Accidental conquerors

Capture of old city did not figure in any battle plans during Six Day War.

six day war 521 (photo credit: GPCI)
six day war 521
(photo credit: GPCI)
If Israel had its way at the start of the Six Day War, Jerusalem might still be a divided city and the West Bank still under Arab sovereignty.
On the eve of the war, Moshe Dayan had told the commander of the Jordanian front, Gen. Uzi Narkiss, as they surveyed Jordanian positions outside Jerusalem, that the upcoming war would be focused entirely on Egypt. “You must avoid any action that would entangle us with Jordan,” said Dayan, about to take over as defense minister.
With the bulk of its army deployed on the Sinai border, the last thing Israel wanted was another front opening to the east.
If Jordan opened fire, Narkiss’s forces were to respond only in kind – rifle fire for rifle fire, mortars for mortars – and avoid escalation. If a ground war nevertheless erupted, any Jordanian territory captured would be returned after the war, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol told his Cabinet, just as Sinai had been returned to Egypt after the 1956 Sinai Campaign under international pressure.
With the launch of Israel’s preemptive strike against Egypt on the morning of June 5, the UN’s senior representative in Jerusalem, Gen.
Odd Bull, was summoned to the Foreign Ministry and given an urgent message for Jordan’s King Hussein. If Jordan kept the peace, it said, Israel would too. If Jordan intervened, Israel would respond in strength.
The king had already made his choice.
On May 30 he had flown to Cairo to sign a defense pact with President Gamal Abdel Nasser. On his return, an exultant crowd, gripped by war fever, lifted his car at the airport with the king in it. Never had he been so popular. The pact with Nasser, Hussein told the American ambassador, was his “insurance policy.”
It was, however, a policy that carried a high premium, obliging Hussein to turn over command of his army to an Egyptian general, Abdul Moneim Riad. Two hours after fighting began with Egypt, Jordanian guns opened up all along the eastern front. Riad’s mission, to draw off Israeli forces from Sinai, was one that served Cairo’s interests, not Amman’s.
Jordanian commanders wanted only a static exchange of fire, unless it became clear that Egypt was winning. However, Riad immediately ordered a tank brigade in Jericho to proceed via Hebron to the southern part of the West Bank in order to threaten Beersheba, headquarters of Israel’s Southern Command.
To get to Hebron, the tanks would have to take a road that skirted Government House, Gen. Bull’s headquarters in southern Jerusalem.
It was decided in Amman to occupy the UN compound, which abutted Israeli territory, despite the likely diplomatic repercussions in order to shield the road from Israeli attack.
Artillery pounded the Jewish half of the divided city for hours but Israel’s reaction, in keeping with Dayan’s directive, was restrained.
However, when a company of Jordanian soldiers crossed into Israeli territory from the UN compound, Narkiss ordered the Jerusalem Brigade, composed of local reservists, to drive them back.
Statement of intent
What abruptly changed the nature of the confrontation from a limited skirmish to all-out war was a report on Cairo Radio that Jordan had captured Mount Scopus in northern Jerusalem.
Since 1948, Israel had maintained a 120-man garrison on Scopus, an enclave behind Jordanian lines. The garrison was rotated monthly under UN protection. Cairo Radio was in fact mistaken – there had been no attack on Scopus. But the report was taken in Israel, correctly, as a statement of intent.
A paratroop brigade commanded by Col.
Mordechai (Motta) Gur was dispatched to Jerusalem with orders to break through the formidable Jordanian defenses and link up with the Scopus garrison. Narkiss also ordered a mechanized brigade to push its tanks and half-tracks through the hills north of the city and block Jordanian tanks coming up from Jericho before they reached Scopus.
As the day progressed and the dimensions of Israel’s success against Egypt became clear, mindsets began to shift. In the Cabinet, proposals were voiced for the capture of Jerusalem’s Old City, which had been on nobody’s agenda when the war started that morning.
The Old City was strangely remote from the High Command’s thinking, as if its capture was too much to aspire to. Contingency plans existed for attacking virtually any significant target in the countries surrounding Israel but there was no plan for taking the Old City, which was literally a stone’s throw from Israeli Jerusalem. There was not even a suggestion of which of its seven gates was to be breached. The only contingency plan for Jerusalem, as it were, was the Biblical call for its Messianic redemption.
Capture of the Old City was opposed by ministers who feared that the world – particularly the Vatican – would never accept Jewish rule over the most sacred sites in Christianity. They noted that Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion had caved in to Soviet and American demands that he pull out of Sinai in 1956. And Jerusalem counted more than the sands of Sinai. Most surprisingly, the strongest opposition came from the religious ministers, whose followers would in time lead the settlement movement. The head of the National Religious Party, Interior Minister Moshe Haim Shapira, proposed internationalization of the Old City. “To Jordan, we will not return it,” he said. “To the world, yes.” Eshkol issued a non-committal statement saying the Old City would be taken in order to put a stop to the fire coming from it – leaving open the possibility that withdrawal might follow.
Israel had long regarded Jordan’s Arab Legion as the best army in the Arab world.
The fledgling Israeli army in 1948 had been unable to dislodge it from any fixed position. Since then, however, the Arab Legion had shed its name – it was now the Jordanian Army – and replaced its British officers with Jordanians. The governor of Jordanian Jerusalem, Anwar al- Khatib, was taken aback during a visit to an Old City hospital when wounded soldiers with whom he talked cursed their officers for deserting them during the battle.
There were almost no officers among the wounded filling the Jordanian hospitals.
On the Israeli side, officers were at the forefront of the fighting and took disproportionate casualties. Half the paratroopers fighting on Ammunition Hill, the main Jordanian strongpoint, were either killed or wounded within a few hours. Among the 14 officers who led them onto the hill, the ratio was even higher – four killed and six wounded. In the hospitals on the Israeli side of the city, wounded soldiers often asked that their officers be treated first.
By the second evening of the war, the capture of the Old City had become inevitable as the dynamics of battle carried the paratroopers to its gates. Before dawn, the Jordanian commander, Brigadier Ata Ali Haza’a, informed Governor Khatib that he was pulling out. All but two of his officers had deserted. Without them, he said, he could not fight a battle with the 500 men remaining. In the last hour of darkness, the battalion departed on foot through the one gate that remained open and set out for the Jordan River.
A few hours later, Gur’s half-track burst through Lion’s Gate into the Old City.
Israel had concluded, almost as an afterthought, that the return to ancient Jerusalem was a dictate of history that a Jewish state could not ignore.