Israel had no intention of capturing Jerusalem’s Old City when the Six-Day War began 45 years ago. Many of its government ministers, especially the religious ones, opposed the idea, warning that the world would never accept Jewish rule over Christianity’s holiest places.
Although the army had numerous contingency plans regarding targets in the region, a plan for taking the Old City was not among them.
If Israel had had its way back then, Jerusalem today would probably still be a divided city and the West Bank still under Arab sovereignty, provided that Jordan would have stayed out of the Yom Kippur War six years later.
History has a way of taking strange turns but after the first shots were fired by Jordanian troops in Jerusalem on the morning of June 5, 1967, events took such a swift and unexpected spin that both sides ended up in places they had not even imagined 48 hours before.
Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Uzi Narkiss, commander of the Central Front, stood on the summit of the hill known as The Castel on the outskirts of Jerusalem and surveyed the splendid view of the Judean Hills. Through binoculars, it was possible to make out Israeli and Jordanian army units dug into the landscape opposite each other on the approaches to Jerusalem, the Jordanians overlooking the main road linking the capital to the coastal plain. When Dayan suggested broadening the minefield opposite Sheikh Abdul Aziz, the Jordanian position closest to the road, Narkiss gave immediate orders for it to be carried out.
Dayan had obtained Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s permission to tour the fronts to familiarize himself with the army’s operational plans. Although he had no jurisdiction in the military sphere, he freely offered advice. Such was his aura of authority that Narkiss related to Dayan’s words as if he were still chief of staff. The upcoming war, said Dayan, would be entirely focused on Egypt. Central Command must keep a low profile and not cause a diversion of forces from the south. “You must not get involved in forays that would embroil us with Jordan.”
Traveling into Jerusalem to tour the city line, Dayan repeated the advice to Colonel Amitai, commander of the Jerusalem Brigade. In the event of war, the brigade’s role would be strictly defensive, said Dayan. If things went badly in the south, it might be impossible to get help to Jerusalem even if the Israeli enclave on Mount Scopus was in danger.
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On the Israeli side of the divided city, virtually the entire civilian population, from first graders who filled sandbags to the aged, was involved in the preparations for war: cleaning out long-neglected shelters, digging trenches to serve as shelters in neighborhoods that had none, donating blood, taking first aid courses, sewing burlap into sandbags. High school youths took over the routes of mailmen who had been mobilized, substituted for keepers at the Biblical zoo and volunteered at hospitals.
On May 30, Jordan’s King Hussein flew to Cairo to sign a defense pact with Nasser identical to one Nasser had signed with Syria. The king could not afford to remain isolated any longer. His own people would not accept Jordan sitting out the coming conflict as it had in 1956. Pressure which could not be ignored was also coming from within the Jordanian army.
As Hussein told the American ambassador, the pact with Nasser was his life insurance. He knew better than anyone that Jordan was not prepared for war. He did not believe the other Arab states were either. Hussein admired Israel for its stability, its purposefulness and what he termed “its scientific turn of mind” that permitted it to maximize its potential. Since 1963 he had been meeting in secret with Israeli representatives, generally in Europe, in an effort to avoid misunderstandings that could lead to conflict. But with war looming he could not permit himself to remain outside the Arab ranks.
Hussein’s pact with Nasser changed mindsets in both Jerusalem and Washington. For two weeks, as Egypt moved its army within striking distance of the Israeli border and blocked the Tiran Straits to ships heading for Eilat, Prime Minister Eshkol had resisted requests by the army to strike. The United States pressed Eshkol to desist from military action in order to give the international community time to resolve the problem.
About the Author: Abraham Rabinovich is a former reporter with The Jerusalem Post who covered the Six-Day War. His classic account of the conflict, from which this essay was adapted, has just been published in a revised and expanded eBook – “The Battle for Jerusalem: An Unintended Conquest That Echoes Still” – available at Amazon.com.
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