June 7, 1967. Brigadier General Uzi Narkiss of the Israeli Army receives the phone call for which he has waited his entire life. IDF headquarters tells him that the Egyptians are retreating in the Sinai Peninsula, and that this is an opportunity they will only get once. General Narkiss is told to attack the Jordanians and capture the Old City of Jerusalem. For the first time in millennia, the sons of David are about to reclaim the Temple Mount.
Ever since the Israeli War of Independence, relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors had remained tense. Despite having beaten its foes in 1948, the Jewish state remained in an incredibly vulnerable position. It was sandwiched between three countries – Egypt, Jordan, and Syria – that remained inveterately hostile to its existence. Jordan still occupied the West Bank of the Jordan River, a large stretch of territory to Israel’s east that stuck into her borders like a great ulcer. At one point, Israel was only nine miles wide between the West Bank and the Mediterranean, meaning a sudden Jordanian strike could cut Israel in two.
After the Suez Crisis of 1956, Egypt and Israel had agreed to the stationing of a U.N. peacekeeping force (UNEF) on their border in the Sinai to ensure they complied with the armistice. The next decade saw numerous dangerous clashes between Israeli and Arab forces along the volatile frontier, including the 1966 “Samu Incident” where the Israelis and Jordanians started a fight in the West Bank. After this incident, King Hussein of Jordan accused Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser for failing to come to his aid and “hiding behind UNEF skirts.”
Nasser, prodded by other Arab leaders and false Soviet reports that the Israelis were massing for an attack, began to take aggressive postures in Israel’s direction. He began massing the Egyptian armies on Israel’s border in May 1967, and on May 19 expelled UNEF from his territories. The most reckless move Nasser made, though, was by closing the Straits of Tiran, Israel’s outlet to the Red Sea, against all Israeli shipping. Israel had stated on multiple occasions that the closure of the Straits would be considered an act of war, compromising its foreign trade and freedom of the seas. The rest of the world viewed this as an aggressive move as well – just not enough to do anything about it.
Egypt and Syria had signed a mutual defense pact in 1966, and on May 30 Jordan and Egypt signed their own pact. A day later, the Jordanians invited Iraq and Egypt to deploy major forces within her borders.
With all this in mind, it is understandable that Israel felt like her back was to the wall. With their foreign trade choked off, armies massing on every side, and attempts at international or diplomatic settlements quickly disintegrating, the Israeli government made the decision to strike before it was struck. On June 1, a new unity government came together, bringing in the famous one-eyed commando Moshe Dayan (“the Judge”) as Minister of Defense.
Dayan and Israel’s top general, Yitzhak Rabin, began planning the war that they hoped would save Israel. On June 4, they made the final irrevocable decision: Israel would launch a rapid preemptive strike against Egypt – but maintain just enough force to hold off Jordan and Syria if they needed to. It was a terribly risky decision, because if Syria and Jordan made an aggressive attack Israel could be crushed with hours before their main forces could return to stop the invasion. It was a dangerous divide and conquer strategy, especially considering that each one of the enemy nations was larger than Israel alone.
Israel, though, had high confidence in its military and its leaders. Though their weapons, vehicles and planes were not really any better than their foes – they were still using retrofitted World War II Shermans as the core of their armored regiments – the soldiers and pilots were well-trained and had truly exceptional morale. Though the Egyptians and Jordanians had large, tough armies – and the Jordanian Army had a level of professionalism that rivaled Israel’s – the determination of Israeli soldiers, their strong cohesiveness, and adaptability in a crisis surpassed their opponents.
The Six-Day War began on June 5, when a massive Israeli air strike caught most of the Egyptian planes on the ground and removed the Egyptian Air Force as a factor for virtually the rest of the war. Israeli armored forces struck out across the Sinai, hitting the unwitting Egyptians in a rapid series of tank battles that soon unhinged the Arab formations. By June 6, the Egyptians were in full-on retreat as the Israelis pursued them across the vast Sinai desert, aiming to reach the Suez Canal and establish a defensive barrier.
June 5 dawned in the divided city of Jerusalem with its usual tension. Israel held the suburbs of West Jerusalem, but the vast bulk of the city, including the Old City with its religious sites such as the Wailing Wall, the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock, was held by Jordan. The UN peacekeeping mission had its headquarters – “Government House” - in the southern city, on Ammunition Hill. Dayan and the Israeli high command were reluctant to make any military movements around Jerusalem, viewing it as an international third rail, and they were still trying to get Jordan to remain neutral. That hope soon vanished.
The same day that Israel launched their air strike, the Jordanian high command ordered an attack on Israel just before 9:00 AM. The Israelis wanted to remain on the defensive along their front with Jordan in order to save their strength for Egypt. By 9:30 AM, June 5, Jerusalem’s houses began to rattle with the sounds of intermittent machine gun fire, soon joined by Jordanian mortars and cannon. General Narkiss, the commander of Israeli forces facing Jordan, forbade his troops to use anything larger than small arms, but the Jordanians knew no such restrictions. By 10:00 AM, Jordanian artillery was shelling Israeli territory, reaching as far as the outskirts of Tel Aviv. By 11:00 they were launching a barrage at Israeli Jerusalem itself, causing civilian casualties and damaging 900 buildings, including a hospital.
The Israeli government was placed in a quandary. With Jordan’s entry into the war, all of Israel was now vulnerable to artillery fire and possible ground attack, and they could not simply sit back and let themselves be bombarded. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol deferred to Dayan, who was against trying to take Jerusalem with their limited forces. Even Narkiss’ pleas for an infantry attack on Jerusalem only got Dayan to agree to more limited attacks. Narkiss’ brigade had briefly seized the western gate of the Old City in 1948, only to be pushed out by a counterattack later that day. He lived with regret that “Jerusalem was divided, that no Jew remained in the Old City ... for one night I held the gate of the city in my hands but it was torn out of them.”
Israel probably never would have attacked and taken the West Bank if the Jordanians had not been so desperate to prove their commitment to the cause. King Hussein’s grandfather, Abdullah I, had been assassinated in 1951 by a Palestinian who believed he was going to make peace with Israel. For the safety of their regime, the Hashemite Kings of Jordan had to appear strong against Israel, but their actions would cost them Jerusalem.
When Jordanian forces seized Government House, placing the UN staff there in the line of fire, Narkis finally got permission to go ahead and attack Jordanian forces, but NOT to enter Jerusalem itself or the Old City. Throughout June 5, Israeli forces launched attacks on the Jordanians in the West Bank north and south of Jerusalem, their aim being to cut the highways that supplied Jordanian forces within Jerusalem itself. This way they could dance around the sensitive spot and hopefully erase the threat to Israel – without sparking an international incident. The Israeli 55th Paratrooper Brigade managed to retake Government House and restore UN authority there. Tank battles in the open plains of the Holy Land turned Israel’s way after bitter fighting – and the use of air power to erode Jordanian strength.
By June 6, though, it had become unavoidable to allow Israeli troops to enter Jerusalem. Dayan gave strict orders that they were not to enter or even fire into the Old City, still ringed with the walls the Ottomans had built in the 1500s. He feared the consequences that artillery and gunfire would have in the architecture, as well as a Christian backlash from the Western Powers that Israel needed on its side.
At midday on June 6, the Israelis had finally taken Jerusalem, driving Jordanian forces into the Old City itself and isolating them from further help. Dayan and Narkiss stood atop Mount Scopus to the north and looked down into the Old City itself – the Jewish dream. For centuries it had been in the hands of foreign occupiers, and in 1948 Jordan had expelled all its Jewish inhabitants. The temptation was immense. It was right there…within grasp. Dayan ordered Narkiss to hold his positions and await further orders, and sped back to Tel Aviv to assess the course of the war.
By night on June 6, the Israeli forces in the Sinai had reached the Suez Canal, and Jordan’s forces had nearly been defeated. Even though Syria was about to attack, the Israeli government realized that they had a window of opportunity. Already, the UN was placing pressure on them to impose a ceasefire, and soon the pressure would become irresistible. If the Jewish people were ever going to reclaim their ancient capital, to once again walk in the Old City of David and Solomon, they were probably not going to get another chance like this.
At 5:00am on June 7, Dayan called Narkiss’s headquarters. “We are already being pressed for a ceasefire. We are at the canal. The Egyptians have been carved up. Don't let the Old City remain an enclave.” There was to be no repeat of 1948. The Old City was to be taken.
At 8:30, the 55th Paratroop Brigade attacked from the eastern heights it had seized the day before, while the 16th Jerusalem Brigade – which had guarded the Israeli quarter of the city for 19 years – attacked from the west. To Motta Gur, the commander of the paratroopers, it was the moment of a lifetime. “We stand on a ridge overlooking the Holy City. Soon we will enter the city, the Old City of Jerusalem about which countless generations of Jews have dreamed, to which all living Jews aspire. To our brigade has been granted the privilege of being the first to enter it.”
The paratroopers moved in, encountering resistance from the few remaining Jordanian defenders. It was less a battle, though, than a pilgrimage. The infantry ran beside the tanks almost frantically, with centuries of longing and desire behind them. The Israelis almost ignored their foes, passing by dazed Arab soldiers as they ascended the mount with growing emotion. Gur ordered his troops to stop firing, “For it is a holy place.” The time was 0950 hours, June 7, 1967. For the first time since the Babylonians had sacked Jerusalem in 597 BC, the heart of Jerusalem was in the hands of the Hebrews.
Crusty old Dayan, who had resisted the temptation to take the City for 48 hours, rode into the town and up to the Wall. The Wailing Wall was the last remnant of the old Temple that had been the center of Jewish life until the Romans destroyed it in 79 AD. Dayan strode up to the Wall. Known as a rugged, roguish man with little religion about him, even the Minister of Defense began blubbering with tears and praying aloud. He was surrounded by hundreds of Israeli soldiers removing their helmets and gazing up at the Wall in triumphant awe.
Elders, women, and young Jews across Jerusalem, hearing the news, surged to the Old City through the war-torn streets to mob the Temple Mount. Israeli soldiers yelled triumphantly that Jerusalem would never be divided again. The chief Chaplain of the Israeli Army arrived to blow a triumphant horn at the Mandelbaum gate.
Even though the Six-Day War ended three days later with another uneasy ceasefire – and the promise of more trouble to come – Jerusalem belonged to Israel. We know that there was trouble ahead, and trouble to this day, but none of that mattered on June 7, 1967, as the sons of David came home.
Whatever your opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, or how it should end in the future, there is one unyielding fact: Israel will never, ever, *ever* give up Jerusalem again. They would die first.