky, moved in a long line past the Dome of the Rock, guarded by helmeted paratroopers cradling Uzis. Nearby, a group of IDF officers surrounded by the antennas of their radiomen watched warplanes circling beyond the Mount of Olives and darting down on Jordanian tanks retreating on the road to Jericho. Israeli supply vehicles, including a mobilized Tnuva milk truck laden with military equipment, were parked outside Al-Aksa Mosque. Some soldiers had climbed into the cabs of the trucks to sleep. From the other side of the vast plaza, cheers went up from soldiers gathered around an officer who had just addressed them. A few dozen Arab prisoners, all in civilian dress, knelt in a line facing a stone wall, hands on their heads, waiting to be called for interrogation. Some were older men, but others were young men with military bearing. Several, a paratrooper told me, had already been identified as soldiers by dog tags or compass straps which they had retained after discarding their uniforms. The night before, most of the Jordanian battalion posted in the Old City had slipped out through Dung Gate. Some soldiers had changed into civilian clothes and remained in hiding inside the Old City. A small number retained their arms and did battle when the IDF troops broke in. When one prisoner put his hands down, a soldier barked at him and motioned with his Uzi to get them back up. A swarthy sergeant chided the paratrooper. "They're prisoners but they're also human beings." The Arabs appeared stunned by the display of might casually bristling about them. A few nights before, men in the bar of the American Colony, confident of victory in the looming war, were promising to buy each other the next drink in the Tel Aviv Hilton. The debacle on the Jordanian and Egyptian fronts was as incomprehensible as it was humiliating. One man slumped against a tree with his eyes closed as if hoping the scene would disappear when he opened them. When a plane roared low overhead, tears flowed through his closed lids and his hands trembled. A score of Arab dignitaries, including the governor of Jordanian Jerusalem, Anwar el-Khatib, and the local police chief, sat apart. They were not obliged to keep their hands on their heads. They had been rounded up from houses in the area, many of them expecting to be shot as they were led away, one of them would relate later. Instead, they were offered water and cigarettes. IN THE OPENING hours of the war, the Jerusalem Brigade operations officer, incensed at the indiscriminate shelling of Israeli neighborhoods, ordered artillery fire on the Old City. Narkiss, hearing the order on the radio net, rescinded it before any shells were fired. He was conscious of the likely repercussions if Jewish guns damaged Christian or Muslim holy places. Wednesday morning, however, as the troops were preparing to attack, permission was given to shell the northeast corner of the Old City just behind the break-in point at Lions' Gate. The mission was assigned to a heavy mortar battery positioned in the Valley of the Cross below the Knesset. An artillery spotter in the tower of the Rockefeller Museum, just outside the Old City wall, called down ranging shots, taking care to keep shells away from the Temple Mount. The mortars were deployed in a 100-meter-long line and when fired in salvo the shells fell across a roughly 100-meter front. By keeping the right-most shells away from the Mount, the spotter had caused the left-most shells to hit outside the Old City wall. Two of them exploded in the rear courtyard of the museum itself, wounding several men. A score of soldiers ran out to pull them in. The spotter raised the mortar battery commander on the radio and shouted "stop." "Too late," was the reply. Seconds later, shells exploded among the rescue party. Nine paratroopers and a number of Jordanian prisoners lay dead. Many other men were wounded. (In all, 179 Israeli soldiers and 20 civilians were killed in the battle for the city. The Jordanians lost 330 soldiers and an estimated 100 civilians.) An Israeli flag raised on the Dome of the Rock by paratroopers was taken down at the order of Dayan when he arrived on the Mount shortly after the break-in. Two soldiers made their way up to a balcony inside the dome and tested the acoustics by speaking to each other from opposite ends. A third voice drifted up from the floor below. It was Gur summoning them down. Sentries were posted outside the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aksa Mosque at Dayan's order to keep anyone else from entering. At the northern end of the Mount, a dozen paratroopers pulled out crates of weapons in Jordanian army storerooms and found boxes of soft drinks. As they sat drinking on the terrace outside, they spoke with me about the Jordanian soldiers - "They were good," said one, "but we were better" - and about their own feelings. Despite the bewildering speed of events during the past two days, the soldiers had already given thought to the political implications of the war, particularly the possibility of territorial changes. "They can have all the rest back," said one, "but not our holy city." Others spoke of keeping all or part of Sinai and the West Bank. (The Golan Heights had not yet been attacked.) Only one of the group advocated giving everything back, including Jordanian Jerusalem. In this offhand discussion before the last shots were fired in Jerusalem, virtually all major positions in the political debate of the coming decades were outlined. While Gur's paratroopers were securing the Old City, Ben-Ari's tanks and half-tracks had rolled through Ramallah and turned eastward. Shortly after noon, the brigade commander informed Narkiss that he was descending the hills toward Jericho, already visible to his forward units. He requested permission to capture the city. Narkiss passed the request on to the General Staff, but Dayan cut into the radio net. "What's Uri doing near Jericho? Get him back immediately." Even at this stage, with the Old City captured, Dayan was still confining the army's goals to pushing the Jordanians out of artillery range of Israeli territory and capturing the crest of the central hill chain in the event that there was a counterattack from the east. However, even as Ben-Ari was attempting to get his tanks turned around on the narrow mountain trails the order came back down to turn again and take Jericho. Two days before, a military/political dynamic had been set in motion when IDF troops crossed the border to forestall an anticipated attack on Mount Scopus. Now, with the remnants of the Jordanian army reported to be pulling back across the Jordan River, the logic of events was inexorably pulling Israel into occupation of the entire West Bank. In the basement of the Binyenei Ha'uma convention center, which was serving as Narkiss' forward command post, he was joined late Wednesday afternoon by Dayan, chief of General Staff Yitzhak Rabin and other generals returning from the Old City. In the windowless room lit by battery-operated lamps, they sat on a folding cot and a few scattered chairs and tried to absorb the fantastic events of the past two days. It was Rabin who focused the diffused impressions into a stark bottom line. "How do we control a million Arabs?" he asked. "A million, two hundred fifty thousand," said Maj.-Gen. Rehavam Ze'evi. The numbers have since changed but the question, in one form or another, is still being asked four decades later. The writer is a former Jerusalem Post reporter and author of The Battle of Jerusalem. His most recent book is The Yom Kippur War.