For Jerusalem: 49 years later true unity remains elusive

In 1967, Israel captured east Jerusalem in 48 hours, but 49 years later true unity remains elusive.

Soldiers pass through Jerusalem’s Lions Gate in 1967 (photo credit: WERNER BRAUN/JERUSALEM POST ARCHIVES)
Soldiers pass through Jerusalem’s Lions Gate in 1967
Two backwater towns, both in need of a hug, ignored each other’s presence for 19 years, though they were only a stone’s throw apart.
Israeli Jerusalem, the young state’s capital, was still experiencing the aftereffects of the War of Independence. The Old City had become as distant as the far side of the moon.
Jordanian Jerusalem was now part of an Arab state but bereft of the economic energy of the Jews. Amman treated it as a stepchild, preferring to develop Jordan’s East Bank, its political base, rather than the West Bank.
In mid-May 1967 the sudden beating of war drums in Egypt jolted residents of Israeli Jerusalem with fears of another round. Civil defense teams visited every home to ensure that residents were prepared and that shelter facilities were adequate. Blood donors stood patiently in long lines.
Jordanian Jerusalem’s population, convinced by Radio Cairo’s broadcasts of impending Arab triumph, was gripped by euphoria, but there was no preparation of the civilian sector for war.
Frenzy reached a peak with the arrival of Ahmad Shukeiry, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, on Friday, June 2. He was lifted on the shoulders of the crowd when he visited al-Aksa Mosque for noon prayers. In an impassioned speech, he said that Israel was on the verge of destruction and that there would be few survivors. A frequently heard salutation on the Jordanian side of the city was “Meet you at the Tel Aviv Hilton bar.” Israeli reservists along the cease-fire line who understood Arabic heard preachers in mosques exhorting their congregations over loudspeakers to “slaughter and kill.”
As the Egyptian Army streamed into Sinai, Israel’s leaders concluded that war was inevitable and that Israel would have to strike first. A clash with Jordan was to be avoided, lest it require diversion of forces from the Egyptian front. If the Jordanians opened fire, Israel would reply in kind but avoid escalation.
The General Staff had not even updated a contingency war plan for the Jordanian front.
AT 8:30 a.m. on June 5, with Israel’s preemptive air strike against Egypt launched, the commander of the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) in Jerusalem, Gen. Odd Bull, was urgently called to the Foreign Ministry and handed a message for transmission to Jordan’s King Hussein. If Jordan kept the peace, Israel would, too. If it attacked, Israel would respond forcefully.
At 10 a.m., the first shots were fired from Jordanian positions into Israeli Jerusalem. Simultaneously, Long Tom artillery hit the Ramat David air base in the North, as well as suburbs of Tel Aviv and the international airport at Lod.
Hussein had reluctantly flown to Cairo the week before to sign a defense pact that obliged him to place his army, considered the best in the Arab world, under an Egyptian general for the coming confrontation. If war broke out, Hussein and his generals had hoped to make do with an artillery “salute” that would satisfy Jordan’s honor, without becoming embroiled in a ground war. Hussein’s advisers urged him to wait 12 hours to see how the war on the Egyptian front developed before committing to battle.
However, the Egyptian general now commanding Jordan’s army had been placed there to serve Egypt’s interests, not Jordan’s. Egyptian chief of staff Gen. Abdel Hakim Amer ordered him to move an armored brigade from Jericho to the Hebron area. From there it would be in position to support Egyptian forces that Amer said would be advancing toward Beersheba, headquarters of Israel’s Southern Command.
The route from Jericho to Hebron passed just a kilometer east of the Talpiot neighborhood in Israeli Jerusalem. To protect the road, Jordanian infantry seized Government House – UNTSO headquarters – and crossed into Israeli territory. A small Israeli force of reservists set out to counterattack, but it was halted at the last moment while the high command weighed the strategic implications of escalation. A limited counterattack was finally approved.
Israeli self-restraint steadily loosened during the day, as reports of extraordinary successes on the Egyptian front – in the air and on the ground – began to register. At a cabinet meeting, minister without portfolio Menachem Begin, on the Right, raised for the first time the prospect of crossing the border and “liberating” the Old City. Yigal Allon, on the Left, said that Israel should either annex the Old City or otherwise ensure access to the Western Wall.
Ironically, it was ministers from the National Religious Party who objected most strenuously to capturing the Old City. The world, said interior minister Moshe Haim Shapira, would never accept Jewish rule over Christian holy places. The best solution, he said, was internationalization. “To Jordan we will not return it,” said Shapira, the NRP leader. “To the world, yes.” It was a pragmatic position that gave no hint of the powerful messianic bent within the national- religious community that would in the near future manifest itself.
Even defense minister Moshe Dayan, the boldest of the ministers, was ambiguous.
His aide, Haim Yisraeli, told former premier David Ben-Gurion that Dayan feared that international pressure would force Israel from any territory it captured, as happened in the 1956 Sinai Campaign. “Moshe doesn’t want to have to give back the Western Wall,” said Yisraeli.
In the cabinet meeting on this first day of war, prime minister Levi Eshkol bridged the gap between ministers who favored crossing the border to silence the Jordanian guns and those who didn’t. “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.”
By late afternoon, a paratroop brigade was transferred to Jerusalem and ordered to relieve Mount Scopus. The original site of Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital, Scopus was an Israeli military position a kilometer behind Jordanian lines. A 120-man garrison, rotated monthly under UN protection, guarded its perimeter. In the early hours of Tuesday, June 6, the paratroop brigade broke through at Ammunition Hill and Sheikh Jarrah and linked up with Scopus.
THE OLD City was the last target remaining in Jordanian Jerusalem. It was a prize so prodigious that Israel’s leadership had never drawn up an operational plan for its capture. In the Knesset building during the day, parliamentarians, journalists and government officials exchanged rumors about the progress of the war. The main subject was Jerusalem. Would – should – the army take the Old City? At a cabinet meeting, a religious minister suggested that it might be best that the return to ancient Jerusalem remain an aspiration to be prayed for, as it had been for the past 2,000 years. The cabinet accepted foreign minister Abba Eban’s formulation: “We are going to take the Old City of Jerusalem in order to remove the danger of bombardment.” Although the statement implicitly left open the possibility that Israel might afterward withdraw, most of the ministers believed that once a flag was raised, it would be impossible to take down.
Within the Old City walls Tuesday night were more than 500 Jordanian soldiers, most of whom had pulled back from outlying positions taken by Israel. Their commander, Brigadier Ata Ali, was despondent. He had lost radio contact with Amman and all but two of his officers had deserted. At 3 a.m.
he met with the governor of Jerusalem, Anwar al-Khatib, and informed him that he was pulling out with his men.
“Jerusalem will definitely be assaulted by dawn and my troops are in no condition to resist.” To fight, he said, would mean the destruction of the Old City.
Most of the Jordanian troops pulled out before dawn through Dung Gate and started trekking toward Jericho and the bridge to Jordan.
Begin, who had spent a restless night, opened his radio at 4 a.m. to the BBC and learned that the Security Council was to declare a cease-fire this day. He telephoned Dayan at General Staff headquarters.
“We can’t wait any more,” he said. Dayan agreed.
An Israeli officer who had been at the forefront of the fighting in Jerusalem would say in an interview years later that if 500 Jordanian troops, augmented by armed civilians, had resisted Israel’s entry into the warren of the Old City, the battle would have been protracted and bloody. It would almost certainly have meant a cease-fire being declared by the UN before capture of the Old City was completed, making for a major diplomatic imbroglio. Two paratroopers were killed in skirmishes with Jordanian soldiers who had stayed behind, but the walled city was swiftly taken.
In exactly 48 hours, in a war it had not wanted or planned for, Israel achieved a goal that it had hardly dared fantasize.
In the 49 years since, things would prove more complicated.
THREE WEEKS after the end of fighting, Israel laid claim to 7,285 hectares of Jordanian territory and annexed it to Israeli Jerusalem, tripling the size of the once Jewish, now mixed, city.
Only 607 hectares of this area constituted former Jordanian Jerusalem; the rest belonged, all or in part, to 28 villages in the surrounding area.
These boundaries of what would come to be called east Jerusalem had been fixed by an interministerial committee to which an army general, Rehavam Ze’evi, was attached.
Their guidelines were to incorporate as few Arabs as possible within the city’s new borders while providing a broad territorial buffer against artillery.
(One thousand apartments in Israeli Jerusalem had been hit by artillery and mortar shells in the war just ended.) A week after the war, the cabinet passed a secret resolution offering to return to Egypt and Syria their captured territory in exchange for peace treaties and demilitarization of the Sinai and Golan. No similar offer was made regarding the West Bank, because the cabinet was divided between those who favored dealing with a Palestinian political entity and those who wanted to strike a deal with the Jordanians. No consideration was given, however, to parting from east Jerusalem. The government’s offer was passed on by the United States, but the Arabs rejected it, demanding unconditional Israeli withdrawal and refusing to recognize or negotiate with Israel.
HALF A year after the war, construction began on Ramat Eshkol, the first housing development to be built across the former no-man’s-land into east Jerusalem. The objective was to physically link west Jerusalem with Mount Scopus, where both Hadassah and Hebrew University were renewing their original campuses. There followed what Jerusalem attorney Daniel Seidmann calls the “heritage wave” of construction, in areas where Jews had lived before 1948 – the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and Neveh Ya’acov.
Several other waves of land expropriation would follow in the ensuing years, aimed at strengthening the Jewish presence in east Jerusalem.
Seidmann, who heads an NGO called Terrestial Jerusalem that advocates for a political division of Jerusalem, says that 35 percent of privately owned land in east Jerusalem has been expropriated since 1967 to house 200,000 Israelis. A small percentage of land was Jewish-owned – in Har Homa, Ramat Eshkol, Neveh Ya’acov – the bulk Arab- owned. Six hundred units were also built with government subsidies for Arab housing.
The massive effort to solidify the Jewish majority in Jerusalem failed. A census immediately after the Six Day War tallied 69,000 Palestinian residents, constituting 26% of the united city’s population. As of last year, there were 308,000 Palestinians, constituting 37% of the population. “They will be the majority in 15-20 years,” Seidmann said in an interview.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat is “detached from reality,” said Seidmann, when he insists that Jerusalem is an undivided city. Ehud Olmert, during his two terms as mayor, followed a rightwing ideological agenda and assisted private promoters who built Jewish housing enclaves alongside Arab neighborhoods.
However, after becoming prime minister, said Seidmann, “he underwent a tremendous metamorphosis.”
Both Olmert and former prime minister Ehud Barak reportedly offered to return Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem to Arab sovereignty in a final peace settlement.
“The empiric reality is that this is a binational city, and getting more so all the time,” said Seidmann.
A survey six years ago by Pechter Polls in partnership with the Council on Foreign Relations would seem to challenge Seidmann’s contention about Palestinian sentiment. When asked whether they preferred Palestinian citizenship or Israeli citizenship, 35% of Arab residents of east Jerusalem polled said they would choose Israeli citizenship, because of economic benefits and stability.
Only 30% said they preferred Palestinian citizenship.
Seidmann says that many of those interviewed were clearly saying what they believed the pollsters wanted to hear.
He has statistics that suggest a very different mind-set in east Jerusalem. “Less than 1% of Palestinians eligible to vote in Jerusalem municipal elections actually voted in recent years. They don’t acquiesce in the legitimacy of Israeli rule.
Since 1967 only 12,000 east Jerusalem Arabs have asked for Israeli citizenship, and only 5,000 received it.”
Virtually all Palestinian political activity is forbidden in Jerusalem, says Seidmann.
He termed the situation unsustainable.
“You cannot have half the population perpetually disenfranchised.”
Can east Jerusalem, a tangle of Jewish and Arab neighborhoods, ever be redivided? “Unequivocally yes,” he says. “The border already exists. Where Palestinians don’t go and where Israelis don’t go – that’s the border.” Certain areas where there is overlap would require special arrangements. However, he said, an agreement on Jerusalem is dependent on a two-state agreement in which 160,000 settlers would be evacuated from the West Bank. Redivision of Jerusalem would involve showing passports at crossing points. “It would not be pretty, but it would be possible to do without mortally wounding the city,” says Seidmann.
A CONTRARY reading of the demographic, physical, political and historical maps is offered by Yoaz Hendel, a former director of communications and public policy for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It is physically impossible to divide Jerusalem, he says, but it is possible – and necessary – to trim its eastern edge, the part lying between the West Bank security barrier, which runs through parts of east Jerusalem, and the actual municipal boundary.
“We are lying to ourselves when we talk about united Jerusalem,” he says. “There are five enclaves in this space [between the wall and the city border] that have no connection to Jerusalem. We must stop this fiction that they are part of the city. It’s a no-man’s-land, a breeding ground for terrorism and crime. The municipality doesn’t deal with them. The mayor never goes there.”
Hendel says that 100,000 Palestinians live in these fringe areas, about a third of the Palestinian population of east Jerusalem. He advocates revocation of their status as permanent residents of Jerusalem and of the privileges that go with it, such as national insurance. “This will in itself substantially reduce the demographic problem.”
As for the 200,000 Palestinian remaining, he calls for a meaningful upgrading of services and of Israeli governance.
Unlike Seidmann, he accepts the findings of the Pechter poll as an accurate reflection of Palestinian sentiment.
“We have to build new schools, but with a curriculum based on the Israeli-Arab educational system, not that of the Palestinian Authority. They should get their electricity from Israel, not the Palestinians, and they should be able to settle legal disputes between themselves in Jerusalem courts instead of going to Ramallah. There would be police stations in the Palestinian neighborhoods. Those residents who want to would become Israeli citizens; demographically it’s a frog we would have to swallow. They would have the same status as Israeli Arabs.
“After half a century,” says Hendel, “it’s time to make a decision.”
The writer, a former Jerusalem Post reporter, is author of the e-book The Battle for Jerusalem: An Unintended Conquest. He is also author of The Yom Kippur War. [email protected]