A city conquered

Following are excerpts from ‘The Battle for Jerusalem: An Unintended Conquest That Echoes Still.’

IAF plane near Augusta Victoria Hospital 370 (photo credit: Photos: Jerusalem Post archives)
IAF plane near Augusta Victoria Hospital 370
(photo credit: Photos: Jerusalem Post archives)
In a film showing at Hebrew University in mid-May, 1967, Yankele Rotblit was watching the Allied armies storm ashore at Normandy on D-Day when someone opened the door and shouted a name. In the darkened hall, a figure rose and hurried out. A few minutes later another name was called. Rotblit, a reserve lieutenant in the Jerusalem Brigade, realized it was general mobilization. As soon as the movie was over he hurried home and found his call-up papers waiting for him.
That night, all through the country, military couriers rang doorbells and handed reservists orders to report to their unit assembly point in the morning. If the man was out, a notice was pasted on his door. It was a drill the country’s 215,000 reservists practiced two or three times a year, sometimes being routed out of bed at 2 a.m.
Aaron Shai, a newly married schoolteacher, was at home with his wife when a woman arrived with a wedding gift. She had just sat down when the bell rang again. Shai opened the door to a friend who served in the same reserve unit. Seeing the gift on the coffee table, he said, “I came with a wedding present, too,” and handed Shai his mobilization papers.
After preparing kitbag and boots, Shai went to bed but found it impossible to sleep. He could hear men calling to each other from the balconies of neighboring houses – “Did you get your notice yet?” On the normally quiet street there was a periodic burr of tires as cars rushed by bearing mobilization couriers.
Attorney Johnnie Hyman had been planning to drive down to Tel Aviv the following morning to represent a defendant in a criminal case, but the sound of the doorbell told him that his legal career was suspended. Hyman’s cool, intelligent features suited his role as battalion staff officer as well as it did courtroom counsel. Before he returned to defending accused criminals, he would learn what it was to kill a man in hand-to-hand struggle.
The movement of Egyptian armored divisions into Sinai and the closure of the Tiran Straits to Eilat-bound shipping had put the entire country on a war footing. The woman broadcaster who normally offered advice on etiquette focused now on the crisis, treating it as sensibly as she handled other social complications. She advised mothers to let their school-age children play where they usually did but to explain to them that if the siren sounded they should go to the nearest shelter where an “auntie” would take care of them. The listeners would, of course, be “aunties” to any child that came into their shelters.
Pervading Jerusalem was a feeling that if war came, it would be a bloody, block-by-block battle in which no quarter would be given. The municipality secretly began bulldozing a hillside near Mount Herzl to prepare gravesites. Some officials expected 2,000 dead in the city. These were the optimists. The pessimists estimated 6,000 dead and several times that number wounded.
PRIME MINISTER Levi Eshkol seated himself at the head of the table and scanned the sober faces of the generals around him. The meeting had been arranged by Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, who had resumed command after 36 hours of self-imposed seclusion. His paralyzing indecision had given way to a clear conviction that there was no alternative to war. The object of this meeting on Sunday, May 28 – two weeks after Egypt had begun to move its army into Sinai – was to convince Eshkol of the urgency of a military response to Nasser’s challenge and to let the prime minister sense the generals’ confidence.
Eshkol opened by telling of being awakened before dawn Saturday by the Soviet ambassador with a warning from Moscow not to undertake war. A message from US President Lyndon Johnson had come the following night, also warning against firing the first shot. Johnson asked the Israelis to give him three more weeks to organize an international flotilla that would break the Tiran blockade. At a meeting with Foreign Minister Abba Eban, Johnson said, “Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go it alone.”
The generals warned against dubious promises of international assistance. Continued inaction was making a mockery of the Israel Defense Force’s deterrence, they argued. The meeting ended angrily, Eshkol taking umbrage at the aggressive tone of the generals. The government had decided to seek a political solution, he said, and affairs of state would not be directed by the military. The Americans would be given the time they asked for.
The generals were infuriated at Eshkol’s decision. The Arabs were growing stronger by the hour – the Egyptians building up their forces in Sinai to the west, while to the east Iraqi and Saudi forces, as well as two battalions of Egyptian commandos, were preparing to bolster the Jordanian front. Meanwhile, Israel’s economy was virtually paralyzed by mobilization and the IDF’s deterrence was dribbling away. A preemptive Israeli air strike was intended to offset the Arabs’ superiority in numbers. But if the Arab air forces struck first, the generals warned, Israel’s war plans would be knocked totally askew. The Egyptian air force had been training for offensive sorties more intensively during the past week than it ever had, they reported. Minister Yigal Allon, siding with the generals, warned that an Egyptian strike could come at any time.
“Whoever is first, by even half an hour, will win the day,” he said.
Tension between the General Staff and the political leadership had reached the point that [David] Ben-Gurion, with his ear to the ground even in retirement, feared an attempt at a military coup.
“That would be the final disaster,” he said to a longtime associate. “I am very anxious.”
The notion of a coup had indeed occurred to at least one general, division commander Ariel Sharon. In testimony recorded in the IDF archives, according to historian Ami Gluska, Sharon would recall telling some of his colleagues that if the cabinet refused to act, “we would have stood up and said, ‘listen, your decisions are endangering the State of Israel, and since the situation is now very grave you are requested to step into the next room and wait there.’ The ministers would have accepted it with a sense of relief, that was my feeling.”
There is no indication that any of his colleagues shared that thought.
In defying the generals, Eshkol showed moral courage and political wisdom. He had internalized Johnson’s message and had taken note of a warning from US Secretary of State Dean Rusk that unilateral action by Israel would be “catastrophic.” Eshkol was looking beyond a war. Israel would need a friendly regime in Washington to help it rearm afterward, he said to the generals. To defy the Americans when war was still not a certainty was to risk what Israel could not afford risking.
Eshkol, however, could not for much longer remain oblivious to the public demand that he relinquish the defense portfolio to someone whose military sagacity it could trust. The name mentioned most frequently in newspaper editorials, in the corridors of the Knesset and on the streets was that of Moshe Dayan.
On Tuesday, May 30, Jordan’s King Hussein flew to Cairo to sign a defense pact with Nasser identical to one Nasser had signed with Syria. The king could not afford to remain isolated any longer. His own people would not accept Jordan sitting out the coming conflict as it had in 1956. Strong pressure which could not be ignored was also coming from within the Jordanian army. As Hussein told the American ambassador, the pact with Nasser was his life insurance. He knew better than anyone that Jordan was not prepared for war. He did not believe the other Arab states were, either. Hussein had long admired Israel for its stability, its purposefulness, and what he termed “its scientific turn of mind” that permitted it to maximize its potential. Since 1963, he had been meeting periodically in secret with Israeli representatives, generally in Europe, in an effort to avoid misunderstandings that could lead to conflict. But with war looming, he could not permit himself to remain outside the Arab ranks.
The Cairo pact called for an Egyptian general to be placed in command of the front along Jordan’s long border with Israel that would include Jordan’s 56,000-man armed forces as well as Iraqi and Saudi forces and two battalions of Egyptian commandos. When Hussein returned from Cairo, a wildly enthusiastic crowd which greeted him at the airport lifted up his car with him in it. Never had he been so popular, and for a while, at least, he, too, was caught up in the enthusiasm.
On the Israeli side of the divided city, virtually the entire civilian population, from first-graders who filled sandbags to the aged, was involved in the preparations for war: cleaning out long-neglected shelters, digging trenches to serve as shelters in neighborhoods that had none, donating blood, taking first-aid courses, sewing burlap into sandbags. High-school youths took over the routes of mailmen who had been mobilized, substituted for keepers at the biblical zoo and volunteered at hospitals. At the Israel Museum, staff members were drilled in removing artifacts from display cases to the basement if war came, and special precautions were taken to shield the Dead Sea Scrolls.
On the other side of the city, there was widespread euphoria in anticipation of a swift victory, but virtually nothing was done to prepare the civilian population for war. Frenzy reached a peak with the arrival of PLO leader Ahmed Shukeiry, who was lifted on the shoulders of the crowd when he visited Al-Aksa Mosque. In an impassioned speech, he said that Israel was on the verge of destruction and that there would be few survivors. Swept away by the rhetoric, his listeners believed they would be on the Israeli side of the city a few hours after the war started, and in Tel Aviv a few hours after that. Israelis in the Mount Scopus garrison heard preachers in nearby mosques exhorting their congregations over loudspeakers to “slaughter and kill.”
Abdullah Schleiffer, an American Jewish convert to Islam living in Jordanian Jerusalem, was appalled at the light-headed confidence all about him. “The atmosphere was magical,” he would write. “No one did anything but stand around, congratulate each other and praise Nasser.”
The Long Island-born Schleiffer, who worked as editor of an English-language newspaper in the Arab city, found the buoyant mood more than bizarre, as if rhetoric alone could win the war about to descend upon them. When Radio Amman made an appeal for blood, a local newsman went to the Red Crescent in Jerusalem as a donor but saw no other civilians. The director, puzzled at the reporter’s presence, asked whether there had been an accident in his family that required a donation of blood from a relative. Residents chortled at reports from Israel of panic-buying, but officials on the Jordanian side of the city took no steps to stock up on food, prepare shelters, collect blood, or ready hospitals for the possibility of mass casualties. Civil defense equipment consisted of little beyond armbands.
Agitated, Schleiffer called on the district governor of Jerusalem, Anwar al-Khatib, who agreed to summon local leaders that afternoon to discuss the situation. At the meeting, committees were formed to shore up the civil defense framework, but little that was tangible would emerge.
MOSHE DAYAN and Uzi Narkiss, commander of the Central Front, stood on the summit of the hill known as The Castel in the Jerusalem Corridor and surveyed the splendid view of the Judean Hills. Through binoculars, it was possible to make out Israeli and Jordanian army units dug into the landscape opposite each other on the approaches to Jerusalem, the Jordanians overlooking the main road linking the capital to the coastal plain. When Dayan suggested broadening the minefield opposite Sheikh Abdul Aziz, the Jordanian position closest to the road, Narkiss gave immediate orders for it to be done.
Dayan had obtained Eshkol’s permission to tour the fronts to familiarize himself with the army’s operational plans. Although he had no jurisdiction in the military sphere, he freely offered advice. Such was his aura of authority that Narkiss related to Dayan’s words as if he were still chief of staff. The upcoming war, said Dayan, must be entirely focused on Egypt. Central Command must keep a low profile and not cause a diversion of forces from the south. “You must not get involved in forays that would embroil us with Jordan.”
Traveling into Jerusalem to tour the city line, Dayan repeated the advice to Col. Eliezer Amitai, commander of the Jerusalem Brigade. In the event of war, the brigade’s role would be strictly defensive, said Dayan. If things went badly in the south, it might be impossible to get help to Jerusalem even if the Israeli enclave on Mount Scopus were in danger. Dayan’s tour was interrupted by a message asking him to proceed immediately to the Prime Minister’s Office in Tel Aviv.
Hussein’s pact with Nasser had changed mind-sets in both Jerusalem and Washington. Eshkol now saw war as inescapable. Two days after the Cairo pact – and only four days after agreeing to refrain from a preemptive strike for three weeks – he formed a war cabinet including opposition leaders. Dayan was appointed defense minister, setting the course for war.
Washington also recognized that the situation had changed. The United States was bogged down in Vietnam, but if it continued to prevent Israel from acting in its own defense as it saw fit, Washington would have a moral obligation to intervene if Israel were attacked.
Israel picked up signs of a softening in Washington’s stance vis-à-vis a preemptive strike, even though officially America’s position was unchanged.
The date for war was fixed on Friday, June 2, the day after Dayan’s appointment, in a small forum that included him, Eshkol and Rabin. The decision to go to war would be put to the cabinet for approval at its regular meeting in two days. If approved, the air force would launch its preemptive strike the following morning, Monday, June 5. Speed was essential. The Iraqi forces designated for the eastern front had not yet reached Jordan, and intelligence reported that Egypt was shoveling troops into Sinai so fast that some units had been without food or water for 48 hours. Israel wanted the war confined to the Egyptian front. No overall battle plan against Jordan had even been formulated.
Khatib drove to Amman on Saturday to request 10,000 rifles for local militias that activists in the Jerusalem district wanted to organize. He met with the strongman in the army, its deputy commander, Sherif Nasser, an uncle of the king.
“Don’t even talk about such matters,” said the general. “We have five brigades to defend Jerusalem. Everything is arranged.”
At the decisive cabinet meeting Sunday morning, several ministers wanted the decision on war put off, but Eshkol said that every day’s
delay meant more casualties. Washington had not flashed a green light, he said, but the light was no longer red. The last speaker was Dayan. If the Egyptians struck at Israel’s air bases (“to do to us what we want to do to them”), which they were known to be contemplating, he said, it would at a stroke eliminate Israel’s principal strategic card. Their reconnaissance flight over Dimona meant that the nuclear reactor, which the Egyptians believed to be about to come on line, would be among the first targets attacked. The deployment of the Egyptian forces showed their intention to cut off the southern Negev and capture Eilat, in conjunction with a Jordanian brigade. Even Jerusalem was a possible target. The Egyptian commando force sent to Jordan could be deployed in Beit Safafa, an Arab village half in Jordan and half in Israeli Jerusalem. “They could go through Beit Safafa into the heart of Jerusalem and perpetrate a massacre.”
The cabinet voted 12-2 for the strike against Egypt.
Monday morning, June 5
At 8:30 a.m. Gen. Odd Bull, commander of the UN Truce Supervision Organization headquartered in Government House in southern Jerusalem, received a phone call from the Israeli Foreign Ministry requesting his presence. The sirens had gone off in the city 40 minutes before and Israel Radio reported heavy clashes on the Egyptian front. Bull arrived at the ministry at 9 a.m. and was handed a message to King Hussein. If Jordan refrained from intervening, it said, Israel would take no warlike steps against her. If Jordan did intervene, Israel would fight with all the means at its disposal.
Hussein received the message at a Jordanian air base.
His brisk response, transmitted to Bull, was that the Israelis had started the war and were now receiving his reply by air. The Jordanian planes had not yet taken off, but they would within half an hour, hitting Netanya, causing little damage and destroying an Israeli transport plane at a small civilian airfield.
The caution that had marked the Jordanian monarch had begun to succumb to the beat of the war drums. The Egyptian High Command informed him that three quarters of the Israeli air force had been destroyed and that the Egyptian army was pushing toward Beersheba. As with Rabin, the awful dilemma of “to fight or not to fight” gave way to relief once the die was cast. Although reverting from a doubt-wracked monarch to a Beduin warrior, he was no longer in command of his own armed forces. Egyptian Gen. Abdul Moneim Riad had arrived on June 1 with a small staff to take command of the Jordanian army. Hussein could overrule Riad’s decisions, but in fact he would leave him in operational control.
The Jordanians opened fire two hours after the war with Egypt had commenced, a sputtering of light arms soon punctuated by shell fire. Khatib relocated from the Old City to a police compound near Wadi Joz where the commander of the brigade defending Jerusalem, Brigadier Ata Ali Haza’a, had established his forward command post. Hussein contacted Khatib there and asked about morale in the city. Morale was high. Radio Cairo was reporting spectacular gains against Israel in the air and on the ground. Hundreds of young men were flooding police stations in Arab Jerusalem to ask for arms. Ata Ali, a stolid Beduin of Syrian origin, had close to 5,000 men at his disposal, but they were of uneven quality. The brigadier was an intelligent but barely literate soldier who had worked his way up through the ranks.
Holding the northern part of the Jordanian line, from Damascus Gate to Ammunition Hill, was the Second King Hussein Battalion, made up largely of East Bank Beduin. The hardest fighting in the coming battle would be in this sector. Another battalion held the Old City, with one company detached to Abu Tor south of the walls and a platoon to Augusta Victoria on the crest of the Mount of Olives. This battalion was made up of Palestinians, as was a third battalion assigned to the southern part of the city and headquartered at Sur Baher.
THE VIEW from Mayor Teddy Kollek’s office window was spectacular. Across the breadth of Jerusalem, dirty plumes of smoke rose into the air and hung for a few moments before dissipating. Kollek’s aides ticked off the places they could recognize being hit: “That one’s by Terra Sancta.... There’s the Kings Hotel.”
From the great bank of smoke from burning scrub drifting over the Hinnom Valley, it seemed as if the Yemin Moshe quarter had been burned to the ground. The flags of foreign consulates and embassies flew high through the haze proclaiming neutrality, but the gesture appeared futile amid the indiscriminate shelling. As Kollek watched, the Jordanian guns seemed to be methodically blowing his city apart. The mayor said he was going down.
Trailed by two aides and a reporter, Kollek took the lead. He moved close to the wall of City Hall until he reached Allenby Square at its rear. The racket of automatic weapons echoed off the buildings, making it impossible to tell where the shooting was coming from. He moved out at a jog, ducking periodically behind parked cars until the others caught up with him.
Inside the border building, residents were sitting on the floor of the entrance hall. They seemed to be bearing up but were plainly happy to see the mayor. “What’s going to be?” a woman asked. He assured her everything would be all right. “Our fellows are fighting well in the south.”
When Kollek mounted to the second floor, a sergeant warned the visitors to stay away from the windows. His men had taken over apartments facing the Jordanian positions on the Old City wall. In one room a soldier with a bazooka stood on a bed, his boots sinking into the white sheet, a homely metaphor for the brutality of war. He gently nudged aside a window curtain. Forty yards away was a sandbagged position on the Old City wall. As Kollek was leaving the building, the whump of the bazooka was heard, and a gust propelled by the backblast pursued the visitors down the corridor.
THE GOALS the Israeli cabinet set out in authorizing war made no reference to territorial gain: “The government has decided to take military action which will liberate Israel from the military noose tightening around it.” However, the battlefield successes this first day of war began to stir thoughts for the first time about Jerusalem’s Old City. In the cabinet, Menachem Begin called for “liberating” it, and Yigal Allon said that Israel should either annex it or ensure access to the Jewish holy places.
At this point, this was still a minority view. The ministers well remembered the pressure placed on Israel after the 1956 Sinai Campaign by both Washington and Moscow to evacuate Sinai, pressure so strong that Ben- Gurion felt he had no choice but to obey immediately. It seemed clear to Eshkol and most of his ministers that the same thing would happen if Israel laid claim to any new territory after this war.
Eshkol told the cabinet that first priority was the Sinai front and the capture of Sharm e-Sheikh, which controlled the Tiran Straits. “In the Jordanian sector,” he said, “we are going forward in the knowledge that we will be obliged to pull out from [Jordanian] Jerusalem and the West Bank.”
Ironically it was the religious ministers who were most outspoken in opposing annexation of the Old City, expressing concern that the world would never accept Jewish rule over the Christian holy places. Interior Minister Moshe Haim Shapira, head of the National Religious Party, was the most outspoken. The best solution, he suggested, was internationalization.
“To Jordan we will not return it,” he said of the Old City. “To the world, yes.”
Even Dayan, the most daring of the ministers, was initially ambiguous about the Old City. His long-time aide, Haim Yisraeli, told Ben-Gurion that the defense minister was disinclined to capture the Old City because he feared that international pressure would force Israel to withdraw.
“Moshe doesn’t want to have to give back the Western Wall,” he said.
Ben-Gurion had indicated his own ambiguity four years before when, as prime minister, he ordered the army to prepare plans for linking up with Mount Scopus in the event that King Hussein was toppled by an upheaval then under way in Jordan. According to Narkiss, who was involved in the planning, Ben-Gurion stipulated that the Old City would be dealt with separately. It was Narkiss’s impression at the time that Ben-Gurion “wished to avoid becoming entangled in the Old City.”
AN HOUR after the fighting in Jerusalem began, Ata Ali was ordered to occupy the Government House compound, Bull’s headquarters. He directed his battalion commander in Sur Baher to assign two companies to the mission. Startled by the order to occupy the UN compound, Khatib put a call through to Amman to ask whether prime minister Sa’ad Juma knew of it. Fifteen minutes later Amman called him back with an affirmative reply.
The move, which had originated in Cairo with the Egyptian chief of staff, Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer, touched off an angry exchange at Jordanian military headquarters. Amer had directed Riad to move the 60th Armored Brigade via Jerusalem to the Hebron area in the southern part of the West Bank. From there it would be in position to support Egyptian forces that Amer said would be crossing the Israeli border and advancing on Beersheba, headquarters of Israel’s Southern Command.
Senior Jordanian commanders protested vehemently. They had understood that their country’s participation would be limited – unless there was tangible evidence of Egyptian successes – to a static exchange of fire aimed at pinning down Israeli forces. Furthermore, the road the tanks would have to take to Hebron skirted Government House in Jerusalem’s demilitarized zone. To secure the road from Israeli attack, Jordanian troops would have to occupy UN territory and perhaps Israeli territory abutting it. Should Israel defeat Egypt, it would have an excuse for turning its full force on Jordan.
If the tide of battle did permit a Jordanian ground attack, the Jordanian general staff had its own priorities. The first was Mount Scopus, a bone in their throat for two decades. More ambitious was a plan to cut Israeli Jerusalem off from the coastal plain by driving across the Jerusalem Corridor midway. The object was not to capture Israeli Jerusalem, but to besiege it, as it was besieged in 1948, and hold it ransom for Jordanian territory Israel was likely to capture elsewhere in the West Bank. The Egyptians were pushing a plan that would benefit only Egypt while exposing Jordan to great danger.
The leadership in Amman had become increasingly uncomfortable with Riad since his arrival. His relaxed manner was seen as inappropriate to the drama swirling around them. Hussein would afterward speak of Riad’s “serenity” and note that “no matter what was going on, he always found time to take a nap in a room set aside for him on the first floor of headquarters.”
Less restrained was former prime minister Wasfi Tal, a Hussein loyalist. On paper, Tal noted, the Egyptian general’s credentials were superb – attendance at a British military college, tours of duty in the US, Soviet Union and France, chief of staff of the United Arab Command, a military roof organization established by the Arab League. Yet according to Tal, something was lacking in Riad’s professional mind-set. He did not know the army he was now commanding or the terrain on which he would have to maneuver. Riad dismissed out of hand valid objections to his orders by senior Jordanian officers.
“Riad was obstinate,” Tal said, “not so much from a desire to impose his authority as out of disinterest: he didn’t much care. Perhaps his confidence in Egypt’s military power made him detached. Or perhaps it was his incompetence, which could also make for a certain detachment.”
The differences of opinion between Jordanian and Egyptian officers in the Operations Room over the order to capture Government House reached a point where the two sides shouted at each other and exchanged insults. But Hussein declined to overrule Riad’s order.
THE NEWS of the Arab seizure of Government House galvanized the Israeli command. The attitude toward Jordan had been gradually shifting since the early hours of the war. The chief concern then had been to keep things as quiet as possible on the Jordanian front while the bulk of the nation’s strength was committed in the south.
By late morning, indications of amazing success began pouring into the underground war room in Tel Aviv. The Egyptian air force had effectively ceased to exist, and the Arab air forces to the east were in the process of being similarly drubbed. On the ground, the armored divisions of the Southern Command were breaking through the Egyptian defenses. The Jordanians were intensifying fire, not only at military targets but at population centers, just as Israel’s need for restraint on the Jordanian front was beginning to lift. Hussein had chosen to come into the game when the ultimate outcome could already be read in the columns of smoke rising over airfields from Sinai to Upper Egypt.
As Jerusalem Brigade units were about to counterattack at Government House in the early afternoon, they were ordered to remain in place. Narkiss was informed that Rabin and Dayan had agreed to a renewed appeal for a cease-fire by Bull if Jordan accepted it, too. A counterattack would broaden the war on the Jordanian front to no purpose, Narkiss was told. The mind-set of the Israeli high command was still focused on Egypt. However, when Jordanian fire had not ceased an hour after Israel accepted Bull’s call, Narkiss was ordered at 3:15 p.m. to resume the attack. There would now be no turning back.
DESPITE HUSSEIN’S pact with Nasser, few in Israel’s military and political hierarchy had believed there would be a full-scale war with Jordan. What changed the picture was an announcement on Cairo Radio that Mount Scopus had been captured. The report was attributed to a Jordanian official in Amman, but a quick check with the garrison determined that no attack on Scopus had been launched. That, however, was small comfort. The Arabs had announced the capture of Government House before taking it. The announcement about Mount Scopus was therefore seen as a statement of intent.
The takeover of Government House could be regarded as a local incident, but an attack on the Scopus garrison was a game changer. The Israeli army was certain to move to its defense, and that meant breaking through the most formidable Jordanian defenses in Jerusalem. Once the restraints of static warfare were loosened, there was no telling where affairs would end. Narkiss was clear about one thing: If a war of movement developed, he wanted the Old City.
Ata Ali had indeed been preparing an attack on Scopus this first day of battle, but not with his own men. A plan he had drawn up with the mukhtar, or headman, of the village of Isawiya, adjacent to Scopus, called for villagers to swarm the Israeli enclave. The villagers had no military training, but Ata Ali, stretched for manpower, would provide them with rifles and artillery support. The mukhtar was summoned by Ata Ali early in the day but did not reach the brigadier’s command post until after dark, saying that heavy fire had obliged him to take a roundabout route. Ata Ali decided to postpone the operation until the next day.
There had been ample opportunity for Hussein to halt the slide into all-out war, but he ignored repeated requests for a cease-fire. When an Israeli member of the Mixed Armistice Committee passed on to his opposite number in Jordan via a UN official a cautionary message, saying, “I wish to bring to your attention certain information – that the Egyptian Air Force has been wiped out,” the Jordanian officer’s contemptuous reaction to an aide – according to Narkiss, who later met the aide – was, “We’ll soon be in Tel Aviv.”
Hussein’s principal enemy this day was not the Israelis but the Egyptian leadership, which was providing him with a grotesquely distorted picture of Egypt’s supposed successes in order to keep Jordan in the war, a deceit that would cost Hussein half his kingdom. Nasser telephoned the king at 12:30 p.m. to report that the Egyptian air force was bombing Israel and that the Egyptian army was attacking across the border – this at a time when in effect he no longer had an air force and his army was reeling. The absence of any Israeli claims of military success seemed to lend substance to the Egyptian High Command’s claims.
IN HIS headquarters at Ramle, Narkiss studied the large map of the Central Command’s sector on the wall of the Operations Room. The Jordanians in the Hebron Hills to the south were shelling Israeli settlements in the Lachish region. The brigade commanders to the north reported Jordanian Long Toms hitting the outskirts of Tel Aviv. It was, however, the Jerusalem area that held Narkiss’s attention, particularly the rectangular outline of the Scopus perimeter.
No one had imagined in 1948 when the enclave was established behind Jordanian lines that generations of reservists would be guarding the shells of the Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital as if they were still the vibrant symbols of a reborn Jewish homeland. Twice a month, convoys under UN protection brought up supplies and rotated part of the garrison. Reservists buffeted by icy winds on winter nights as they mounted guard around the darkened enclave wondered whether there was any earthly sense to prolonging this territorial anomaly which consumed thousands of man-years of reserve duty without producing any evident benefits.
However, the Scopus enclave, just out of reach on the highest ridge in Jerusalem, constituted a visible symbol of Israel’s aspirations in Jerusalem even more than the Western Wall, which Israelis had not seen since 1948.
Looking at the map, Narkiss believed that the historical moment for which the long-dormant enclave seemed to have been waiting had arrived. It would be the fulcrum for prying open Jerusalem.
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