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Jerusalem Day, the 50th Anniversary - Ben Volman
May 19, 2017

By Ben Volman, Director of the Toronto Messianic Centre.

“Har ha-Bayit b’yadenu
.”  “The Temple Mount is in our hands.” 

Those words, spoken by Motta Gur, commander of Israeli forces in the Old City of Jerusalem, were first heard over a military radio almost exactly 50 years ago – June 7, 1967. The emotional and spiritual impact of that moment is hard to measure:  How does anyone embrace a moment climaxing 1900 years of exile? How do we try to explain this event that seems more spiritual fiction than historical fact – an outcast people whose return to claim access to their holiest site, the Wailing Wall, was a powerful sign to Jews world-wide that Israel had returned to the Promised Land and they would not be moved.

After 50 years, it’s too easy for us to speak glibly about the battles for Jerusalem. We have few memories of the cost paid in lives.  The pictures that are shown suggest a quick, easy victory. In fact, 97 paratroopers, among Israel’s toughest soldiers, were killed and 430 others were wounded during battles that raged over three days. The unified city was bought at a high price in human lives and, for Israelis, this is a steep number of losses.

The conflict over Jerusalem included some of the bloodiest battles of the Six Day War.  Israeli troops were confronted by extensive Jordanian defenses – reinforcements replete with mines, tunnels and the determined, well-trained soldiers of the Arab Legion.  Only with repeated, persistent assaults were Jordan’s troops eventually overwhelmed by the unflinching weight of the Jewish forces, led by paratrooper brigades that would not retreat.

But it might not have happened. Israel had no desire to fight the Jordanians and King Hussein. Long considered a moderate, Hussein had been bullied by both Egyptian and Syrian leaders to join their massive build-up of troops massing against Israel in May1967.  The pressures had led him to make numerous concessions and even place his troops under an Egyptian general for the duration of the war.

Early on the morning of Monday, June 5, as the Israelis prepared lightning assaults on Egyptian air fields, the Turkish ambassador informed Hussein that the Israelis were planning a first strike against Egypt. A few hours later, Hussein’s radar intelligence saw evidence of an attack from Israel on their screens and tried to send word to Egypt’s air command. The day before, Egypt had changed their military encoding frequencies without informing Jordan of the new ones. The messages arrived too late. Despite the tense situation, not one of the leading commanders of the Egyptian armed forces – including President Nasser – was on duty to respond to the warning.

The quick destruction of the Egyptian air force – the Jordanian air force soon suffered the same fate – was a decisive military advantage. With relative control over the skies, Israeli forces had an incomparable edge in daylight battles. Numerous times, when the Jordanians or Egyptians would counterattack with their best troops and equipment, they were overcome by Israeli air power.

However, on that first day of fighting, even as Egypt’s air force lay in smoking ruins and his troops were retreating with heavy losses from the first battles for the Sinai, Nasser personally called Hussein, urging him to join the fight, opening a new front against Israel.

He told the king that Israel was scattering in defeat with major losses to their air force and his troops were marching toward Tel Aviv.  When he reached his military command, Hussein found that the Egyptian general in charge of Jordan’s armies had already ordered Jordan’s troops to go on the offensive.

Jordanian radar signals suggested that large waves of aircraft were flying toward Israel from the Sinai. The king assumed that these were Egyptian aircraft assaulting Israeli targets. The Iraqis had also told him that their planes were in aerial assaults against Israel. In fact, the opposite was happening: the Israelis were returning from massive sorties on Egyptian airfields and the Iraqis had not engaged any Israeli aircraft. The king saw no reason to hesitate and confirmed the orders to attack.

The Israelis handled the initial Jordanian attacks cautiously. But as the Sinai offensive quickly turned into a rout with the Egyptians in confused retreat, General Dayan (Minister of Defense) ordered a counter-offensive that would eventually overrun Jordanian troops in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Two veteran battalions of paratroopers were freed up from the Sinai campaign, and these led the fight.

Over the first two days, battles raged over the collar of hills surrounding Jerusalem: the Jordanians had moved swiftly to seize Mount Scopus, the highest hill, but the Israelis managed to wrest it away. Heavy battles were required to take Government House, south of the Old City (it was actually a UN headquarters when the Jordanians seized it), and the areas closer to Mount Scopus, including the Mount of Olives (with the Garden of Gethsemane on its slopes). Paratroopers also had to prepare for an assault on the heavily armed areas of Augusta Victoria Ridge, just south of Scopus. (The ridge had formerly held a German hospital named for the Kaiser’s wife).  The night battles around Gethsemane and its nearby church were particularly bloody for the Israelis.

To the west of Mount Scopus was a heavily fortified hill where the British had at one time kept stocks of munitions – thus, “Ammunition Hill.” That redoubt and a lower position, a nearby Police Academy, guarded the Nablus Road that passed between them and Mount Scopus. The road was well fortified since it led right into the Old City.  Ammunition Hill was a strongpoint of the Arab Legion’s defence. Since 1948 it had been reinforced with trenches, mine fields, barricades and bunkers for machine gun nests and mortars. For the Jordanians, this was the key line of defence to East Jerusalem. For the Israelis, it was the most threatening site for a Jordanian attack.

Paratroopers preferred to fight at night. Early Tuesday morning, at 1:30 am, Motta Gur of Battalion 55, moved his men into position around the Police Academy and an intense battle commenced.  This lower position had to be taken first. It was costly for the Israelis, but eventually the Jordanians retreated to the fortifications of Ammunition Hill. Arab guns devastated the attackers, but they persisted, fighting in hand-to-hand combat through trenches that were soon impassable from the bodies of the fallen. 

Ammunition Hill was costly for both sides.  Another battalion, the 28th, accidentally took a wrong turn and stumbled into a Jordanian maelstrom along the Nablus road and lost half their men to Jordanian artillery. Further south, the 71st Battalion was breaching minefields and barbed wire to emerge at the base of Mount Scopus and prepare for the assault on the Augusta Victoria Ridge.  But by morning, with the fall of Ammunition Hill, the Jordanians were receiving orders to retreat on all fronts.  The paratroopers began to prepare for their next assignment: taking the Old City. Moshe Dayan had adamantly refused to go against this hornet’s nest of alleyways and sacred sites. He feared that house-to-house battles would lead to devastating casualties.

However, as the Israeli paratroopers moved closer to the Old City and the Israelis became certain that the majority of Jordan’s Legionnaires had fled, Dayan relented. He was pressured both by cabinet colleagues and history. With the world powers demanding an immediate cease-fire from Israel, there would never be a better chance to take control of the Old City, which had fallen to the Arab Legion in 1948.  Since then, and for 19 years, Jews had been refused access to their holiest site in the world: the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple that had fallen in 70 ce, often called the Wailing Wall. A generation had grown up looking at pictures, some literally coming to the edge of the Jordanian border in order to get as close as possible to the Wall. 

Wednesday, June 7, 8:30 am, Motta Gur issued his famous order to the paratroopers:  “We occupy the heights overlooking the Old City. In a little while we will enter it. The ancient city of Jerusalem, which for generations we have dreamt and striven for – we will be the first to enter. The Jewish nation is awaiting our victory. Israel awaits this historic hour. Be proud. Good luck.”

At 9:45 am, paratrooper Capt. Yoram Zamosh ordered a tank to blast open the Lion’s Gate near the Wailing Wall and soldiers rushed through, including a jeep carrying Mott Gur. Each company had an assignment to secure a portion of the city, from the Damascus Gate to the Jaffa Gate, around the Via Dolorosa and each of its famous Quarters.

After almost continuous battles for more than 40 hours, Yoram Zamosh, “A” company commander of the 71st Paratroopers claimed the privilege he had boldly requested from Commander Gur – securing the Western Wall. The passage to the wall went through another gate, an obscure entrance called the Mughrabi Gate. His company was carrying explosives to blast it open.

An elderly Arab man in white approached the paratroopers, carrying a large key around his neck. One of the officers spoke to him in Arabic. He was the keeper of the gate. He offered them the key and they entered an area close to the Wall.  Again, out of nowhere, came a figure that was truly surreal. A Brooklyn Jew who had converted to Islam. He led them to the Kotel, which was now only an alleyway with houses built up almost to the edge of the wall.  Jordanian defenders were few but persistent, occasionally giving concentrated fire. Zamosh and his men dealt with these and within a few hours had raised the Israeli flag over the wall. Snipers were still active, but the Israelis were ecstatic, almost oblivious to any rifle fire.

General Shlomo Goren, the chief rabbi of the IDF arrived soon afterwards. He blew the shofar and recited the Kaddish.  Goren had rushed to the Old City from the Sinai where he’d been a passenger in a half-truck that took a direct hit, killing the driver. 

As bulletins about the Old City battles and the Kotel – the Wailing Wall, secured and at last in Israeli hands – spread through the country and abroad.  The news lit a flame of euphoria among Jewish people around the globe. Just a few days before, there had been fear of another genocide, with Israel facing ruthless enemies on every side. The relief of swift victories was combined with an emotional reaction of overwhelming pride and unexpected joy.  A highlight of Independence Day that year had been Shuly Natan’s beautiful rendition of a new song, “Jerusalem of Gold.”  Now, that song became the unofficial anthem of the war.

Looking back on that victory of 50 years ago, we appreciate that it was a moment and perhaps was too well savoured, because a much more disastrous war for which Israel was not so well prepared would follow. One has to wonder: are there any real prospects for peace?

Peace demands just as much courage as war. Many of the same Israeli military leaders who led Israel to victory in the Six Day War were just as committed to peace – Ezer Weizmann, head of the Israeli air force and Defence Minister Moshe Dayan were both heavily involved in crafting the 1978 peace treaty with Egypt. In 1967, Yitzhak Rabin, was chief of the IDF and personally responsible for preparing the country for war.  In 1995 as Prime Minister, Rabin was killed by another Israeli because of his peace accords with the Palestinians. In 1973, Anwar Sadat took Egypt into another war with Israel but he also took a very profound step later in 1977, coming right to Jerusalem to pursue peace. He succeeded in carrying the torch of peace to Camp David because of his courage, and paid for it with his life. This is the courage that’s still needed, yet seems sorely lacking among Israel’s current enemies.

A year after the war, the Israeli Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol, succumbed to the physical and psychological effects of guiding his nation through war.  Only after he was gone, did his contemporaries more fully appreciate his steady, faithful character in the service of his people.

In the aftermath of his debacle on the battlefield, Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser gathered with Arab leaders and said that within three years they should be prepared to take on the Israelis and win. He never lived to see that attack. Nasser died three years and three months after the war, in September 1970.  In the same year, a general who had led Syria’s air force, Hafez Al-Assad, seized control of the country’s presidency and enforced one-man rule for the next three decades.

Surprisingly, it was the Hashemite King Hussein of Jordan who outlasted them and eventually gained the benefits of moderation. After the Egyptian peace deal in 1978, he quietly made his own peace with the Israelis (while loudly proclaiming himself the standard bearer of the Palestinian people against Israel) and entered into a comfortable relationship with the Americans. He died, honoured by the world and beloved by his people, in 1999 and was succeeded by a son.

The war did not permanently change the landscape, but it transformed Israel from a country that was vulnerable on every side to a nation that had contained its enemies and forced peace on others. Some Christians insist that Jerusalem cannot belong to Israel, but it should become an international city with no single nation in control. In fact, the Israelis had welcomed this option in 1948, but the Arab nations refused. After their ’48 victory in the Old City, they destroyed every vestige of the Jewish community they could find, including any archaeological remnants of the Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount. Many of their leaders insist that they will take back the city and restore its Islamic identity.

Perhaps we should note the words of Yeshua in Luke 21:24. He certainly thought it would become a Jewish city again:  “Yerushalayim will be trampled down by the Goyim [the Gentiles] until the age of the Goyim has run its course.”

Given the recent declarations from UNESCO, Israel will never allow a United Nations agency to oversee Jerusalem. Last year, the organization denied that the site had ever been of significance to the Jewish people – a direct refutation of the indisputable historical facts of the Jewish Temple. Recently, in response no doubt to the 50th anniversary of Israel’s victory, UNESCO issued complaints about the negative consequences to the city of Israel’s “occupation.” In particular, they mentioned Israel’s archaeological research around the Temple Mount which, of course, only proves that it was, indeed, a Jewish site.

In the past, Israel has given back lands that were bought with their soldiers’ precious blood, but they will not give up Jerusalem or oversight of the Kotel, the Wailing Wall.

One of the most touching tributes to the paratroopers who watched their comrades fall in the battles for Jerusalem was recorded by Steven Pressfield, in The Lion’s Gate: On the Front Lines of the Six Day War.  He records these words from one of the heroic paratroopers, Moshe Stempel, who had already received one of Israel’s highest citations for valour. Stempel was a faithful foot soldier and fought with his brigade to the Wailing Wall, raising the flag and singing the anthem. He died a year later in a gun battle with terrorists. But Capt. Zamosh remembered his words as his soldiers raised the Israeli flag over the wall, singing the Hatikvah with tears in their eyes:

“Zamosh, if my grandfather, if my great-grandfather, if any of my family who have been murdered in pogroms and in the death camps…if they could know, somehow, even for one second, that I, their grandson, would be standing here at this hour, in this place, wearing the red boots of an Israeli paratrooper…they would suffer death a thousand times and count it as nothing. We shall never, never leave this place. Never will we give this up.”  

Filed under: Jewish Festivals, Special Days, Israel, Jewish History


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