Tuesday, September 22, 2020 -
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Unintended conquest: Jerusalem’s Old City

Abraham Rabinovitch, not a soldier, is in the middle, June, 1967.

By Abraham Rabinovich

JERUSALEM —— With the outbreak of the Six Day War 45 years ago (June 5), residents of the Jordanian half of divided Jerusalem anticipated swift victory and the destruction of Israel.

Fast forward to 2011, when Arabs living in East Jerusalem were asked where they would prefer to live when a Palestinian state is established.

Thirty percent said they would prefer to be Palestinian citizens but 35% said they preferred Israeli citizenship. The rest declined to answer, but it would be safe to assume that many, perhaps most, would also prefer citizenship of the country they or their parents intended to destroy.

Forty five years ago, residents of Jewish Jerusalem watched the Israeli flag being raised over the ramparts of the Old City and eagerly awaited clearing of the minefields that would permit them to embrace the eastern part of the city that had just been captured.

Fast forward to a poll four decades later, which showed more than half of Israeli Jews ready to give up all the Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem except for the Old City itself. The Arabs preferred Israeli rule for the economic benefits. The Israelis were willing to give up Arab neighborhoods because of demography.

Paradox, that faithful handmaid of history, has not neglected Jerusalem.

THE greatest paradox of all was that Israel had no intention of capturing the Old City when the war started. In fact, it went to great lengths to avoid war with Jordan. The bulk of Israel’s army was deployed along the border with Sinai where Egypt had moved seven divisions. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan told intimates that Israel would lose a whole generation of paratroopers and tank crewmen in the coming confrontation. The last thing it wanted was another front.

As the Israeli planes were returning from their pre-emptive strike against Egypt in the opening act of the Six Day War, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol sent a message to Jordan’s King Hussein through the UN. Israel had no intention of attacking Jordan, he said.

Even when Jordanian guns opened up two hours later on Israeli Jerusalem and other targets along the border, Israeli troops were ordered to respond only in kind — rifle fire for rifle fire, mortars for mortars — and to avoid escalation. Israeli officials hoped that King Hussein’s honor would be satisfied with a static exchange of fire across the border.

However, as part of his defense pact with Egypt, Hussein had handed over command of his army to an Egyptian general, Abdel-Moneim Riad, whose object was to push the Jordanian armed forces into conflict with Israel so as to draw off Israeli forces from the Egyptian front.

It was only after Radio Cairo announced that Jordanian troops had conquered the Israeli enclave on Mount Scopus in northern Jerusalem that Israel decided to drop its restraint. The Jordanians had in fact not attacked Scopus, but Israel understood the announcement as a clear statement of intent.

For 19 years, since its War of Independence, Israel had maintained a 120-man garrison on the mount, a mile behind Jordanian lines. The garrison was rotated in bi-monthly convoys under UN protection.

To link up with Scopus, the General Staff ordered a reservist paratroop brigade to the capital. On the first night of the war it attacked across no-man’s-land through the heart of the Jordanian defenses around Ammunition Hill. The hill was captured after a fierce battle.

Meanwhile, other Israeli forces took up positions on the fringe of the walled Old City and awaited orders to break in.

THE Cabinet, however, was deeply divided on the issue. Many of the ministers, including all the religious ministers, opposed taking the Old City on the grounds that the international community would not permit the holiest sites in Christendom to come under Jewish sovereignty.

Some were concerned that damage to the holy places would bring down upon Israel the ire of the international community.

Interior Minister Moshe Haim Shapira, head of the National Religious Party, proposed internationalization of the Old City rather than Israeli sovereignty.

The ministers recalled how Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion had been forced to withdraw from Sinai in 1956 under intense pressure from both Washington and Moscow. Recalling that event at the beginning of the war, Prime Minister Eshkol told the Cabinet that any territory captured from Jordan, including the Old City would have to be returned at the end of the war.

But as the Jordanian army melted away and as the extent of the Israeli success against the Egyptians became apparent, the government bowed to the inevitable and ordered the capture of the Old City.

Forty-eight hours after the battle had started, a halftrack containing paratroop brigade commander Col. Motta Gur burst through Lion’s Gate into the walled city and turned onto the Temple Mount.

Israel had concluded, almost as an afterthought, that the return to ancient Jerusalem was a dictate of history that the reborn Jewish state could not ignore.

The writer, a former writer for the Jerusalem Post, is author of The Battle for Jerusalem: An Unintended Conquest, an eBook available on Amazon.


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