The Israeli paratroopers poking through a storeroom filled with weapons on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount that day — June 7, 1967 — let out a small cheer when they came upon a crate of soft drinks. Slaking their thirst for the first time since breaking into the Old City, they chatted with me, an American journalist, about the war’s likely fallout.
Despite the bewildering pace of events since the war began two days earlier, the soldiers had plainly given thought to its political implications. “We should keep all the territory we capture,” said one. “They started this war.” He was speaking of the Sinai and the West Bank; the battle on the Syrian front hadn’t yet begun. Another spoke of keeping only territory needed for security. A third focused on Jerusalem. “They can have all the rest back but not our holy city.” In exchange for peace, said another soldier, the Jordanians could have their half of Jerusalem back, too.
In this casual discussion before the last shots were fired, the parameters of the political debate that would occupy Israel, the Arabs and much of the international community in coming decades were already laid out. The impact of Israel’s conquest of the ancient part of Jerusalem in the Six-Day War remains in sharp contrast to the unplanned, almost offhand, nature of the conquest itself.
On the eve of the war, the Israeli high command was intent on avoiding a battle with Jordan that would divert forces from the Egyptian front. Although the Israel Defense Forces had plans for targets in much of the Middle East, it had none for Jerusalem’s Old City, the focus of Jewish prayer for millennia and only a stone’s throw from the Israeli half of the city. There was not even a suggestion as to which of its seven gates should be penetrated if it came to war.
Arriving in Jerusalem, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan stressed to the commander of the Jordanian sector, Gen. Uzi Narkiss, that the coming confrontation must be focused solely on Egypt. Narkiss was to avoid provoking a confrontation with Jordan. As Israeli planes returned from their first strike in Egypt on June 5, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol sent a message to King Hussein: Israel would not attack Jordan if Jordan did not attack. Hussein, however, had signed a security pact with Egypt and could not stay out of the war.
Even after Jordan sent troops across the border, Eshkol sought a cease-fire. Only when Arab radio signaled an imminent attack on Mount Scopus, an Israeli enclave behind Jordanian lines, did Israel order a paratroop brigade to break through Jordanian defenses in the city and link up with the 120-man garrison.
This counterattack was seen as limited. Following Israel’s capture of the Sinai in 1956, it had been forced by the superpowers to pull back. Israel’s leaders expected that similar pressures would be applied regarding newly captured territory. “We are going forward,” Eshkol told his cabinet, “in the knowledge that we will be obliged to pull out” from the Jordanian part of Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Ironically, it was the religious ministers who were most outspoken against conquest of the Old City. The world would never accept Jewish rule over the Christian holy places, they said. Haim-Moshe Shapira, head of the National Religious Party, said if Israel found it necessary to capture the Old City the best solution was internationalization. “To Jordan we will not return it,” he said. “To the world, yes.”
As the war progressed, however, and the dimension of the Israeli victory over Egypt and the Arab air forces became clear, mind-sets began to shift. By the time the tide of battle carried the paratroopers to the walls of the Old City, the cabinet had come to view its capture as an historical dictate that a Jewish state could not avoid embracing. An hour after the cabinet authorized an attack on the Old City, a halftrack carrying the paratroop brigade commander burst through Lion’s Gate opposite the Mount of Olives. Most of the Jordanian battalion inside the walls had fled during the night and only brief skirmishing ensued.
On his way back from the Western Wall later that day, the chief of staff, General Yitzhak Rabin, stopped off in Narkiss’s basement command post to discuss the swift-moving developments with colleagues. At one point, the future prime minister asked, “How do we control a million Arabs?” The question is still being asked half a century later.
Abraham Rabinovich is author of The Battle for Jerusalem: An Unintended Conquest and The Yom Kippur War.