Israeli soldiers file past a burnt vehicle as they enter the Lions’ Gate (or St Stephen’s Gate), Old City of Jerusalem, Israel, June 11, 1967.

During Six-Day War, Israeli Leaders Were Divided About Capturing Old City

Cabinet ministers driving up to Jerusalem late on the afternoon of June 5, the first day of the Six-Day War, to attend a meeting in the Knesset found their cars incongruously mixed in with an armored column heading for battle. A few miles before Jerusalem, the traffic sorted itself out — the tanks and half-tracks turned left to the war, and the ministers continued straight on to Jerusalem to decide the direction the war would take.

The Knesset building was filled with parliamentarians, political figures and journalists exchanging rumors about the progress of the battles and speculation about the war’s political fallout. The dominant subject: Jerusalem. Would — should — the army take the Old City?

That was also the main item on the agenda of the cabinet meeting held in the Knesset shelter. Before Prime Minister Levi Eshkol arrived, the ministers were briefed by a member of the general staff. For the first time, the ministers learned of the destruction wreaked on the Arab air forces this day and of the armored breakthrough in Sinai. The tanks they had passed on the way up from the coast were part of the Harel brigade that was to attempt to outflank the Jordanian defenses in Jerusalem via the Nebi Samuel Ridge, but the difficult terrain and deep minefields made success questionable. The Israeli command had decided that as a back-up, a paratroop brigade would attempt to drive straight through the Jordanian defenses blocking the way to the isolated Israeli enclave on Mount Scopus.

Renewal of shelling could be heard as the meeting got under way. Two ministers from opposite ends of the political spectrum in the coalition government advocated capture of the Old City — Menachem Begin on the right and Yigal Allon, of the kibbutz movement, on the left. Begin called for the Old City’s “liberation.” Allon urged that Israel should either annex the walled city after its capture or otherwise ensure access to the holy places. Both said history would not forgive the government if it did not exploit this heaven-sent opportunity for restoring Jewish sovereignty over ancient Jerusalem.

Ironically, religious ministers, whose ideological progeny would within a few years initiate the settlement movement, opposed the idea. They expressed concern that the Christian world, led by the Vatican, would never accept Israeli sovereignty over the holiest sites in Christendom. The head of the National Religious Party, Interior Minister Moshe Haim Shapira, spoke forcefully against annexation. The best solution, he said, was the Old City’s internationalization. “To Jordan we will not return it,” he said. “To the world, yes.”

A member of Eshkol’s own Mapai Party, Education Minister Zalman Aranne, warned that any attempt to annex the Arab part of the city could lead to a call at the UN for internationalization of the entire city, including the Jewish side, as called for in the Partition Plan of 1947.

Defense Minister Moshe Dayan “showed scant enthusiasm” for the conquest of the Old City.

Israel was still haunted by the forceful threats of economic sanctions from Washington and of a rocket attack from Moscow that forced Ben-Gurion to relinquish Israel’s hold on Sinai after its capture in the 1956 Sinai Campaign. This was clearly on Eshkol’s mind when he told the cabinet: “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.”

Dayan had specifically ruled out territorial expansion as a war goal (“We have no territorial aim whatsoever,” he told the cabinet) and he had cautioned his commanders not to provoke Jordan since the bulk of Israel’s strength was committed on the Egyptian front. But as the day wore on, the dimensions of Israel’s successes against Egypt and the unceasing Jordanian shelling were beginning to stir second thoughts about the Jordanian front.

A thick layer of ambiguity, collective and personal, would settle over the subject. The Old City was a prize so enormous that it was questionable if a country with a population of less than three million could dare claim it if the world objected. On the other hand, how could a Jewish state refuse to claim it? Israel’s roots were not in Tel Aviv or in the new city of Jerusalem, just a century old, but in the city across no-man’s-land bearing the same name. It was there that King David turned a confederation of tribes into a nation, and it was in the walled city during the subsequent millennium that the nation’s ethos was shaped by prophets and judges. The memory of Jerusalem, mentioned in their prayers three times a day, had sustained the Jews as a people in their epic wanderings. Could the reborn Jewish state refuse the opportunity that had suddenly been thrust upon it?

Ben-Gurion revealed his own ambiguity about the Old City four years earlier when, as prime minister, he ordered the army to prepare to link up with Mount Scopus in the event King Hussein was toppled by an upheaval then threatening Jordan. Israel had maintained a 120-man garrison on Scopus, a mile behind Jordanian lines, since the War of Independence. The garrison was rotated regularly under UN supervision. In the event of war, Scopus was likely to be Jordan’s priority target. According to Gen Uzi Narkiss, who was involved in planning the 1963 operation and was now commander of the Jordanian front, Ben-Gurion stipulated that the Old City be dealt with separately by the planners despite its proximity to Scopus. It was Narkiss’ impression that Ben-Gurion “wished to avoid becoming entangled in the Old City.”

Since the sounding of the sirens at 8 A.M. and the terse radio announcement of clashes on the Egyptian front, Israelis had received almost no information about the progress of the war. There had been nothing to indicate whether Israeli territory was overrun or, indeed, whether disaster was in the offing. Those tuning into Hebrew-language propaganda broadcasts on Radio Cairo were alarmed by reports that the Israeli air force had been smashed and that Egypt’s armored forces were approaching a burning Tel Aviv. Israel wanted Egypt to continue pretending it was winning so that it did not call for a cease-fire before the Israeli sweep of Sinai was assured.

The first encouraging news the Israeli public received all day was buried in a broadcast after midnight, when Eshkol said that the fighting in the south was on enemy territory. He also indicated that the Egyptian air force had taken a pummeling.

At 1:15 a.m., Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin was introduced on Israel Radio without warning. Despite the hour, almost everyone over 10 years of age was awake and listening, mostly on transistor radios in shelters. In a calm voice, Rabin reported that Israeli troops had reached the coastal town of El Arish in Sinai and that Jenin had fallen, the first indication that Israeli troops had penetrated the West Bank. The commander of the air force, Gen. Motti Hod, spoke next. In a dry and weary voice, he described the blow inflicted during the day on four Arab air forces, letting fall the figure of 400 enemy planes knocked out, the bulk on the ground. In case listeners thought they had heard wrong, he proceeded to give a detailed breakdown of losses by the Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian and Iraqi air forces (300 Egyptian planes destroyed, 20 in the air…etc.). Israeli losses for the day were given as 19 planes.

In the Arabic-language wing of Israel Radio in Jerusalem, the campaign to demoralize listeners in the Arab world continued unabated. Like a rolling artillery barrage, the section directed its announcements at specific targets in front of the advancing Israeli army. Throughout the day, Arab commanders from Gaza to El Arish, addressed by name, were called upon to raise white flags and surrender. In case the Egyptian officers didn’t realize the precariousness of their position, the broadcast informed them of the positions Egypt had already lost.

That night on the streets, darkness was almost total. The few people abroad felt their way through the empty streets by touching the sides of buildings and tapping with their toes to find the curb. Journalists sending stories abroad had to feel their way like blind men to the censor’s office and then to the nearby central post office where telex operators worked through the night.

From the rooftop of the old Hebrew University library on Scopus, Jerusalem still looked like one city even after two decades of division. “What a view,” said Dayan. It seemed incredible that without anyone having given thought to it until the day before, Israel was in the process of gaining control of the entire city. Narkiss took advantage of the opportunity to press Dayan on the Old City.

“Moshe, we must go in.”

“Under no circumstances,” replied Dayan testily.

Since the cabinet discussion in the Knesset shelter the previous night — prior to the paratrooper attack and prior to the successful flanking movement by the Harel Brigade — thinking had been shifting within the political leadership. With Gur’s men now ensconced outside the Old City walls and Harel tanks astride the Ramallah-Jerusalem road, it was as if history, of its own accord, had taken the matter out of the government’s hands. Nevertheless, weighty political and tactical decisions had to be made before the next step was taken.

Foreign Minister Abba Eban had proposed at the cabinet meeting that the capture of the Old City be presented as a response to Jordanian shelling, thereby deferring the question of its future status. Eshkol adopted this pragmatic approach in an official statement. “We are going to take the Old City of Jerusalem in order to remove the danger from the shelling incessantly being carried out by Jordan.” The statement left open the possibility of a pullback after the guns were silenced, but most ministers understood that once the flag was raised over the Old City, Israel would find it difficult, if not impossible, to lower it without disavowing a central aspect of its national being.

Paratroop commander Gur had made the fortress-like Rockefeller Museum opposite the Old City’s northern wall his forward command post. It was there that Chief Army Chaplain Shlomo Goren found him. Goren said he wanted to be the first man to reach the Western Wall.

“Sorry, rabbi,” Gur replied. “We haven’t got permission to go in. Maybe you can get it for us.”

The chaplain was beside himself with exasperation. He suggested to Gur that he ignore orders. “We could fix it up afterwards,” he said. “What do you say?” Gur said no, but he had in fact been contemplating such a move. In past discussions within the army, one of the options raised was seizure of one of the Old City’s gateways. “Hot pursuit” often carried commanders beyond their assigned objectives. He laid the idea aside when orders came down to seize the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Old City. The battle was continuing.

In opposing a break-in to the Old City, Dayan was not, in fact, opposing its capture. He wanted to avoid a bloody battle in its alleys that would lead to high casualties and possible damage to holy places. Instead, he wanted a siege of the walls till white flags went up. However, reports that the United Nations was preparing to vote on a cease-fire obliged him shortly after dawn to order an assault. Unknown to the Israelis, some 500 Jordanian soldiers, who could have put up a formidable resistance, had slipped out during the night to make their way to the Jordan River on foot.

On Wednesday morning, June 7, almost exactly 48 hours after the Jordanians opened fire in Jerusalem, an Israeli Sherman tank fired a shell that unhinged the tall doors of the Lion’s Gate. Through his sights, the tank gunner found himself looking straight up the Via Dolorosa and a new chapter in Jerusalem’s story.

Abraham Rabinovich is a historian and journalist who recently published “The Battle For Jerusalem: An Unintended Conquest

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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During Six-Day War, Israeli Leaders Were Divided About Capturing Old City

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