Remembering the Six Day War

Capturing the Old City

The Old City in Jerusalem / Getty Images
June 7, 2017

Jerusalem's Old City was a prize for Israel to dream about but too charged to reach out for. Although the Israel Defense Forces had drawers filled with contingency plans for virtually every conceivable target and circumstance in the Middle East, there was none in 1967 for the Old City, the closet target of all—literally a stone's throw from the border dividing Jerusalem into two cities.

A three-stage plan existed for attacking Jordanian Jerusalem in the event of war but while two stages were spelled out in detail, the third stage, the capture of the Old City, was left open. There was not even an indication of which of the Old City's seven gates was to be attacked, only a note stating that separate orders would be provided when the need arose. It was almost as if the authorities, civilian and military, were leaving this step—the climactic return to the cradle of Judaism—to the Messiah.

More prosaic reasons emerged in the Israeli cabinet as the Six Day War got underway on June 5, 1967, 50 years ago. The army wanted to avoid hostilities with Jordan that would draw forces away from the Egyptian front where major battles were to be fought. But when the Jordanians opened artillery fire on Israeli Jerusalem and other targets, a major counter-attack could not be avoided. At this point, several ministers raised objections to any attempt to conquer the Old City. The Christian world, they argued, particularly the Vatican, would not tolerate the holiest sites in Christendom coming under Jewish rule. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol recalled how, in 1956, threats of economic sanctions by the Eisenhower administration and the threat of military action by the Soviet Union forced Israel to retreat from the Sinai Peninsula. "In the Jordanian sector," he told his cabinet, "we are going forward in the knowledge that we will be obliged to pull out from (Jordanian) Jerusalem and the West Bank."

A paratroop brigade was sent across the border not to capture the Old City but to relieve an isolated, 120-man garrison on Mount Scopus. Only after two days of fierce battle, when the Jordanian army was in full retreat and Israeli soldiers found themselves at the walls of the ancient city, did Israel come to view the annexation of Jordanian Jerusalem, including the Old City, as a dictate of history—manifest destiny.

The hesitation that had marked official thinking gave way virtually overnight to a determination to reunite the two Jerusalems. A committee made up of senior civil servants and a general drew up the new boundaries. They were guided in the main not by ancient history but the kind they had lived through themselves in the recently ended war. The border they delineated incorporated high ground that would add to the city's defenses if war returned to Jerusalem, as it already had done twice in a generation (1948 and 1967).

Three weeks after the Six Day War, the Knesset annexed 28 square miles across the former border, an area that would come to be called East Jerusalem. Israeli Jerusalem was tripled in size and Jordanian Jerusalem disappeared as a municipal entity, although most of its employees were taken on by the expanded municipality. Only a small fraction of the annexed area was linked to biblical Jerusalem, principally the half-mile-square Old City itself.

In the end, the Christian world did not force Israel back to its former border. It was the Muslim world that became Israel's main rival. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan plucked the most contentious religious thorn on the very day that his troops captured the Temple Mount—site of the Jewish temple in antiquity and currently the third holiest site in Islam. Upon seeing an Israeli flag raised over the Dome of the Rock, he ordered it taken down. While Israel had sovereignty over the Temple Mount as it did over the rest of Jerusalem, he would announce, Muslim religious authorities would retain de facto control of the Islamic holy places.

In a census immediately after the war, Arabs constituted 26 percent of the population of the united city. Israeli officials believed that this figure would decline as Jews settled into large house developments built for them in East Jerusalem. Nevertheless, half a century later, the Arab population had risen to 37 percent and demographers were predicting an Arab majority within a few decades unless there were significant changes.

For two decades after the war, a period that a Palestinian businessman would later refer to as "a golden age," Israelis and Palestinians moved freely anywhere in the city and tens of thousands of Palestinians found employment in the Jewish sector. But in the absence of a political settlement, the Arab population grew increasingly restless. In 1987, the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, broke out.  Eventually, the situation calmed but the outbreak of the second, more violent, intifada in 2000, sharply reduced contacts between Jews and Arabs.

Yet Jerusalem has proved resilient enough to permit a level of accommodation among its alienated populations. Resting on the slopes of a political volcano, it has remained for believing Jews, Muslims, and Christians a gateway to heaven.

Abraham Rabinovich is the author of the revised 50th anniversary edition of The Battle for Jerusalem, An Unintended Conquest, which is available this month on Amazon in eBook and paperback formats.

Published under: Israel , Jerusalem