‘Be ready to break into the Old City’
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Jerusalem Day

‘Be ready to break into the Old City’

The fateful June 5, 1967, order to paratroop commander Mordechai Gur 'just slipped out,' author Abraham Rabinovich recalls in this excerpt from his landmark book, 'The Battle for Jerusalem'

Mordechai Gur (seated, with black curly hair) and his troops survey the Old City before launching their attack, May 1967. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA/Mazel123)
Mordechai Gur (seated, with black curly hair) and his troops survey the Old City before launching their attack, May 1967. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA/Mazel123)

Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin informed the General Staff on Saturday night, June 3, 1967, of the decision to launch a pre-emptive strike against Egypt in 36 hours, pending cabinet approval. Every effort would be made to keep the Jordanian front quiet.

Mordechai Gur (right) with Yitzhak Rabin and Uzi Narkiss (alongside him) visit Lion Gate in the Old City in celebration of the 1967 victory, May 30, 1992. (photo credit: Flash90)
Mordechai Gur (right) with Yitzhak Rabin and Uzi Narkiss (alongside him) visit Lion Gate in the Old City in celebration of the 1967 victory, May 30, 1992. (photo credit: Flash90)

Air Force Commander Motti Hod had never divulged details of the air force’s plan to the General Staff. Even now, he revealed to his fellow generals only one element — zero hour. The planes would strike at 7:45 AM. The Egyptian air force mounted dawn patrols from first light until 7 AM in anticipation of a possible Israeli attack out of the rising sun. At 7:45 the Egyptian pilots would be back at their bases having breakfast. Senior commanders lived off base and arrived at their headquarters about 8 a.m. At 7:45, they would still be in their cars, unable to react in the decisive first moments of the attack. Once the first planes began attacking, the Israeli armored divisions could shed their camouflage netting and begin the ground offensive.

***

Sunday, June 4, brought no noticeable portent of war. Moshe Dayan, in his first press conference as defense minister the night before, had declared that the time for a spontaneous response to the closing of the Straits of Tiran had passed. A diplomatic solution, he said, would now be sought. In the news room of the Palestine News in Jordanian Jerusalem, editor Abdullah Schleiffer and his colleagues regarded Dayan’s announcement with skepticism. Coming on top of an earlier report about the release of some reserve units, it sounded as if Israel was trying to lull its enemies. The journalists joked that they should run Dayan’s calming remarks under the headline “Israelis about to attack”.

At the American Colony Hotel, all 20 foreign guests checked out within two hours after hearing the Israeli sirens Monday morning and headed for Amman. One of the first visitors to leave town was PLO leader Ahmed Shukeiry, who for the past three days had been whipping crowds into war hysteria. In the commercial center outside the Old City walls merchants pulled down their shutters, like merchants were doing on the Jewish side of the city, and headed home.

A pre-war view from Israeli Jerusalem toward the wall of the Old City. The street at left is blocked by concrete anti-sniper walls, behind which cars are parked. In the center the slender minaret of David's Tower can be seen. The Old City wall ends at right on Mount Zion, dominated by the Dormition Church and its bell tower. The wooded ridge in the distance is Jebel Mukaber with the Government House compound in the center. (photo credit: Israel Government Press Office)
A pre-war view from Israeli Jerusalem toward the wall of the Old City. The street at left is blocked by concrete anti-sniper walls, behind which cars are parked. In the center the slender minaret of David's Tower can be seen. The Old City wall ends at right on Mount Zion, dominated by the Dormition Church and its bell tower. The wooded ridge in the distance is Jebel Mukaber with the Government House compound in the center. (photo credit: Israel Government Press Office)

Jerusalem Governor Anwar al-Khatib relocated from the Old City to a police compound near Wadi Joz where the commander of the brigade defending Jerusalem, Brigadier Ata Ali Haza’a, had his forward command post. King Hussein contacted Khatib there and asked about morale in the city. Morale was high. Radio Cairo was reporting spectacular gains against Israel in the air and on the ground. As if in confirmation, Kol Yisrael made no claims at all. Hundreds of young men were flooding police stations in Arab Jerusalem to ask for arms. Ata Ali, a stolid Bedouin of Syrian origin, had close to 5,000 men at his disposal but they were of uneven quality.

The northern part of the Jordanian line, from Damascus Gate to Ammunition Hill, was held by elite regulars — the Second King Hussein Battalion, made up of East Bank bedouin and rural Palestinians. The hardest fighting in the coming battle would be in this sector.

***

The Jordanians opened small arms and artillery fire at 10 a.m., two hours after the war in the south had begun.

In a trench position opposite Ammunition Hill, Hebrew University philosophy lecturer, Shmaryahu Rivier, had taken shelter in one of the few bunkers on this part of the line. The 29-year-old corporal, one of the most admired faculty members in his department, had fought in the Sinai campaign as a young paratrooper. With him now were three men from his squad, including Private Amitai Spitzer, a philosophy student.

For three hours the men huddled in the bunker as shells pounded the area without letup. Spitzer felt as if his mind were crumbling under the din. One of the soldiers, a Moroccan immigrant, sat in a corner reading aloud from the Book of Psalms. Spitzer reached into his own pocket and pulled out a book. It seemed the only way to preserve his sanity. The book, produced by Spitzer’s publisher father, was a collection of poems by a medieval Italian Jewish author.

“How can you read?” asked Rivier.

At 2:15 the men heard a deeper kind of explosion — recoilless rifle fire. Spitzer could hear the shells getting closer as the Jordanian gunner methodically hit every bunker and trench angle along this stretch of the line. With a recoilless rifle it was virtually impossible to miss. Atop the weapon was a device that fires .50-caliber tracers. When the tracer hits a target, the gunner fires a shell in the near-certainty that it will hit where the tracer hit.

The walls shook as a shell hit the adjoining bunker. It was their turn next. Spitzer shifted to another spot. Rivier was sitting by himself in the far corner. Just a few days before Spitzer had walked with him from the battalion encampment to the nearby university cafeteria for lunch. They had met a professor who informed Rivier that his recently submitted PhD thesis had received the highest possible grade. Now Rivier seemed to be concentrating on something.

“What are you thinking?” Spitzer asked.

“If we get out of here,” said Rivier, “I’ll tell you.”

A .50-caliber tracer came through the firing aperture and struck the rear wall. Rivier rose to move to the place Spitzer had just vacated. At that instant an explosion wracked the confined space of the bunker. To Spitzer, the noise seemed to be forcing its way through his throat and face to his brain. He was knocked back, and it was several moments before his head cleared. He realized that his eyes were wide open, but he could see nothing. He shut them and tapped his body but could find no wounds.

If I lost my sight and nothing else, he thought, not so bad. After a few moments he opened his eyes and saw light and mist. He closed and opened his eyes again. This time he saw that the mist was dust thrown up by the explosion. Two of the men were running out the door, pointing to the rear of the bunker. Spitzer braced himself before turning. Rivier was lying on his face. Spitzer forced himself to go over. He tapped Rivier’s body but could see no wounds. Then he saw the hole in the helmet. Rivier was dead.

***

A paratroop brigade commanded by Col. Mordechai Gur was notified Monday afternoon that their planned drop into Sinai that night was cancelled because the target had been overrun by Israel’s rapidly moving armored divisions. Instead, they were being sent up to Jerusalem to reinforce the city’s defenses.

Stopping by Central Command headquarters on his way to Jerusalem, Col. Gur learned that his mission would not be defensive after all. “Mount Scopus is in danger,” Gen. Uzi Narkiss, the front commander, told him. “Your job is to link up with it. But remember the Old City. Bear right toward the Rockefeller Museum and be ready to break into the Old City.”

The words had slipped out, it seemed, on their own. No one at General Staff headquarters had mentioned the Old City. The battle thus far had been a measured response to developments. Narkiss’s reference to the Old City reflected the enclave’ s new role as a stepping stone.

Abraham Rabinovich (photo credit: courtesy)
Abraham Rabinovich (photo credit: courtesy)

The link-up would not be simple. To reach Scopus meant penetrating minefields, smashing through stout border defenses and fighting through an urban area where riflemen could be lurking behind any window. The reputation of the Arab Legion was still high with Israelis 19 years after they had last met on the battlefield. The flanking movement of Col. Uri Ben-Ari’s mechanized brigade through the hills north of Jerusalem was an attempt to get around the Jordanian defenses. But there was no certainty that Ben-Ari could bring his tanks and half-tracks across the difficult terrain or, if he did, that he would reach the Ramallah-Jerusalem road before Jordanian Pattons arrived there from Jericho.

Alternatives had to be prepared. Reluctant as Narkiss was to assign local reservists the task, he had earlier in the day suggested to Colonel Amitai that the Jerusalem Brigade be prepared to link up with Scopus. The brigade commander expressed doubt about his force’s ability to break through. A few minutes later Narkiss was informed that he was getting the paratroop brigade.

In briefing Gur, Narkiss delineated his assault sector on the map — the mile-long stretch between Mandelbaum Gate and Ammunition Hill. The Arab residential quarter of Sheikh Jarrah lay athwart the most direct route between Israeli Jerusalem and Scopus and the defenses here were the strongest in the city.

The southern half of Gur’s front lay opposite the American Colony Quarter, less heavily defended but farther from Scopus. “The Sheikh Jarrah area is a fortress,” Narkiss said to Gur as they parted. “Be careful.”

Gur and his staff piled into a mobilized civilian car and set off for Jerusalem. Before them lay a task that even in the fast-moving Israeli army normally requires at least 48 hours — drawing up a detailed battle plan from scratch and moving a brigade into position to carry it out. Following a major retaliatory raid in 1956, when the attacking unit suffered heavy casualties, Dayan was criticized for allowing the attack to be launched just 21 hours after the brigade commander involved was given his assignment. Now Gur had less than ten hours to prepare for a far more formidable mission.

A paratroop reconnaissance company commanded by Micha Kapusta had, like Gur’s brigade, seen its designated target in Sinai overrun by tanks during the day. Kapusta was a legendary scout who before the Sinai Campaign had prowled the Sinai desert to reconnoiter enemy emplacements. Learning of the shelling on the Jordanian front, he decided to have a go at the Jordanians if it was too late to get at the Egyptians. Obtaining road clearance from Southern Command, the unit set out for Jerusalem an hour before sunset. Kapusta knew little of what was happening there and nothing of what was planned. But like a hired gun he was ready to offer his services to whoever would have them. He knew that Gur’s brigade and Ben-Ari’s were on their way up to Jerusalem. If neither could use him, he thought, perhaps the Jerusalem Brigade could. If the city itself were quiet, someone might be needed to force the Latrun salient.

As darkness came, Kapusta’s men, rushing across the coastal plain in their jeeps, could see flashes in the hills and hear a distant rumbling as if, despite the cloudless sky, a violent thunderstorm was raging over Jerusalem.

***

Members of the Cabinet living on the coastal plain had driven up to Jerusalem during the day to attend a meeting in the Knesset, their cars incongruously mixed in with Ben-Ari’s armored columns heading for battle. A few miles before Jerusalem the traffic sorted itself out — the tanks and half-tracks turning left to the war and the ministers continuing straight on to Jerusalem to decide the direction the war would take. The Knesset building was filled with excited parliamentarians, political figures and journalists exchanging rumors about the progress of the battles and speculation about the war’s political repercussions. The major subject was Jerusalem. Would — should — the army take the Old City?

That was also the principal item on the agenda of the Cabinet meeting held in the building’s air-raid shelter. Before Prime Minister Eshkol arrived the ministers were briefed by a member of the General Staff. For the first time, they learned of the destruction of the Arab air forces and of the cracking of the Egyptian lines in Sinai.

Renewal of Jordanian shelling could clearly be heard as the meeting got under way. Two ministers from opposite ends of the political spectrum advocated the immediate capture of the walled city — Menachem Begin on the right-wing and Yigal Allon on the left. Allon had in the War of Independence commanded the Palmach strike force and may, like Narkiss, have felt a sense of responsibility for the failure to hold the Jewish Quarter. Both Allon and Begin said history would not forgive the government if it did not exploit this opportunity for restoring Jewish sovereignty over ancient Jerusalem, although Allon raised the possibility that Israel might make do with access to the Jewish holy places.

Three other ministers pointed out how Ben-Gurion’s determination to retain Sinai after the 1956 campaign had dissolved after President Eisenhower said it was unacceptable and Moscow made dire threats. Jerusalem, they pointed out, meant more to the world than the sands of Sinai. Would the Christian world, particularly the Vatican, accept the notion of Jewish sovereignty over Christianity’s holiest places? Perhaps, suggested one minister, it would be better to leave Jerusalem as an aspiration to be prayed for.

Foreign Minster Abba Eban proposed that the capture of the Old City be presented simply as a military response to the Jordanian shelling, deferring the question of holding on to it or not for later consideration. Eshkol adopted this pragmatic approach in his concluding statement, which was endorsed by the Cabinet: “We are going to take the Old City of Jerusalem in order to remove the danger of bombardment and the shelling incessantly being carried out by Jordan.”

The memory of Jerusalem had sustained the Jews as a people in their epic wanderings. Could the reborn Jewish state refuse the opportunity to return to it?

Although the statement left open the possibility of a pullback after the guns were silenced, most of the ministers were convinced that once the flag had been raised over the Old City, Israel could never lower it without disavowing a central aspect of its national being. If peoples derive their sense of nationhood from history and folk memory, Israel’s sources were not in Tel Aviv or in the new city of Jerusalem, just a century old, but on the site of the walled city across no-man’s-land. The memory of Jerusalem had sustained the Jews as a people in their epic wanderings. Could the reborn Jewish state refuse the opportunity to return to it?

***

Across a six-mile-wide front, Ben-Ari’s tanks and half-tracks were crawling forward in the darkness behind determined commanders. None of the units could move as fast as a man could walk. At Sheikh Abdul Aziz, in the brigade center, Natan Perem’s four remaining tanks started toward Bidu, the other seven disabled on the rocky slopes behind them. The track they followed was little wider than a donkey trail. Perem led the way on foot, a flashlight in one hand and a pistol in the other. At times the tanks had to swivel back and forth to knock loose the trailside embankments in order to open rough passage.

At Maale Hahamisha, the left wing waited for hours as sappers worked their way through a 300-meter deep minefield. Normally this job called for tank flails — heavy chains on a rotating drum that thrash the ground to detonate mines. But all flails had been sent to Southern Command. The sappers had to probe with bayonets, gently removing the topsoil when they touched a mine. In darkness, under mortar fire, the job was a nightmare. At intervals a popping sound would be followed by a scream and a sapper would be rushed to the rear. Fifteen sappers were to be wounded at the Radar positions, another dozen at Sheikh Abdul Aziz.

The sappers finally reached the far edge of the minefield close to midnight, only to find themselves confronted with a yawning anti-tank ditch more than six feet deep. Beyond it were concrete anti-tank obstacles. Battalion commander Ben-David ordered his men to begin filling in the ditch. He joined them in the task, throwing in rocks and soil. At 2 AM, the lead tank crossed the filled-in trench and hauled itself up the other side through a gap opened in the dragon’s teeth. It had taken eight and a half hours to cover less than 500 yards, but they had breached the Jordanian border defenses.

On the brigade’s right wing Uri Berez was still inching his Shermans up Khirbet Talila. Mines were no concern here, since the Jordanians had judged the slopes sufficiently impassable. Under a moonless sky the only visibility was provided by shells exploding around the column. By their intermittent flashes Berez could glimpse the terrain immediately ahead. More helpful were flares the Jordanians sent up periodically, lighting the slope for 30 seconds. His driver could see nothing out the periscope, and Berez, upright in the turret, directed him. The goat path had long since been lost, and he steered for the dark outline of the ridge visible against the sky.

The tank tended to nose downward toward the contour of the slope, but Berez kept turning it back toward the crest. Whenever the motor appeared to labor too hard or the tilt seemed too reckless, he ordered the driver to halt, backtrack, and veer off. Once it took 30 minutes to clear a single outcropping. Berez could make out one or two tanks trailing and shone his pocket flashlight to the rear as a beacon. Periodically a tank behind reported its tread snapped or its motor broken down. Some of the Shermans were hung up on boulders. Berez began to wonder if any would make it to the top.

In some of the half-tracks men descended and walked ahead to guide the driver. One soldier fastened a white undershirt to the back of his belt for his driver to follow. Slouched in the cab of a half-track, a Jerusalemite vaguely familiar with the terrain thought it a stroke of brilliance to be advancing over ground the enemy considered tankproof. The driver next to him said he was not sure the Jordanians were mistaken.

***

The paratrooper brigade reached Jerusalem at dusk in civilian buses and the men debarked in the Bait Hakerem quarter. The battalion and company commanders departed for hasty surveys of the front line before returning to Bait Hakerem to drew up their attack plans in apartments of local residents.

Lt. Colonel Yossi Yaffe and his company commanders, assigned the key Ammunition Hill sector, waited until darkness before approaching the border. Accompanied by a Jerusalem Brigade intelligence officer, they entered a slab-like apartment building directly opposite the enemy strongpoint. An old man praying in a corridor offered to guide them, but an officer said, “No, father. Just go down to the shelter.” The intelligence sergeant took out a set of keys and opened the door of an apartment on the top floor.

Standing in the darkened apartment, Yaffe looked out the window at a discouraging scene. Streams of tracers spewed from dozens of bunkers running the length of the enemy line. The ground sloped gently upward from the Israeli side for 150 meters, rising abruptly beneath the enemy positions in a 5-meter-high bank. His men would be moving up a slope straight into fire from the bunkers. The air photos indicated two thick rows of barbed wire concertina on the Jordanian side of no-man’s-land but he could not make them out in the darkness.

Artillery could be the decisive factor. The battalion would be strung out as it crossed no-man’s-land. If the Jordanian guns caught them in the open, the battalion would be shredded. But Yaffe hoped that the Israeli bombardment prior to the assault –by artillery, mortars, and Jerusalem Brigade tanks — would stun the Jordanians, including artillery spotters, sufficiently to permit the attack force to reach the enemy trenches.

At least 50 yards separated the two barbed wire concertinas, a stretch almost certainly mined, but it would take too long to attempt to blow a path through with bangalores. The intensive shelling of the area before the attack was designed in part to detonate the mines, but the results could not be certain.

Returning to Bait Hakerem, the company commanders briefed their platoon commanders. Capt. Rutenberg, who would lead his men onto Ammunition Hill, said they would cross no-man’s–land in single file. If someone stepped on a mine, the men behind would step on him and continue moving forward in a straight line. Under no circumstances, would anyone stop to pick up wounded until the enemy positions dominating no-man’s-land had been taken.

***

In Arab Jerusalem, most of the artillery fire that could be heard during the day was outgoing. But visions entertained that morning of victory toasts in the Tel Aviv Hilton by nightfall had given way to dark thoughts that were getting darker by the hour.

Smoke billows from a Jordanian trench position after an Israeli jet drops napalm canisters. Paratroopers subsequently attacked along the ridge from Mount Scopus to the left and up the slope from Wadi Joz but the defenders had already fled. (photo credit: Bamahane)
Smoke billows from a Jordanian trench position after an Israeli jet drops napalm canisters. Paratroopers subsequently attacked along the ridge from Mount Scopus to the left and up the slope from Wadi Joz but the defenders had already fled. (photo credit: Bamahane)

The Israelis were now in control of all southern Jerusalem after having beaten off the attack at Government House and seized Sur Bahir. At Ata Ali’s forward command post, reports were coming in of officers deserting. The brigadier was unable to make radio contact with West Bank military headquarters and it was not clear whether reinforcements promised him were on the way. The Israelis had not yet attacked along the critical northern part of the line but an attempt to link up with Mount Scopus from there could be expected.

The first hopeful development was a message from army headquarters in Amman after dark that reinforcements, including tank and infantry units, were on their way up from Jericho. Around 9 PM, flares could be seen from the direction of the Jericho road and loud explosions were heard in the distance. By 11 PM, the flares and explosions had faded away. Amman called shortly afterwards to report that the relief column had been attacked from the air and wiped out. Shaken, Ata Ali asked for reinforcements from the Hebron area to the south and from Ramallah to the north. He was told that both areas were braced for an Israeli attack and that no troops could be spared.

The Jordanian brigadier was overwhelmed by the situation. His small staff had remained at the suburb of Azariya, from where communications with Amman were better. He learned from them that West Bank military headquarters had pulled back from Ramallah. Virtually alone at his forward command post in the city, the veteran officer was confronting a catastrophic situation he had not imagined.

Fortunately for him, a clear-headed presence had arrived in the unlikely form of the director of tourism for Jordanian Jerusalem. Hazim Khalidi was a member of a distinguished Jerusalem Arab family which had produced scholars and officials for generations. He had returned just the year before to Jerusalem after a 30-year absence that included service as a staff officer with the British army in the Second World War. He had also been an instructor at the Syrian army staff college and an executive with a British oil firm. He had come to Ata Ali’s headquarters with Governor Khatib whom he had been informally advising since the crisis began.

Assuming the same advisory role with the brigadier, Khalidi urged him to tell Amman that he could not hold out for long and that another relief column must be dispatched by forced march along a secondary route to avoid the Israeli planes. After midnight, Khalidi escorted the governor to the Ritz Hotel, about 100 yards from the command post, where they booked rooms in the hope of getting a few hours of sleep. The Israelis had still not attacked.

On the roof of the Histadrut Building, the Jerusalem Brigade artillery officer paced like a restless conductor as he checked his artillery and mortar batteries by radio. One battery reported that it was not yet ready. “The whole state of Israel is waiting for you,” replied the officer. In the Valley of the Cross and at the artillery battery on Mount Herzl, crews stood by their guns.

Out on Shmuel Hanavi Street a Jerusalem Brigade intelligence officer returning from a forward post was transfixed by a strange, keening sound suddenly audible through the explosions. It was a moment before he recognized it with a chill as the full-throated shout of men charging into battle. The paratroopers were going in.

***

There were three options, Riad told Hussein. The king could press for an immediate cease fire through diplomatic channels. He could order a pullout from the West Bank that would be completed by dusk. Or he could fight on. If the choice was to fight on, the army would be destroyed by the following day.

For King Hussein, the last illusion was dispelled at dawn on Tuesday when Gen. Riad presented him with a clear assessment of the situation. The general had finally understood that the reports he had been getting from his own headquarters in Cairo about Egyptian successes were fantasy. He may also have been informed of Gen. Hod’s report on Israel Radio of the destruction of the Arab air forces. There were three options, Riad told Hussein. The king could press for an immediate cease fire through diplomatic channels. He could order a pullout from the West Bank that would be completed by dusk. Or he could fight on. If the choice was to fight on, the army would be destroyed by the following day.

Riad got through to Nasser to spell out the situation on the West Bank and then had the Egyptian leader patched through to Hussein. In the telephone conversation, recorded by Israeli intelligence, Nasser’s tone had lost much of its swagger but, unlike Gen. Riad, he was still trying to wring the last ounce of utility out of his unfortunate ally through deception.

Nasser: I understand that His Majesty, our brother, wants to know if we are fighting on all fronts. [Garble.] Should we announce that the United States is collaborating with Israel? Should we say the United States and Britain or only the United States?

Hussein: The United States and Britain.

Nasser: Does Britain have aircraft carriers?…Good, King Hussein will publish a communiqué on this and I’ll publish a communiqué….Don’t give up…Brother, you must be strong.

Hussein: Yes, Mr. President, I understand. If you have any ideas, no matter what…

Nasser: We will fight with everything we have…If we had a few problems at the beginning, so what? We’ll come out of it alright. Our planes have been bombing the Israeli airfields since early morning.

Hussein; A thousand thanks. Stay well.

***

Pressing his ear against the iron gate of his courtyard, Hamdi Nubani heard a single word on the street outside sounding thin in the June dawn: “Hitpazair”

Hurrying back to the basement where his family and neighbors were huddled, he said: “They’re speaking Hebrew. Someone said ‘spread out’.” The soldiers were not, as many hoped, Iraqi troops come to save Arab Jerusalem.

The one-word command spoken by a paratroop officer was the first Hebrew word Nubani had heard “live” in 19 years. The language was still as familiar to him as this week’s Hebrew newspapers — newspapers he had in fact read two days before after being brought through Mandelbaum Gate by UN officers. For more than a decade he had been monitoring the Israeli press for a Jordanian newspaper and doing occasional translations of Israeli radio programs for Jordanian military intelligence as well. To him, however, Israel was not “the enemy”. He continued to feel tied to that world across the border which he could see close by from his living room windows. Over the years he had closely followed the Israeli media and he missed his Jewish acquaintances.

As a young man, Nubani had been chosen by the British mandatory authorities to study at Jerusalem’s Arab College where an intellectual elite was trained for the Palestinian civil service. He subsequently became the first Arab student at Hebrew University and spoke impeccable Hebrew. But Nubani was more than a translator. He was a scholar whose interest in other cultures – particularly Hebrew culture — was irrelevant to politics. For years he had been working on a translation into stately Koranic Arabic of one of the books of the Mishna, the great compilation of Jewish laws drawn up early in the First Millennium.

When Israeli soldiers searched his house later in the day, he was offended at being made to stand facing a wall along with the other men while the soldiers went through the rooms. However, he was pleased to note that when a soldier opened the refrigerator and removed a cold drink his officer told him to put it back. Monitoring the Israeli press and radio over the years he had noted an improvement in the quality of modern Hebrew. Now he was pleased to note that, going by the soldiers’ conversations among themselves, the quality of colloquial Hebrew had also improved.

***

In keeping with Narkiss’s directive to position himself for a break-in to the Old City, Gur had sent a battalion to the Rockefeller Museum, a fortress-like structure opposite the north wall. From its tower, an officer kept up intermittent fire on Herod’s Gate, 200 meters away.

Col. Gur's halftrack, after breaking through Lion's Gate, on Temple Mount heading for the Dome of the Rock (photo credit: Bamahane)
Col. Gur's halftrack, after breaking through Lion's Gate, on Temple Mount heading for the Dome of the Rock (photo credit: Bamahane)

Blasts could be heard coming from the far side of the Old City, the area of Gethsemene, where Kapusta’s men were trapped. From Israeli Jerusalem the widely spaced explosions did not hint at their plight. Flares shot up from inside the walled city in that direction, and sprays of tracer bullets fired from there flew over the Old City wall. Beyond the Mount of Olives, a great rumbling explosion sounded from the direction of the Jericho road. The air force was attacking reinforcements the Jordanians were attempting for the second night to send to Jerusalem under cover of darkness.

Dominating the entire scene was a fire raging through Augusta Victoria and the barracks at its feet. From Musrara, the flames formed the outline of a great truncated cross burning silently over Jerusalem.

At 3 AM, Ata Ali entered Governor Khatib’s office in the Department of Religious Endowments (Wakf) adjacent to the Temple Mount. There was no electricity and the two men sat in darkness that was relieved periodically by the light from falling flares. They could hear the amplified sound of Israeli psychological warfare teams outside the walls urging residents to hang out white flags. Ata Ali’s report to the governor was blunt. “The battle for Jerusalem is lost.” The brigades in Ramallah and Hebron had been ordered to retreat. All his officers had deserted except for Major Kraishan and a lieutenant. The troops were demoralized and exhausted and could not be controlled without their officers. In the circumstances, said the brigadier, he had no option but to retreat in order to save his men.

Khatib was stunned. “Is this your own decision?” he asked. It was, said the officer. “I have no more communication with the outside world at all.” Recalling the moment in his memoirs, Governor Khatib wrote: “A long silence followed. I did not see his face given the darkness but I could hear the pain in his voice.”

Governor Khatib tried to persuade him to fight on and to arm the civilian population, with local notables serving as officers. Even armed civilians could put up an effective fight in a maze like the Old City. Ata Ali dismissed the option. “All you’ll be doing is destroying Jerusalem,” he said. “Jerusalem will definitely be assaulted by dawn and my troops are in no condition to resist.”

The officer invited Khatib to join him but the governor declined. “If it is the will of Allah that I should die I would not want to die anywhere else.”

Meeting with non-commissioned officers outside, Ata Ali asked them to notify all units in the Old City that they were pulling out. The troops were to make their way to Dung Gate swiftly but without calling attention to themselves. Shortly before first light, Ata Ali led several hundred soldiers out of the Old City and started trekking to Jericho.

After Ata Ali left his office, Khatib sat down, unable to talk. His advisor, Khalidi, fearing that the governor would suffer a heart attack, gave him sedatives. Khatib said he wanted to be left alone for 15 minutes and asked Khalidi to meanwhile act on his behalf. Outside the building, 100 distraught civilians, many of them armed, were demanding to know why the troops were pulling out. “Men cannot be forced to fight,” Khalidi told them.

Abraham Rabinovich (center) on Temple Mount, 1967 (photo credit: author's photo)
Abraham Rabinovich (center) on Temple Mount, 1967 (photo credit: author's photo)

Excerpted from the revised, EBook edition of “The Battle for Jerusalem: an unintended conquest that echoes still,” by Abraham Rabinovich.

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