Up until the 1967 Six Day War, Jewish soldiers had lost practically every major battle to Jordan’s Arab Legion.
In the 1948 Independence War, the legionnaires trounced the Israelis at the Latrun Fort five times, put Jerusalem under siege, and massacred soldiers and civilians alike at Kfar Etzion in what is today the West Bank.
And indeed the first two days of the Six Day War saw bitter, brutal fighting in the then-divided city of Jerusalem between Israeli troops and the Jordanian Armed Forces — by 1967, it had dropped the name “Arab Legion” — including one of the fiercest battles of the entire war: the Battle of Ammunition Hill.
To coincide with this year’s Jerusalem Day celebrations on Wednesday, the Defense Ministry released dozens of photographs and transcripts, some of which have never been seen by the public before, documenting the vicious fighting for Jerusalem and its Old City, and the ecstasy that followed it.
On the second day of the war, June 6, 1967, colonel Mordechai Gur was charged with taking Ammunition Hill, north of Jerusalem’s Old City. The fighting was fierce, with both sides often resorting to bayonets and knives due to the cramped trenches.
In the end, the Israeli troops took the hill but lost 36 soldiers, including most of the officers, earning the battle the nickname the “privates’ battle.” Some 71 Jordanian soldiers were also killed in the fighting. (Shoddy intelligence led Gur to believe that only a few dozen Jordanians would be defending the site, not the over 100 soldiers who were actually entrenched in the hill.)
But by the evening of June 6, the Israeli forces had beaten back the “unbeatable” Jordanian army, taking over several neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, as well as much of the surrounding region, including the Latrun Fort in the hills west of the city.
However, the IDF had steered clear of Jerusalem’s Old City. That part of Jerusalem, which contained the holy sites of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, was considered a sensitive place, an area that could not be bombarded with artillery fire or barreled through with tanks.
What to do with the Old City was a hot topic of conversation in the security cabinet on June 6, according to transcripts of the meeting released last week.
Then-minister Menachem Begin was adamant that Israel should “not put it off for even another hour. We ought to enter the Old City without delay.”
Begin, from the right-wing Herut party, also considered what type of terminology should be used, foreseeing a battle that continues to this day. “We keep using the word ‘conquer.’ That is militarily correct, but I would say that the Old City is liberated. If this raises concerns, it can be said that the Old City of Jerusalem, the City of David, is in the hands of the IDF,” he told his fellow ministers.
Ironically, one of the staunchest opponents to capturing the Old City was the man who later gave the order — all on his own and without cabinet consultation — to do just that: then-defense minister Moshe Dayan.
Dayan had no doubt that the IDF was capable of taking the Old City, but feared that troops who were needed in the Sinai would be bogged down in Jerusalem. He was also worried that “there will be international pressure on us to leave the Old City.
“I propose that we don’t go into the Old City tomorrow,” Dayan told the cabinet, a day before he ordered troops to go into the Old City.
In the end, the security cabinet was convinced. In his summation of the meeting, then-prime minister Levi Eshkol said: “We will not go into the Old City tonight and will settle for cutting off the city from all other sides. If political developments require it, the defense minister is entitled to order the IDF to enter the Old City.”
And that is exactly what happened, in Dayan’s mind at least.
Tipped off to a potential UN-declared ceasefire, the defense minister ordered Gur’s Paratroopers Brigade to take the Old City, lest Israel miss its chance to gain control of the Temple Mount and Western Wall.
Despite the concerns around it, fighting in the holy Old City turned out to be comparatively easy, with many Jordanian fighters fleeing, though there were some Israeli casualties.
In a debriefing with his battalion commanders after the war, Gur noted that “from the moment we got the order to the entrance to the Temple Mount, less than 10 minutes had passed.”
After the short battle for the Old City, which was conducted without tanks, artillery or aircraft for fear of damaging the holy sites, Gur declared his famous words: “The Temple Mount is in our hands.”
One of the biggest concerns expressed during the debriefing was that the joy the soldiers experienced after taking the Old City was potentially harmful to their fighting spirit.
“When the celebration started with all the important people and the shofars, the guys didn’t feel the war. To me, it was too early. There wasn’t tension,” said Maj. Yossi Fredkin, commander of the 28th Battalion.
“I have to tell you, from the pictures, I think the guys were on alert,” Gur countered.
Maj. Uzi Eilam, commander of the 71st Battalion, gave a frank and calculated response pointing to the need for soldiers to feel willing to sacrifice themselves for county.
“The guys were on alert, but there was a feeling that the war ended and that it wasn’t worth it to die,” he said.