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February 19, 2017 / 23 Shevat, 5777
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An Unintended Conquest

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IDF Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin "invites" Defense Minister Moshe Dayan to the Kotel, or Western Wall, which had just been liberated by Israeli troops during the 1967 Six-Day War. history.

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.

* * * * *

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.

Now, however, Eshkol saw war as inescapable. Two days after the Cairo pact – and only four days after agreeing to Washington’s request to refrain from a preemptive strike for three weeks – he formed a war cabinet including opposition leader Menachem Begin. Dayan was appointed defense minister, a clear signal that war was coming.

Washington also recognized that the situation had changed. It was bogged down in Vietnam but if it continued to prevent Israel from acting in its own defense as it saw fit Washington would have a moral obligation to intervene if Israel were attacked. Israel picked up signs of a softening in Washington’s stance regarding a preemptive strike even though officially America’s position was unchanged.

The date for war was fixed on Friday, June 2, the day after Dayan’s appointment, in a small forum that included him, Eshkol, and Rabin. The decision to go to war would be put to the Cabinet for approval at its regular meeting in two days. If approved, the air force would launch its preemptive strike the following morning.

Speed was essential. The Iraqi and Saudi forces designated for the eastern front had not yet reached Jordan and intelligence reported that Egypt was shoveling troops into Sinai so fast that some units had been without food or water for 48 hours. Israel hoped to confine the war to the Egyptian front. No overall battle plan against Jordan had even been formulated.

* * * * *

At the decisive Cabinet meeting Sunday morning, several ministers wanted the decision on war put off but Eshkol said that every day’s delay meant more casualties. Washington had not flashed a green light, he said, but the light was no longer red. The last speaker was Dayan. If the Egyptians struck at Israel’s air bases (“to do to us what we want to do to them”), which they were known to be contemplating, it would at a stroke eliminate Israel’s principal strategic card. Their reconnaissance flight over Dimona meant that the nuclear reactor, which the Egyptians believed to be about to come on line, would be among the first targets attacked. The deployment of the Egyptian forces showed their intention to cut off the southern Negev and capture Eilat, in conjunction with a Jordanian brigade.

The sirens that sounded shortly before 8 a.m. Monday caught children in Jerusalem on the way to school, men on the way to work. Ten minutes later six high-pitched beeps signaled a news bulletin announcing the beginning of war with Egypt. People took a deep breath and experienced a tangible shifting of mental gears – a detached awareness that the talk was over, that soon, in minutes or hours, violence would be upon them. Barefoot shopgirls downtown fixed strips of tape to the inside of display windows to prevent shattering. Men slapped blue paint over car headlights, leaving only a tiny gap in the center to serve as a blackout light.

At Bikur Cholim Hospital, closest of the city’s three general hospitals to the front line, cots were set up in the corridors under the supervision of a doctor whose urgent demands for speed seemed overly dramatic to a visitor stepping in from the still-tranquil streets. A column of high-school boys and girls arrived at the building breathing hard after a forced march from their school. The youths, who had been assigned to fill sandbags and carry stretchers, sat down on the stone steps just inside the entrance and waited to be called. They would still be there 24 hours later, slumped over from exhaustion, their blue school uniforms covered with the blood of wounded men.

In one wing of the Israel Radio studio, the war was already in full swing. Unlike the other radio departments, the Arabic section did not depend for its items on handouts from the army spokesman. Linked by direct line to army intelligence, it unleashed a propaganda campaign with the first announcement of war.

“Today Nasser has carried out his threat,” the Arabic announcer said after the 8:10 bulletin. “We said to you that if war comes it will be a bad war for you. Israel will bring the war to your territory. This time will not be like 1948 or 1956. This time the victory will be great. Rivers of blood will be shed but the responsibility is President Nasser’s. We are fighting for our survival.”

At 9 a.m. the announcer began addressing directly a score of Egyptian air force and army commanders. “Colonel Jamal Ser Aly, commander of El Arish Airdrome: Where is your airport? Nothing has remained. We hope you have succeeded in fleeing. Major…, your son is only three months away from graduation. He would want to have his father there. Colonel…, your son is waiting for you in Cairo. It’s a pity for you to be killed.”

* * * * *

All day long the projector crew waited apprehensively atop the Histadrut Building for nightfall. In lighting up targets for the artillery observers, the men knew, they themselves would become the most visible target for the Jordanian guns.

Dennis Silk, a British-born poet, had always believed that in peacetime a searchlight unit was a suitable assignment for an “artiste” like himself, but that in war the job carried exceptional hazards. He worked as a proofreader at the Jerusalem Post and vividly recalled a story he had once handled about a retaliation raid against a Syrian position. The Syrians had thrown on a projector that was eliminated by Israeli fire in 20 seconds. Silk had already been assigned to a searchlight unit at the time, and read the story with a pang of empathy for the Syrian crew.

After darkness had settled in, the crew was ordered into action. The projectors were hauled out of their enclosures and trundled into the open. Silk felt unexpected exhilaration in the physical effort of pushing his projector up a ramp and into battle. Jerusalem was spread out below him in the throes of apocalypse. The lull had ended and every quarter in the Jewish part of the city was being pounded by shellfire. Tracers raced toward each other across no-man’s-land, and flares hung suspended on the horizon like Chinese lanterns. An officer on the roof shouted “light” and ducked behind the parapet. Like a man pulling the switch of an electric chair in which he himself was sitting, Silk reached up and yanked the projector handle.

Mike Ronnen saw the light suddenly flick on, illuminating the Arab positions on Ammunition Hill opposite him. From far to the rear came the sound of guns. Seconds later the area in the spotlight erupted in smoke and flying debris. The light switched off, but before his eyes had grown accustomed to darkness again the projector was holding another position in its glare.

For the men in the trench, who had endured an unremitting pounding from the Jordanians since morning, the sight was euphoric. It was as if someone was putting a giant finger on their tormentors and crushing them. A massive barrage hit beyond the Arab quarter of Shuafat to the north, the direction from which the Jordanian 25-pounders had been firing. The enemy shelling became even more frenzied; shells hit just behind Ronnen’s trench, making an ugly clanking sound before exploding. The shells were red hot and coming in so low that Ronnen could read his watch in their glow.

A paratroop brigade assigned to break through to Mount Scopus reached Jerusalem at dusk in civilian buses and the men debarked in the Bait Hakerem quarter. Commanders departed for hasty surveys of the front line before returning to Bait Hakerem to drew up their attack plans in apartments of local residents.

Lt. Colonel Yossi Yaffe and his company commanders, assigned the key Ammunition Hill sector, waited until darkness before approaching the border. Accompanied by a Jerusalem Brigade intelligence sergeant, they entered a building directly opposite the enemy strongpoint. The sergeant took out a set of keys and opened the door of an apartment on the top floor, leaving the light off.

Yaffe looked out the window at a discouraging scene. Streams of tracers spewed from dozens of bunkers running the length of the enemy line. The ground sloped gently upward from the Israeli side for 150 meters, rising abruptly beneath the enemy positions in a 5-meter-high bank. His men would be moving up a slope straight into fire from the bunkers. The air photos indicated two thick rows of barbed wire concertina on the Jordanian side of no-man’s-land but he could not make them out in the darkness.

If the Jordanian guns caught them in the open as they crossed no-man’s-land, his battalion would be shredded. But Yaffe hoped that the Israeli bombardment prior to the assault would stun the Jordanians, including artillery spotters, sufficiently to permit the attack force to reach the enemy trenches.

At least 50 yards separated the two barbed wire concertinas, a stretch almost certain to be mined, but it would take too long to attempt to blow a path through with bangalores. The intensive shelling of the area before the attack was designed in part to detonate the mines, but the results could not be certain.

Returning to Bait Hakerem, the company commanders briefed their platoon commanders. Capt. Rutenberg, who would lead his men onto Ammunition Hill, said they would cross no-man’s-land in single file. If someone stepped on a mine, the men behind would step on him and continue moving forward in a straight line.

Under no circumstances would anyone stop to tend the wounded until the enemy positions dominating no-man’s-land had been taken.

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.

Abraham Rabinovich

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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