Jerusalem and a twist of history

By Abraham Rabinovich, June 7, 2012

On the outbreak of the Six-Day War in 1967, residents of the Jordanian half of Jerusalem anticipated swift victory and the destruction of Israel.

Fast-forward to 2011, when 35 per cent of Arabs in East Jerusalem said that, when a Palestinian state is established, they would prefer citizenship of Israel, the country their parents intended to destroy. And, 45 years ago this week, Jewish Jerusalem watched the Israeli flag being raised over the Old City. Yet a poll four decades later showed more than half of Israeli Jews ready to give up all Arab neighbourhoods in Jerusalem, except for the Old City.

Paradox, that faithful handmaid of history, has not neglected Jerusalem. The greatest paradox was that Israel had no intention of capturing the Old City when war began. The bulk of Israel's army was deployed along the Sinai border. Defence Minister Moshe Dayan told intimates that Israel would lose a generation of men in the coming confrontation. The last thing he wanted was another front.

As the Israeli planes returned from their pre-emptive strike against Egypt, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol sent a message to Jordan's King Hussein via the UN. Israel had no intention of attacking Jordan, he said. Even when Jordanian guns opened on Jerusalem, troops were ordered to respond only in kind and avoid escalation. Israeli officials hoped that Hussein's honour would be satisfied with a static exchange of fire across the border.

But, as part of his pact with Egypt, Hussein had handed over command to an Egyptian general, Abdel-Moneim Riad, whose object was to push the Jordanian forces into conflict with Israel so as to draw them 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 dropped its restraint. The Jordanians had in fact not attacked Scopus but Israel understood this clear statement of intent. For 19 years, Israel had maintained a 120-man garrison on the mount, a mile behind Jordanian lines.

Israel had no intention of capturing the Old City

The General Staff ordered a reservist brigade to the capital. On the first night, it attacked across no-man's-land through the heart of the Jordanian defences around Ammunition Hill. The hill was captured after a fierce battle. 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, including all religious ministers, opposed taking the Old City on the grounds that the international community would not permit Christendom's holiest sites to come under Jewish sovereignty or that damage to the holy places would bring the ire of the world. Moshe Haim Shapira, head of the National Religious Party, proposed internationalisation rather than Israeli sovereignty.

Ben-Gurion had been forced to withdraw from Sinai in 1956 under pressure from Washington and Moscow. With that in mind, at the beginning of the war the Prime Minister told the cabinet that territory captured from Jordan would have to be returned at the end of the war. But, as the Jordanian army melted away and as the extent of Israeli success against the Egyptians became apparent, the government bowed to the inevitable and ordered the capture of the Old City. And 48 hours after the battle started, Colonel Motta Gur burst through Lion's Gate into the walled city and turned on to 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.

Abraham Rabinovich is the author of The Battle for Jerusalem (Amazon eBook)

Last updated: 1:59pm, June 7 2012