The Battle for Jerusalem

May 18, 2017 by J-Wire Staff
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Five days before the Six Day War broke out in June 1967, Abraham Rabinovich arrived in Jerusalem as an American reporter.

Abraham Rabinovich on the Temple Mount

He has published a revised edition of his book “The Battle for Jerusalem”.

Abraham Rabinovich writes:”When the war ended, I decided to remain in order to understand the momentous events I had witnessed by writing a book. Over the next two years, I interviewed close to 300 persons, soldiers who fought in the battle and civilians who lived through it.

Proximity to the events meant that memories were fresh. The large number of interviews permitted me to base much of this account on testimony that had corroboration. To a limited extent, my own observations before and during the battle find a place here. In the opening hour of the war, I took shelter in a building downtown and found myself in City Hall.  I watched the shelling of the city with Mayor Teddy Kollek from his office window. Two days later, I crossed Jordanian Jerusalem and reached the walled city just after its fall.

The first edition of this book was primarily an attempt to reconstruct the story of the battle. Of the reserve paratroop brigade which bore the brunt of the fighting, I interviewed 125 men, which took me to 35 kibbutzim as well as to cities and villages around the country. Many of the reservists were farmers, and I would sometimes be led to my quarry by the sound of a tractor. A number of them walked over their part of the Jerusalem battlefield with me as did men from the other brigades that took part in the battle.

In this edition I also examine the political context, including initial opposition within the Israeli cabinet to capturing the Old City, and take a closer look at the Arab side. I greatly profited from the incisive account of Israel’s strategic thinking by Dr. Ami Gluska in his book, “The Israeli Military and the Origins of the 1967 War”, as well as by accounts from the Jordanian side, and by relevant memoirs published after my book appeared.

For Israel, the capture of Jerusalem’s Old City was an emotional catharsis comparable to that evoked by the creation of the state. When the war started no one in the country gave the Old City a thought; Israel was focused on the Egyptian front and the army wished to avoid entanglement with Jordan that would siphon off forces. But 48 hours after hostilities commenced, the Israeli flag was flying over the Western Wall. Rarely have a nation’s unspoken aspirations been realized so swiftly and so unexpectedly.

What happened during those 48 hours is at the heart of the Israel-Arab dispute which has held the attention of much of the world since 1967.

Amazon’s review of “The Battle for Jerusalem”.

Abraham Rabinovich arrived in Jerusalem five days before the Six Day War as a reporter for an American newspaper.

He covered the battle for the city and was on the Temple Mount a few hours after its capture. To understand the momentous events he had witnessed, he subsequently interviewed 300 soldiers, officials and civilians. The conquest of the Old City, a major event in modern Middle East history, was something that Israel’s leaders had not planned and that some of them did not want.

The book was written soon after the war, when memories were fresh. The current revised edition expands the context, political and military, and offers new perspective from both sides of the battlefield. With the outbreak of war with Egypt, Israel sought to avoid a second front.

Hours after Jordan opened artillery fire, Israel refrained from substantive retaliation as it sought a cease-fire. Only after Jordanian troops penetrated the Jewish city did Israel respond on the ground, and even then in measured stages.

The Israeli cabinet was divided over capture of the Old City. It was, surprisingly, the religious ministers who argued against it most vigorously. They feared that Israel could not stand up to international pressure if it annexed an entity that was not just the cradle of Jewish history but also sacred to Christianity and Islam. However, events created a vacuum on the West Bank into which Israel was inexorably pulled, step by step. We witness the heated debate in Jordanian military headquarters where King Hussein had handed over command of his army to an Egyptian general. The latter’s strategy was designed to meet Egypt’s needs, not Jordan’s.

It would cost Jordan the West Bank.

The book begins with a description of Jerusalem as a divided city, split between Israel and Jordan since Israel’s War of Independence. With the onset of the crisis in 1967, anxiety grips Israeli Jerusalem which had been besieged for months in the earlier war and elaborate emergency measures are set into motion. On the Arab side of the city, by contrast, there is euphoria and anticipation of an easy victory. Virtually nothing is done to prepare the civilian sector. The Israeli general staff pushes for a pre-emptive air strike against Egypt but the government resists. Tensions reach a point where at least one general, Ariel Sharon, considers the possibility of a putsch.

The appointment of Moshe Dayan as defense minister opens the way to war. Defense of Israeli Jerusalem is entrusted to the Jerusalem Brigade, made up of local reservists. The greatest concern is Mount Scopus, an Israeli enclave behind Jordanian lines. An Israeli armored brigade is dispatched from the coastal plain with orders to reach Scopus by flanking the Jordanian line.

It would have to breach thick minefields and scale difficult terrain as it races a brigade of Jordanian tanks coming up from Jericho. With time pressing, a paratroop brigade is ordered to relieve Scopus by driving through the center of the Jordanian defences.

The reader follows the gruelling battles in the trenches of Ammunition Hill and the streets of east Jerusalem through the eyes of the men who fought there. We see the growing isolation of the Jordanian garrison in the Old City, their last bastion. In a room lit only by distant flares, the Jordanian commander informs the local governor that he is pulling his troops out. A number of soldiers choose to remain and engage the Israeli troops from the alleys and ramparts of the walled city.

A classic tale.

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