Nearly 18 years have passed since Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein signed the Jordan Valley peace agreement, normalizing relations between Israel and Jordan. But even the most obsessive observers of Israeli-Jordanian ties find it hard to remember an encounter as extraordinary and emotional as the one that took place in Jerusalem mid-June, away from the limelight, between veterans of the Six Day War from both sides.
A group of 20 veterans, mostly-high ranking Jordanian and Israeli retired officers, met in Jerusalem June 18 and 19, and toured the sites of battles that pitted them against each other nearly half a century ago. “We once looked at each other through the barrels of guns,” said one man. “Now we shook hands and exchanged war stories.”
‘Humanity hasn’t yet found the way to avoid war, but when you meet the soldier who fought against you, you realize he’s just a person and you ask yourself, “What were we doing killing each other?”‘
The meeting was organized by the Israeli Economic Cooperation Foundation (ECF) and Jordan’s Amman Center for Peace and Development (ACPD), and funded by the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation. The Israeli veterans, unsentimental warriors in their seventies and eighties, told The Times of Israel they were deeply moved by the encounter with the Jordanians.
“This is the first time such an event took place in Israel,” said Colonel (res.) Yossi Langotsky, who served as commanding officer of the Jerusalem Reconnaissance Unit when the 1967 war broke out. ”It wasn’t easy. I personally killed Jordanian soldiers at close range.”
The highlight of the event, agreed participants, was a memorial service held at Ammunition Hill, the site of one of the fiercest battles. Thirty-six Israeli soldiers and 71 Jordanians lost their lives on Ammunition Hill and the adjacent police academy on June 6, 1967.
At the wrenching ceremony, the site now decorated with flowers, an Israeli veteran read out the names of the IDF’s fallen soldiers and a Jordanian veteran read out the names of the Jordanians. Israeli poet Haim Gouri, who served as company commander during the battles of Jerusalem, read his famous poem “Here our Bodies Lie,” translated into Arabic for the ceremony.
“That was a chilling moment,” said Langotsky. “The whole event was deeply moving. It highlighted the absurdity of war. Humanity hasn’t yet found the way to avoid war, but when you meet the soldier who fought against you, you realize he’s just a person and you ask yourself, ‘What were we doing killing each other?’”
Langotsky, who won the medal of distinguished service for his bravery in the battles near Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, said he never felt any animosity towards the Jordanian soldiers.
When the group reached the kibbutz, Langotsky read out a letter written by Captain (Res.) Yaakov Eilam to his wife Ruthie and baby child, just two days before he was killed at the battle of the Kidron valley in Jerusalem.
“If we could only be assured that this would be the last war between peoples, regardless who is right and who is wrong, I would dedicate my entire being and all my means just to be able to leave a legacy of peace,” wrote Eilam in his letter.
Langotsky married Eilam’s widow Ruthie following the war.
Nachum Baruchi, a member of Kibbutz Be’erot Yitzhak, was a mechanized infantry company commander in the Harel armored brigade, which fought the Jordanians north of Jerusalem. He said that although he had met Jordanian officers before, visiting the battle sites with them was different. Baruchi even discovered a tank commander who fought against him in one of the battles and was forced to abandon his tank after being hit by Israeli forces.
“He aimed his cannon at me,” recalled Baruchi, “and then I saw his tank go up in flames.”
“For the entire length of the visit I perked my ears, trying not to miss a word,” Baruchi told The Times of Israel. “The entire visit took place in an atmosphere of mutual respect, honor and reconciliation.”
Baruchi said he had always respected the Jordanian army.
“Ever since I was a child I considered the Jordanian army professional and fair in the way they treated our prisoners of war,” he said. “They were not savages.”
The inevitable question of memory came up during the visit, Baruchi said, but he added that historic accuracy was less significant than sharing experiences.
“It is natural for both sides to embellish the stories as time passes,” he said. “Everyone has a measure of cognitive dissonance and tries to adjust his memory to make himself appear victorious.”
A retired Jordanian major general who attended the meeting commended the “bravery and manliness of the Israeli warriors,” saying that the Jordanian contingent came to Israel to convey a message of peace to the Israeli side.
‘It is natural for both sides to embellish the stories as time passes. Everyone has a measure of cognitive dissonance and tries to adjust his memory to make himself appear victorious’
“Arabs are interested in peace,” he told The Times of Israel, albeit on condition of anonymity. “Israel now faces the opportunity of achieving peace with 57 Muslim states through the Arab Peace Initiative.”
Baruchi said he had no doubt that Jordan’s ruling echelon allowed the meeting to go forward in order to send Israel a political message.
“Our scriptures say ‘Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more,’” he said. “It’s time to make that happen.”