King of the hill

Ammunition Hill is more than just a tourist attraction, as chairman Shimon Cahaner is quick to point out.

jp.services1 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
It's not every day you get to meet a genuine hero. Although Shimon "Kacha" Cahaner would probably balk at that particular epithet, the man is something of a legend. Cahaner, now 72 years old, is chairman of Ammunition Hill national memorial site, dedicated to the memory of the 37 IDF soldiers who died in the bloody battle fought there during the Six Day War. Established in 1975, the site is also a symbol of unified Jerusalem. But Cahaner is not only the boss of the important site, which was formerly a Jordanian police headquarters and ammunition dump - hence the name. He was also a commander of a paratroopers' unit that was among the first groups of soldiers to break into the Old City on the second day of the war. This year, the site and the rest of the country will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the reunification of Israel's capital.After the 1948 War of Independence and until 1967, the Old City was governed by Jordan and Jews were prevented from visiting the Western Wall and the other holy sites there. Cahaner remembers the moment he entered the Old City like it was yesterday. "Actually, we shouldn't have been there at all," he says. "We were initially sent to the Sinai, and were going to attack El-Arish, but suddenly we were reassigned to Jerusalem." Arriving on the first afternoon of the war, Cahaner says things were anything but orderly. "Israel tried to keep Jordan out of the war. We told King Hussein we wouldn't attack Jordan if he didn't attack us." But Hussein thought otherwise and his army launched an offensive on the Israeli-controlled parts of the city. "We got to Jerusalem at 7 p.m.," Cahaner recalls. "We didn't have enough equipment or ammunition, and we were fighting on all fronts. By noon on the second day we had completely surrounded the Old City, and had taken the areas in the east of Jerusalem too." Before attacking the Old City the IDF did its utmost to convince the Jordanian forces there not to fight. "We had loudspeakers and, for hours, we spoke to them across the walls and explained to them that the Old City would suffer heavy damage." But the entreaties fell on deaf ears and, a few hours later, the Israeli forces broke in through the Lions' Gate. It was a momentous event. "I am not a religious person but you can't ignore the history of the Jewish people. Everywhere you turned in the Old City there was some place of religious significance. It was definitively a special occasion. "The Jordanians fought hard. The fighting in the narrow alleyways there is etched on my mind. We lost 28 of our battalion in the first two days. They were all reservists with families. It was a mixture of euphoria and sadness." If there is one lesson Cahaner has taken with him from the war, and the other military campaigns in which he fought, it is the importance of imparting hard-won wisdom to others - particularly the younger generation. "The Chinese have a saying: 'If you want to take care of yesterday, plant rice. If you want to take care of today, plant a fruit tree. But if you want to take care of tomorrow, you have to educate your children.' That's the most important thing today." He knows all about wars. As a member of the elite 101 commando unit, Cahaner took part in numerous dangerous missions in the 1950s and '60s and, as well as his frontline actions in 1967, he crossed the Suez Canal into Egypt during the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and was a paratroop brigade during the first Lebanon War in 1982. He was also seriously wounded in a military operation in the Negev in the mid-'50s. But the septuagenarian, who mostly earns his keep as a cattle breeder on a farm near Beit She'an in the North, feels there is a lot more teaching to be done to get the message across. "It is crucially important to enlighten youth about what Jerusalem means, how life was before the city was reunited and the role of Jerusalem in Jewish heritage. We get about 60,000 visitors at Ammunition Hill every year, but at least half the country has no idea of what a divided Jerusalem meant. I would like youngsters to talk to the people who were ordinary soldiers in the Six Day War, to hear about the experiences and traumas of the battlefield, what motivated them to keep on fighting - their responsibility to the country, their families and comrades-in-arms." For Cahaner, one of the most important aspects of Ammunition Hill, as a symbol of the rebirth of the Jewish homeland in Israel, is how it shows how the Jews were able to take control of their own destiny, with their own army. "There is a sort of a triangle in Jerusalem," he explains. "There is the Temple Mount and Western Wall, which symbolize the miracle of the rebirth of the Jewish nation. There is Yad Vashem - representing the great tragedy for our people of the Holocaust. And there is Ammunition Hill, which is a symbol of a people taking its fate in its own hands." Ten years ago Cahaner had a chance to share his own recollections of the battle for the Old City of Jerusalem with some of the people who fought on the other side. "I hosted some of the Jordanian officers I fought against," he recalls. "It was a very moving experience, and I think it was important for them to see what Israel looks like today. They were amazed by what they saw. I think we've come a long way, but we must never forget our past."