The battle for Jerusalem: Part 2

The Old City was not on Israel’s agenda when the Six Day War started.

Conquering the Temple Mount 521 (photo credit: Bamahane/ Jerusalem Post archives)
Conquering the Temple Mount 521
(photo credit: Bamahane/ Jerusalem Post archives)
Following are excerpts from a revised, eBook edition of The Battle for Jerusalem: an unintended conquest that echoes still by Abraham Rabinovich. The newly published book is available on Amazon.
Members of the cabinet living on the coastal plain had driven up to Jerusalem during the day to attend a meeting in the Knesset.
Their cars were incongruously mixed in with the armored brigade of Col. Uri Ben- Ari, which Uzi Narkiss [commander of the Central Front] had ordered to flank the Jordanian line in Jerusalem by pushing through the hills north of the city, then swinging east. A few miles before Jerusalem, the traffic sorted itself out – the tanks and the infantry-carrying half-tracks turning left to the war, and the ministers continuing straight on to Jerusalem to decide the direction the war would take.
The Knesset building was filled with excited parliamentarians, political figures and journalists exchanging rumor for speculation. The major subject was Jerusalem. Would – should – the army take the Old City? That was also the principal item on the agenda of the cabinet meeting in the building’s air-raid shelter. Renewal of Jordanian shelling could clearly be heard as the meeting got under way. Two ministers from opposite ends of the political spectrum forcefully advocated the immediate capture of the walled city – Menachem Begin on the right wing and Yigal Allon, of the Kibbutz Movement, on the left. Allon had commanded the Palmah in the War of Independence and may, like Narkiss, have felt a sense of responsibility for the failure to hold the Jewish Quarter.
Both Allon and Begin said history would not forgive the government if it did not exploit this opportunity for restoring Jewish sovereignty over ancient Jerusalem, although Allon raised the possibility that Israel might make do with access to the Jewish holy places. Three other ministers pointed out how David Ben-Gurion’s determination to retain Sinai after the 1956 campaign had dissolved overnight, after US president Dwight D. Eisenhower said it was unacceptable and Moscow made dire threats. Jerusalem, they pointed out, meant more to the world than the sands of Sinai. Would the Christian world, particularly the Vatican, accept Jewish sovereignty over Christiandom’s holiest places? Perhaps, suggested one minister, it would be best to leave Jerusalem as an aspiration to be prayed for.
Foreign minister Abba Eban proposed that the capture of the Old City be presented simply as a military response to the Jordanian shelling, deferring the question of holding on to it or not for later consideration.
[Prime minister Levi] Eshkol adopted this pragmatic approach in his statement, which the cabinet endorsed: “We are going to take the Old City of Jerusalem in order to remove the danger of bombardment and the shelling incessantly being carried out by Jordan.”
Most of the ministers were convinced, however, that once the flag had been raised over the Old City, Israel could never lower it without disavowing a central aspect of its national being. The memory of Jerusalem had sustained the Jews as a people in their epic wanderings. Could the reborn Jewish state refuse the opportunity to return to it? [Defense minister] Moshe Dayan did not attend the meeting. Close to midnight, he met with Eshkol in Tel Aviv and obtained his agreement to three war goals – the destruction of the Egyptian armored formations in Sinai, the capture of Sharm e- Sheikh, and the capture of Jordanian Jerusalem and the West Bank ridge line. He did not propose capturing the entire West Bank. Dayan insisted that there be no attempt to conquer the Old City by direct attack; it would be too costly to battle through its alleys, while damage to the holy places would be blamed on Israel.
Instead, the army would lay siege to it until it fell. Eshkol accepted Dayan’s order of priorities, but said, “The government wants the Old City.”
THE FIRST encouraging news the Israeli public received since the start of the war that morning was buried in a nighttime broadcast from the Knesset, when Eshkol reported for the first time that the fighting in the south was on enemy territory. He also hinted that the Egyptian air force had taken a beating, but gave no details. Israel had kept silent about its successes until now in order to avoid calls in the UN for a cease-fire, permitting Arab claims of success to reverberate unchallenged. It was not until 1:15 a.m. Tuesday that Israelis received their first clear indication of what had been happening in the past 17 hours.
Addressing the nation on Israel Radio, chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin and Air Force commander Mordecai Hod summed up the remarkable day. Despite the hour, there was hardly anybody in the country over the age of 10 who was not listening.
Speaking calmly, Rabin reported that Israeli troops had reached El Arish in Sinai.
He announced that Jenin, on the west bank of the Jordan, had fallen, indicating for the first time penetration of the Jordanian front. Then Hod came on. In dry tones, he outlined the losses inflicted on the Arab air forces, letting fall the incredible figure of 400 enemy planes destroyed. In case listeners thought they had heard wrong, he proceeded to give a detailed breakdown of losses by each of the Arab countries (300 Egyptian planes destroyed, 20 of them in the air…), including Jordan, Syria and Iraq.
Israeli losses were given as 19 planes.
THE EDITORS of the English-language Jerusalem Post, the only daily published in the capital, were old hands at getting out a newspaper under adverse conditions. The building was blown up by a bomb in 1948, but the next edition had come out on schedule in mimeographed form.
Although many of the staff members had been mobilized, those remaining managed to meet deadline on this first night of war.
During the crisis period the paper had published instructions about sandbagging windows, but nobody had bothered to sandbag the numerous windows in the newsroom where editors and reporters were concentrated throughout the day’s shelling.
In the evening, mayor Teddy Kollek came up to dictate a message to the citizens of Jerusalem. He stayed for a while, chatting with the staff. About 1 a.m., an hour after most of the journalists had left and the presses in the basement had begun to thunder with the morning edition, a shell crashed through the roof, two stories above the newsroom. Journalists still in the building took shelter in the basement alongside the presses. They were comforted by the way the pressmen went calmly about their work, impervious to the explosions outside.
On the streets, darkness was almost total.
The last sliver of the dying moon would not rise until 2:35 a.m. Until then, there was only pale starlight and a dull red glow clinging to the horizon in the direction of Ammunition Hill, where Israeli artillery had set a storehouse ablaze. Anyone venturing out had to feel his way through empty streets by touching the sides of buildings and tapping with his toes to find the curb. Journalists who wished to send stories abroad felt their way like blind men to the censor’s office and then to the nearby central post office, where the telex office worked through the night.
IN ARAB Jerusalem, most of the artillery fire during the day was outgoing rather than incoming. But visions that morning of victory toasts in the Tel Aviv Hilton by nightfall had given way to dark thoughts that were getting darker by the hour. The Israelis were now in control of all southern Jerusalem after Jerusalem Brigade units had gone on from Government House to seize Sur Baher. At Ata Ali Haza’a’s command post, reports were coming in of officers deserting. The brigadier was unable to make radio contact with West Bank military headquarters, and it was not clear whether or not reinforcements promised him were on the way. The Israelis had not yet attacked along the critical northern part of the line, but an attempt to link up from there with Mount Scopus could be expected.
Shortly after dark, a message came in from Amman that reinforcements, including tanks, were on their way up from Jericho.
Around 9 p.m., flares could be seen from the direction of the Jericho road and loud explosions were heard in the distance.
By 11 p.m., the flares and explosions had faded away. Amman called shortly afterward to report that the relief column had been attacked from the air and wiped out. Shaken, Ata Ali requested that reinforcements be dispatched to Jerusalem from Hebron to the south and Ramallah to the north. He was told that both areas were braced for an Israeli attack and could spare no troops.
The brigade commander was overwhelmed by the situation. His small staff had remained at the suburb of Azariya, from which communications with Amman were better. Virtually alone at his forward command post in the city, the veteran soldier was confronting a catastrophic situation he had not imagined. Fortunately for him, a clear-headed presence had arrived at the command post in the unlikely form of the director of tourism for Jordanian Jerusalem.
Hazim Khalidi was a member of a distinguished Jerusalem Arab family which had produced scholars and officials for generations. He had returned to Jerusalem just the year before, after a 30-year absence that included service as a staff officer with the British army in the Second World War. He had also been an instructor at the Syrian army staff college and an executive with a British oil firm. He had come to Ata Ali’s headquarters with governor Anwar al-Khatib, whom he had been informally advising since the crisis began. Assuming the same advisory role with the brigadier, Khalidi urged him to tell Amman that he could not hold out and that another relief column must be dispatched by forced march along a secondary route to avoid the Israeli planes.
The absence of brigade liaison officers at the command post made it clear to Khalidi that there were not five brigades defending Jerusalem, as Khatib had been told in Amman, just Ata Ali’s.
Khatib refused at first to believe him. After midnight, Khalidi escorted the governor to the Ritz Hotel, about 100 yards from the command post, where they booked rooms in the hope of getting a few hours of sleep. The Israelis had still not attacked.
NARKISS HAD been reinforced at dusk by a paratroop reserve brigade commanded by Col. Mordecai (Motta) Gur, whose planned drop into Sinai had been canceled because of the swift advance of the ground forces. Uncertain of Ben-Ari’s tanks’ ability to reach Scopus before the garrison was overrun, Narkiss ordered the paratroopers to attack toward Scopus by the most direct route – through the heart of the Jordanian defenses around Ammunition Hill.
Out on Shmuel Hanavi Street, a Jerusalem Brigade intelligence officer returning from a forward post about 2:30 a.m. was transfixed by a strange, keening sound suddenly audible through the explosions. It was a moment before he recognized it with a chill as the full-throated shout of men charging into battle.
The paratroopers were going in.
FOR KING HUSSEIN, the last illusion was dispelled at dawn Tuesday when Gen. Abdul Moneim Riad presented him with an honest assessment of the situation.
The general had finally understood that the reports he had been getting from his own headquarters in Cairo about Egyptian successes were fantasy.
There were three options, Riad told Hussein.
The king could press for an immediate cease-fire through diplomatic channels. He could order a pullout from the West Bank that would be completed by dusk. Or he could fight on. If the choice were to fight on, his army would be destroyed by the following day.
Hussein told Riad to ask Nasser what he thought advisable. Even at this dire moment, when the fate of his country and his own fate were swaying in the wind, the Jordanian monarch refused to emerge from under Nasser’s wing. To cling to his subservience to the Egyptian leader could lead to his demise at Israel’s hand. But to defy Nasser, hero of the Arab world, would lead to his demise with near certainty – most likely, Hussein had reason to believe, at the hands of his own people.
Riad got through to Nasser and then had him patched through to Hussein. In the telephone conversation, which Israeli intelligence recorded, Nasser’s tone had lost much of its swagger, but unlike Riad, he was still trying to wring the last ounce of utility out of his unfortunate ally through deception.
Nasser: I understand that His Majesty, our brother, wants to know if we are fighting on all fronts. [Garble.] Should we announce that the United States is collaborating with Israel? Should we say the United States and Britain or only the United States? Hussein: The United States and Britain.
Nasser: Does Britain have aircraft carriers?... Good, King Hussein will publish a communiqué on this and I’ll publish a communiqué.... Don’t give up....
Brother, you must be strong.
Hussein: Yes, Mr. President, I understand. If you have any ideas, no matter what...
Nasser: We will fight with everything we have.... If we had a few problems at the beginning, so what? We’ll come out of it all right. Our planes have been bombing the Israeli airfields since early morning.
Hussein: A thousand thanks. Stay well.
THE BRAVERY of the Jordanian soldiers on Ammunition Hill and elsewhere in northern Jerusalem would save Jordan’s honor, but not the reputation of its arms. Bereft of its British officers and with its tough Beduin core of regulars diluted with other demographic elements, the once-formidable Arab Legion had become an army much like any of the other Arab armies Israel knew. Even though the Jordanian battalion facing the paratroopers fought far more skillfully than those who fought in the Government House area, the Israelis could rarely sense the coordinating hand of Jordanian officers opposite them.
The paucity of officers among the casualties was striking. At St. Joseph’s Hospital on the Jordanian side of the city, staff reported that there were no officers at all among the many wounded. When Khatib visited Government Hospital in the Old City, he was appalled to hear wounded men cursing their officers for deserting in the midst of the battle.
On the Israeli side, it was the performance of the officers in the field that carried the day, particularly platoon leaders who were consistently at the forefront of the battle. The overall casualty rate of Israeli troops on Ammunition Hill was about 50 percent, but for officers it was significantly higher: Of the 14 officers who fought on the hill, four were killed and six wounded. In Israeli hospital corridors, where wounded waited on stretchers to be brought to the operating table, soldiers often asked that their officers, lying nearby, be treated first. It was not deference to rank, but respect for courage.
THE POSSIBILITY of a cease-fire was on the minds of cabinet ministers meeting in Tel Aviv Tuesday evening. Allon and Begin urged an immediate attack on the Old City before the international community tied Israel’s hands. Most of the ministers, however, accepted Dayan’s arguments for laying siege until the white flags went up. Not all were yet reconciled to Israel’s annexation of the Old City after its capture.
Education Minister Zalman Aranne warned against including the Old City within the boundaries of Israel lest the world demand the entire city’s internationalization, including the Jewish city.
A request for a cease-fire from King Hussein had been passed on to the Israeli government via the American ambassadors in Amman and Tel Aviv.
Interior minister Moshe Haim Shapira urged that the feeler not be rejected out of hand. Dayan, however, rebuffed the idea. The defense minister said he would be willing to discuss peace terms with Hussein, but not a cease-fire.
At 3 a.m Wednesday, Ata Ali entered Khatib’s office adjacent to the Temple Mount. There was no electricity, and the two men sat in darkness that was relieved periodically by light from falling flares.
They could hear the amplified sound of Israeli psychological warfare teams outside the walls, urging residents to hang out white flags. Ata Ali’s report was blunt: “The battle for Jerusalem is lost.”
There was no more hope of a relief column reaching the city or of a counterattack. The brigades in Ramallah and Hebron, to the north and south of Jerusalem, had been ordered to retreat. All his officers had deserted except for Major Kraishan, commander of the northern battalion, and a lieutenant.
The troops were demoralized and exhausted and could not be controlled without their officers. He had no more communication with Amman. Under the circumstances, said the brigadier, he had no option but to retreat in order to save his men.
Khatib was stunned. “Is this your own decision?” he asked.
It was, said the officer. “I have no more communication with the outside world at all.”
Recalling the moment in his memoirs, Khatib wrote: “A long silence followed. I did not see his face given the darkness but I could hear the pain in his voice.”
An hour before, Riad had issued a directive from Amman calling on the troops in Jerusalem “to fight to the last man.” It is not clear if Ata Ali heard it or whether he would have obeyed if he had. Khatib tried to persuade him to fight on and to arm the civilian population, with local notables serving as officers. Even armed civilians could put up an effective fight in a maze like the Old City. Ata Ali dismissed the option.
“All you’ll be doing is destroying Jerusalem,” he said. “Jerusalem will definitely be assaulted by dawn, and my troops are in no condition to resist.”
The officer invited Khatib to join him, but the governor declined. “If it is the will of Allah that I should die, I would not want to die anywhere else.”
Meeting with non-commissioned officers waiting outside, Ata Ali asked them to notify all units in the Old City that they were pulling out. The troops were to make their way to the Dung Gate swiftly and without calling attention to themselves. Shortly before first light, Ata Ali led several hundred soldiers out of the Old City and started on the trek to Jericho via Abu Dis.
After Ata Ali left his office, Khatib sat down, unable to talk. His adviser, Khalidi, fearing that the governor would suffer a heart attack, gave him sedatives.
Khatib said he wanted to be left alone for 15 minutes and asked Khalidi to act on his behalf in the meantime. Outside the building, distraught civilians, many of them armed, were demanding to know why the troops were pulling out.
“Men cannot be forced to fight,” Khalidi told them.
Instead of shouting, he said, it would be best if they themselves mounted the walls. Some heeded his words.
When the governor emerged, he asked Khalidi to assume responsibility for the defense of the Old City.
AT 7:30 a.m., Gen. Haim Bar-Lev walked into Narkiss’s forward command post. He had helicoptered up from Tel Aviv and announced that the government had authorized the Old City attack to proceed since the UN was expected to call for a cease-fire in a few hours.
“You are to take the Old City, but with saichel [sense],” said Bar-Lev. The General Staff did not want heavy casualties or damage to the holy places.
“The question is, how do you take the Old City with a minimum of shooting?” asked the deputy chief of staff.
Narkiss had no precise answer. Although the army had drawers filled with contingency plans for virtually every conceivable target and circumstance, there was none for taking Jerusalem’s Old City, as if this were a sacred act best left to the Messiah. The folder for Jerusalem at Central Command headquarters contained a three-stage plan in the event of war that included a breakthrough to Scopus via Mandelbaum Gate and Sheikh Jarrah; widening the Jerusalem corridor to the north and capturing Abu Tor south of the Old City; and finally capturing the Old City.
Although detailed plans existed for the first two stages, there was none for capturing the Old City, not even an indication of which of its seven gates would be penetrated. The contingency plan stipulated that separate orders would be provided for the Old City when the need arose. Although officers had made informal proposals over the years, there was no agreed-upon plan in the files.
Narkiss was with his forward command group on Mount Scopus after the link-up from Ammunition Hill when he heard Gur on the radio ordering the break-in to the Old City through Lion’s Gate.
Narkiss set out in that direction. With him in his jeep was Bar-Lev. Narkiss could not help recalling his last brief entry into the Old City in the War of Independence 19 years before.
“Let’s not go in if it’s just to go out again,” he said.
“We’ll never leave again,” said Bar-Lev.
The Old City was taken at the cost of two paratroopers killed inside the walls and one outside.
Probably fewer than a dozen Jordanians were killed, almost all soldiers who had remained behind on their own to fight. Gur posted guards to keep Israelis from entering Al-Aksa Mosque or the Dome of the Rock. Dayan ordered that an Israeli flag the first arrivals had raised above the golden dome be taken down. He would soon decree that de facto control of the mount be returned to Muslim authorities.
Damage to holy places was minimal. The only damage on the Temple Mount was to the door of Al- Aksa Mosque, and a few bullet nicks. The only church structure in the walled city to receive substantial damage was Saint Anne’s, close to the Lion’s Gate breakthrough point. Several shells penetrated its roof. Despite the fact that bitter tank, artillery, and infantry battles raged for 48 hours around the holiest places in Christendom, damage to church property was remarkably small. Following a visit to Jerusalem immediately after the war, Monsignor Abrahamo Frescht, president of the Pontifical Aid Organization, would report in Rome that damage “was so minimal it hardly seems possible there was a fierce house-to-house fight.”
With the fall of the Old City, Dayan ordered the army to dig in on the east side of the Mount of Olives and put out minefields and anti-tank guns to defend against a possible Jordanian counterattack.
When he learned that Ben-Ari was halfway to Jericho with his armored brigade, he ordered him to return immediately to the ridgeline. It was only when intelligence picked up an order from King Hussein later in the day for the pullback of all Jordanian forces across the river that Dayan ordered Rabin to take over the West Bank.
Dayan, Rabin, and a few other senior officers returning from the Western Wall joined Narkiss in his command post in the basement of the Jerusalem International Convention Center late Wednesday.
They sat on folding cots and a few chairs in the windowless room lit by battery-operated lamps. A radio transmitter occasionally crackled with a report from one of the forces in Jerusalem or the West Bank. The men in the room were largely silent as they attempted to absorb in this first moment of postbattle tranquillity the amazing developments of the past 48 hours. It was Rabin who focused the diffused impressions into a stark bottom line.
“How do we control a million Arabs?” he asked, referring to the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“A million, two hundred-fifty thousand,” a staff officer corrected him.
It was a question Israel would still be asking nearly half a century later. ■
[email protected]