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'East Jerusalem is Israeli, open the city’
Amid some ambivalence, the government moved speedily toward annexation immediately after 1967 Six Day War
In the run-up to the Six Day War, amid disputes among Israeli decision-makers over the way forward, there was one point of consensus – Israel would not seek to annex territory at the war’s end. In 1956, prime minister David Ben-Gurion had attempted to do so following Operation Kadesh and was threatened by Washington with economic sanctions and by Moscow with missiles. As defense minister Moshe Dayan would put it to his colleagues this time, 11 years later, “We have no territorial objective whatsoever.”
History, however, would prove to have a mind of its own.
A decision had first to be made about how war would begin. Egypt was moving its army into Sinai and had closed the Red Sea to Israeli shipping. In a meeting on May 28 with prime minister Levi Eshkol, the general staff called for a preemptive strike. The reserves were mobilized and the armed forces were ready. But Eshkol said the government still hoped to avoid war. US president Lyndon Johnson had told Israel that it would not be alone “as long as it does not decide to go it alone.” In an unusually blunt warning, secretary of state Dean Rusk said unilateral Israeli action would be “catastrophic.” Eshkol told his generals that affairs of state would not be decided by the military.
Two days later, when Jordan’s King Hussein flew to Cairo to sign a defense pact with president Gamal Abdel Nasser, Eshkol conceded that war was the only way out. Washington, he told colleagues, was not flashing a green light regarding a preemptive strike but “it is no longer red.”
On Friday, June 2, Eshkol and Dayan met with chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin and two senior ministers. All agreed that a preemptive attack must be carried out swiftly, before the Arab armies completed their deployment. If at the cabinet’s Sunday meeting it approved the attack, it would be launched the following day, said Dayan. Amending Rabin’s existing war plans, Dayan said the army’s primary objective must be focused on bringing Egypt’s armored forces to battle and destroying them.
Rabin, in the same vein, ordered forces on the Jordanian front to avoid provocation. If the Jordanians opened fire, the response should be in kind, without escalation that could draw off forces from the Egyptian front.
The public’s mood in Israel ranged between tension and existential fear. On the Jordanian side of divided Jerusalem, an odd euphoria prevailed. “The atmosphere was magical,” Abdallah Schleifer, a Jewish convert to Islam living in the Old City, would write. “No one did anything but congratulate each other and praise Nasser.” The scion of a prominent Jerusalem family suggested to Schleifer when they met by chance on the Temple Mount that they go down for drinks at the Tel Aviv Hilton as soon as the fighting was over, gather some loot and “take their women.”
At 8 a.m. on Monday, Israel Radio reported air and armor clashes with Egypt but gave no details. The Norwegian general commanding the UN Truce Supervision Organization at Government House arrived at the Israeli Foreign Ministry and was asked to transmit an urgent message to King Hussein. Israel would make no hostile moves toward Jordan, it said, unless the latter initiated hostilities. Two hours later, the Jordanians opened fire in Jerusalem, first small arms, then artillery. (I had arrived in the country five days before and heard the shooting begin when I emerged from a dentist’s office on Shammai Street downtown.)
The Israeli public would remain unaware of the successes of the air force over Egypt and the tank divisions in Sinai until after midnight but by noon a new mindset was beginning to form within the high command and the political leadership who knew what was happening.
Eshkol called for a cabinet meeting in the late afternoon in the basement shelter of the Knesset, little more than a mile from the Old City. The building was awash with parliamentarians and journalists exchanging rumors and speculation. The major subject was Jerusalem. Would – should – the army take the Old City? Until that morning, no one had given the possibility a thought.
Renewal of Jordanian shelling could be heard outside as the cabinet session began. Two ministers, from opposite ends of the political spectrum, proposed capture of the Old City – Yigal Allon, a kibbutz leader who had commanded the elite Palmah in the War of Independence, and right-wing leader Menachem Begin. Given the new circumstances, Allon said, Israel should either annex the Old City or otherwise ensure access to the holy places. Begin called for the walled city’s “liberation.” As it happened, both men had been indirect commanders of units that broke into the Old City in the War of Independence in failed attempts to reach the besieged Jewish Quarter. They saw an opportunity now to rectify that failure.
Ironically, ministers from the National Religious Party (NRP), who prayed for Jerusalem daily, strongly opposed annexation, not out of concern about the Islamic world but about the Christian world, particularly the Vatican. The Christian world would never accept Israeli sovereignty over the holiest sites in Christendom, said interior minister Haim-Moshe Shapira, the NRP head. He called for the Old City’s internationalization. “To Jordan we will not return it. To the world, yes.”
Dayan “showed scant enthusiasm” for the conquest of the Old City, historian Ami Gluska would write. A close aide to Dayan, Haim Yisraeli, would tell Ben-Gurion that “Moshe doesn’t want to conquer it because he doesn’t want to give back the Western Wall (under pressure from the international community).” However, it would be Dayan who would order troops the next day to take the Old City.
Eshkol himself was ambivalent. Alluding to the pullback from Sinai in 1956, he told the cabinet that “in the Jordanian sector we are going forward in the knowledge that we will be obliged to pull out from [Jordanian] Jerusalem and the West Bank.”
However, the official statement he would later issue was pragmatic. Based on a formula suggested by foreign minister Abba Eban, he said the planned crossing into Jordanian Jerusalem was intended to bring a halt to the incessant shelling, avoiding the question of the Old City’s future status. (Close to a thousand apartments in Israeli Jerusalem were damaged by shells.) Other ministers, however, believed that once the flag was raised over the Old City, Israel would find it difficult, if not impossible, to lower it. The Old City was a prize so enormous that it was questionable if a country with a population of three million dare claim it if the world objected. On the other hand, how could the Jewish state avoid claiming it without disavowing its historical narrative.
Forty-eight hours after the opening shots in Jerusalem, almost to the minute, Israeli paratroopers reached the Temple Mount. The Jordanian battalion posted inside the walls had slipped out during the night. Israel lost two men in skirmishes with soldiers who had stayed behind.
Whatever ambivalence it may have had about capturing the Old City, the government moved speedily toward annexation the day after the war ended and the decisive results on all fronts were clear. The boundaries of the area to be annexed, drawn up by a committee of senior civil servants and a general, went far beyond the kilometer-square Old City to encompass 72 sq. km. – land belonging, at least in part, to more than two dozen villages and towns. The taking incorporated high ground and attempted to avoid densely populated areas. (Deputy mayor Meron Benvenisti would say a decade later that the planners had presumed that the West Bank would be returned to Jordan and that the topography annexed was chosen to provide Jerusalem a defensible border on the east.)
The cabinet meanwhile prepared an extension of Israeli laws and administrative procedures to the annexed area. On June 28, just three weeks after the battle for the city, mayor Teddy Kollek was officially notified that the annexed area was now part of his municipal bailiwick. (The word “annexation” was replaced in official jargon with “reunification” in order to soften the impact on world opinion.)
The same day, Dayan summoned government, municipal and security officials to a meeting on the balcony of the King David Hotel facing the Old City walls. The barriers separating the two halves of Jerusalem, he said, would be removed in the morning, and residents – Arabs as well as Jews – would be free to cross over. Almost everybody at the meeting, including Kollek, protested that it was too soon. Enemies who had just fought a war could not become peaceful neighbors overnight. Pent-up passions would inevitably explode – murder, rape. Dayan was unmoved. “East Jerusalem is Israeli,” he said. “Open the city.”
The next morning, Arabs and Jews, often in family groups, passed through the crossing points with profound curiosity to explore streets they had not seen for two decades. Couples walked hand in hand. Many of the Arabs went to see homes they had formerly lived in and sometimes were invited in. An Arab woman could not restrain herself when she saw her old garden and asked her hostess why she had not taken better care of it.
Some Jews crossed to look up old friends and men they had done business with. Others went to visit the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter where some had lived. It took a prominent Jewish businessman two hours to proceed through the shuk to the Chamber of Commerce because of old acquaintances stopping to embrace him and inviting him for coffee.
Police headquarters in Jerusalem did not register a single complaint this day from either Jews or Arabs. It might have been the most peaceful day the city would know in the 20th century. And since.
The writer, a former Jerusalem Post staffer, is author of The Battle for Jerusalem: An Unintended Conquest; The Yom Kippur War and The Boats of Cherbourg.