Jerusalem United (Forever?): The Hopeful, Unsure, Legacy of the Six Day War
June 7th, 1967. On the third day of the Six Day War, from atop the Mount of Olives overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, Colonel Mordechai (Motta) Gur, commander of the 55th Paratroopers Brigade, gives a historic order over the Israeli Defense Forces’ wireless:
All company commanders, we’re sitting right now on the ridge and we’re seeing the Old City. Shortly we’re going to go into the Old City of Jerusalem, that all generations have dreamed about. We will be the first to enter the Old City. Eitan’s tanks will advance on the left and will enter the Lion’s Gate. The final rendezvous will be on the open square above.
Too often, nothing much seems to change in the Middle East. By the late 1960’s, tensions between Israel and her Arab adversaries had yet to abate following the end of the 1948 War. Arabs had still not reconciled themselves to Israel’s existence. Following the 1956 Suez crisis, a series of flashpoints, including cross-border attacks launched by Yasser Arafat’s al-Fatah and other terrorist groups, continued to exacerbate these tensions. By 1967, Egypt’s President Gamal Nasser began putting action to his bellicose promises of Israel’s destruction. Soviet-generated “fake news” claiming the massing of Israeli troops along the Syrian border provided the spark needed to set everything alight. Whether he believed the lie or not, Nasser began to mass his own troops throughout the Sinai, expelling the United Nations Emergency Force that had been placed on the peninsula following the ’56 armistice, and taking up positions at key locations, including Sharm El Sheikh, a port city overlooking the Straits of Tiran. From this strategic location, Nasser soon closed the Red Sea to Israeli shipping, cutting the oxygen to Israel’s economy and plugging her access to oil. More than mere aggression, it posed an existential threat and was rightly received as an act of war. A few days later, Egypt and Jordan signed a defense pact, Syria increased the tempo of artillery attacks from the Golan Heights and other aggressive acts, and Iraq sent troops into Jordan.
Hemmed in on every side by powers pledging her destruction, Israel once again found herself facing a critical threat entirely alone. She did what needed to be done, and hit first. In her first strike, Israel destroyed nearly the entirety of the Egyptian air force in a little more than a morning. With the air war decided before it even began, Israel had already all but won the war. One hundred-thirty-two hours later it would all be over, and the Middle East would, in fact, be changed forever. By the end of combat, Israel held all the Sinai peninsula, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. Today marks the 50th anniversary of the third day of the war. A half-century ago, after repeatedly imploring Jordan’s King Hussein to stay out of the fighting, Israel had to respond to the continued Jordanian shelling of West Jerusalem. The Israeli Defense Forces breached no-man’s land and attacked greater East Jerusalem.
In The Lion’s Gate, Steven Pressfield’s magnificent hybrid-history of the Six Day War, we are given an account of the taking of the Old City through the eyes of Yoram Zamosh, a commander of the “A” Company of Paratroop Battalion 71. We can quickly set the scene. Having given his historic order, Motta Gur descended the Mount of Olives and approached the Lion’s Gate, instructing a tank to blow a breach through the portal. This achieved, Alpha Company poured in. Zamosh takes up the narration:
Inside the Lion’s Gate is a small court. On the left and slightly uphill I can see the Gate of the Tribes, which leads to the Temple Mount. Straight ahead lies the Via Dolorosa. [I have been ordered] to secure this lane, which snakes away into the center of the Old City. A Jordanian counterattack could come from here. I send two half-tracks forward with a force of men to seal this approach.
The defense established, Zamosh, a religious Jew, directs the remainder of his company to follow Motta Gur through the Gate of Tribes. “A hundred thoughts race through my mind,” he recalls. “Foremost is this: Across the Temple Mount, no farther than a few hundred meters, waits the Western Wall.”
The Western Wall, or Kotel, is a segment of ancient retaining wall built as part of the expansion of the Second Temple begun by Herod the Great. Because of its connection to the Jewish Temple, it has long been among the holiest sites in Judaism.
Maneuvering across the Temple Mount, the IDF is rushing through history. The location of the biblical Mount Moriah, Jewish tradition declares the Mount as the place where God gathered together the dust to fashion Adam. It is held to be the location of Abraham’s binding of Isaac, and both Jewish temples. Running across the Mount, one of the Israeli warriors captured the momentous occasion by declaring, “We are writing the next chapter of the Bible!” For his part, the location secured, Motta Gur would give yet another iconic pronouncement over the wireless: “The Temple Mount is in our hands!,” he announced. “I repeat, the Temple Mount is in our hands!”
Meanwhile, Zamosh races ahead:
We are on a flight of stone stairs, looking down. The area is nothing like it is today. Instead of a broad stone plaza, we see only a narrow alley, two meters wide, with Arab tenements directly across from it. The space is empty. No soldiers, no civilians. It’s a lane, that’s all. Patches of weeds sprout from cracks between the stones. But it’s the Wall, I recognize it in an instant.
Earlier in the battle, Zamosh was given an Israeli flag by an elderly Jewish woman. She requested that he place it atop the Kotel when they achieved it. Searching for an appropriate place, the soldiers spot, above the wall, an iron grillwork gate and run off in search of it. Eventually finding it, Zamosh produces the flag and inscribes it:
This flag of Israel was placed here by paratroopers of the 55th Brigade, 7 June 1967, who have liberated the Old City.
Later, back at the Kotel, Motta Gur would continue making his historic pronouncements. To his fighters assembled around him he proclaimed:
For some two thousand years the Temple Mount was forbidden to the Jews. Until you came — you, the paratroopers — and returned it to the bosom of the nation. The Western Wall, for which every heart beats, is ours once again. Many Jews have taken their lives into their hands throughout our long history, in order to reach Jerusalem and live here. Endless words of longing have expressed the deep yearning for Jerusalem that beats within the Jewish heart. You have been given the great privilege of completing the circle, of returning to the nation its capital and its holy center…Jerusalem is yours forever.
The end of the 6 Day War was the beginning of a Middle East reshaped. Among the many new—and challenging—changes was the reuniting of the three major centers of the Palestinian Arab population– Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel. For the first time in history, they were brought together under one rule: Israel’s. That this new responsibility for a million and a quarter Arabs who hate Israel would yield a highly combustible situation was not lost on Moshe Dayan, Israel’s Minister of Defense. Dayan, native born to the land of Palestine, knew and respected his Arab neighbors. As a child growing up in Nahalal, he and his family shared land with Bedouins. Those boys were his playmates, “at plowing time they toiled by my side. We took lunch together among the furrows. I danced at their weddings and they danced at mine.” It is said that the only time Dayan lost his temper during the war was when he heard that one of his paratrooper had mounted an Israeli flag atop the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine on the Temple Mount. Insisting he would rip it down with his own teeth if he could, he demanded its removal. In his own statement at the Western Wall, he would offer non-Jews reassurance:
To our Arab neighbors we extend, especially at this hour, the hand of peace. To members of the other religions, Christians and Muslims, I hereby promise faithfully that their full freedom and all their religious rights will be preserved. We did not come to Jerusalem to conquer the Holy Places of others.
On June 27th, 1967, the Israeli Knesset would extend Israel’s legal and administrative jurisdiction to all of Jerusalem. This was not the arrogation of a conqueror. Assurances would continue to be extended to the spiritual leaders of all faiths regarding Israel’s commitment to protect the sacred sites. This is perhaps best exemplified by the passing of the Protection of the Holy Places Law, granting special legal status to holy sites and making it a criminal offence to desecrate or violate them, or to impede access to them. With Israel at her helm, Jerusalem would strive to be a unified city characterized by the freedom of worship.
Few good intentions, especially perhaps in the Middle East, are ever fully realized. But religious freedom in Israel is unmatched in the rest of the region. In Jerusalem itself, the three major monotheistic faiths can worship, freely, within a stone’s throw of each other (which, alas, occasional unrest proves). This is one of the goods that has come of the 6 Day War. During the 19 years of Jordanian occupation, the Old City’s Jewish presence was nearly erased. Dozens of synagogues, some hundreds of years old, were destroyed, looted, or turned into animal shelters. The ancient Jewish cemetery on the slopes of the Mount of Olives was ransacked, its stones used for paving roadways and lining military latrines. Noting the sea change, one former Jordanian ambassador to the United Nations, Adnan Abu Odeh, is quoted as acknowledging that “the situation in Jerusalem prior to 1967 was one of … religious exclusion” whereas, post-1967, Israel seeks “to reach a point of religious inclusion.”
To be sure, contrary to many throughout history, I freely acknowledge that the Jews are human beings—that’s to say, they’re not perfect. They themselves have never suggested otherwise. Varying degrees of culpability for various aspects of conflict in the region can widely assigned. Nevertheless, the victory of the 6 Day War was a tangible good for not just the Jewish people but for the whole of the Middle East. Get them alone, and many of Israel’s public detractors willingly admit that it is better to be a minority in Israel than anywhere else in the Middle East.
The war’s legacy is not yet completed. Indeed, it remains to be seen if any of the several wars fought between Israel and her neighbors have ever, really, been completed. But positive changes abound—peace, finally, between Israel and Egypt and Jordan is happily included among them. Relations with other Arab neighbors continue to warm. Israel remains–and those who wish to see her destruction are fewer.
Like the weeds that sprout between the stones of the Western Wall, such peace–and the hope of peace–clings to existence with the barest of holds. But it does hold. May it continue to do so for another 50 years. And another. And another still, until it finds the capacity to flourish and bloom like Israeli desert.
May God bless Israel, and Jerusalem—the central city of the world—and the region entire.
Marc LiVecche is the managing editor of Providence
Cover image: Paratroopers Zion Karasenti, Haim Oshri, and Itzik Yifat, at the Kotel. June 7th, 1967. David Rubinger. IDF archives.
all others: author’s own
This post was edited to correct the typo in opening line.