Blame soft grease pencils: Violence and absurdity in Jerusalem from 1948 to 1967
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1st person: Jerusalem Day

Blame soft grease pencils: Violence and absurdity in Jerusalem from 1948 to 1967

A hand drawn map sent tensions skyrocketing in the severed capital for 19 years, resulting in shootings, stone throwing, a secret cable car… and a blowup over a bathroom

  • UN personnel and representatives of Israel, Trans-Jordan and Egypt pore over a map of Jerusalem at the residence of the Syrian Catholic archbishop near Damascus Gate, Jerusalem, August 22, 1948. Moshe Dayan is seated, wearing an eye patch. (AP/Jim Pringle)
    UN personnel and representatives of Israel, Trans-Jordan and Egypt pore over a map of Jerusalem at the residence of the Syrian Catholic archbishop near Damascus Gate, Jerusalem, August 22, 1948. Moshe Dayan is seated, wearing an eye patch. (AP/Jim Pringle)
  • Gethsemane in Jerusalem, center, with the Mount of Olives on the left, December 20, 1963. (AP/Jim Pringle)
    Gethsemane in Jerusalem, center, with the Mount of Olives on the left, December 20, 1963. (AP/Jim Pringle)
  • A memorial stone for IDF officer Avshalom Sela, killed by Jordanian troops in Jerusalem in 1962. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A memorial stone for IDF officer Avshalom Sela, killed by Jordanian troops in Jerusalem in 1962. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Remnants of a trench on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Remnants of a trench on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Mount Zion and a road constructed for a papal visit in 1964. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Mount Zion and a road constructed for a papal visit in 1964. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The Hinnom Valley between West Jerusalem and Mount Zion divided IDF forces between 1948 and 1967. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Hinnom Valley between West Jerusalem and Mount Zion divided IDF forces between 1948 and 1967. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Jewish fighters outside the Old City walls, 1948. (Courtesy of the Government Press Office, Jerusalem)
    Jewish fighters outside the Old City walls, 1948. (Courtesy of the Government Press Office, Jerusalem)
  • Israeli troops in the neighborhood of Yemin Moshe, facing the Old City walls, June 1948. (Courtesy of the Government Press Office, Jerusalem)
    Israeli troops in the neighborhood of Yemin Moshe, facing the Old City walls, June 1948. (Courtesy of the Government Press Office, Jerusalem)
  • The Gobat School in Jerusalem, which the secret cable car connected to today's Mount Zion Hotel. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Gobat School in Jerusalem, which the secret cable car connected to today's Mount Zion Hotel. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The inside of the Cable Car Museum in Mount Zion Hotel. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The inside of the Cable Car Museum in Mount Zion Hotel. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Jordanian soldiers open the way through a crowd for Pope Paul VI in Jerusalem, January 4, 1964. (AP/Mario Torrisi)
    Jordanian soldiers open the way through a crowd for Pope Paul VI in Jerusalem, January 4, 1964. (AP/Mario Torrisi)
  • The cable car's line stretches above the Hinnom Valley. (Shmuel Bar-am)
    The cable car's line stretches above the Hinnom Valley. (Shmuel Bar-am)

As a teenage tourist visiting Jerusalem in the mid-Sixties, I found the signs warning “Danger — Frontier ahead!” and “Snipers [nearby] — stay out of middle of the street!” rather superfluous. Who wouldn’t keep a low profile when up ahead, in the very center of the Holy City, Jordanian troopers stood with rifles at the ready?

For 19 years, from 1948 to 1967, Jerusalem was severed in two along an arbitrary line called the “kav ironi” (urban line). The partition was wrought with tensions and absurdities, for it split neighborhoods, streets and even houses down the middle. Jews were evicted from their homes and synagogues in the Old City, and the sacred Western Wall was officially beyond reach.

During that period people on both sides were injured in hundreds of stone-throwing incidents. And every so often an Israeli was shot by what the Jordanians would excuse as momentary psychosis on the part of a soldier (this is the source of the term “resident psychotic,” or, in Hebrew, hameshuga hatoran).

Jerusalem Day, held this year on Thursday and Friday, celebrates the reunification of the Holy City 53 years ago. Not a bad time to recall those frustrating years when Jerusalem was divided.

Israeli troops at the Government House in the Old City of Jerusalem after they took over the Jordan-held part of the city following heavy fighting, June 6, 1967. (AP/IDF)

The “resident psychotic” created a number of incidents with a tragic end, including the 1956 massacre of four archeologists in Kibbutz Ramat Rachel.

Like a rock

Another heartbreaking event took place on July 4, 1962. Early in the War of Independence, Israel conquered Mount Zion. But the walled Old City, held by Jordan, was only a few dozen meters away. In order to keep a foothold on their side of the border, Israeli forces regularly patrolled a little alley between the mountain and the Old City walls.

In one of those moments that the Jordanians liked to call “crazy,” a Jordanian soldier shot, and killed, Captain Avshalom Sela, commander of the unit that was on patrol near the southwestern corner of the walls.

Jerusalem’s Old City wall and Mount Zion. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Captain Sela’s last name translates into Hebrew as “rock.” So it is no coincidence that a memorial to the captain, who was preparing to enter University after his service, is a large, smooth rock sprawled on the slopes of Mount Zion.

But it wasn’t a “crazed” Jordanian who killed Lt. Colonel George Flint on Mount Scopus, a height in northern Jerusalem that enjoyed a dubious special status as an Israeli demilitarized zone.

On May 26, 1958, Jordanian soldiers fired at Israelis on patrol in the Mount Scopus Botanical Gardens. The Jordanians refused to stop shooting long enough for the Israelis to evacuated their wounded, lying out in the open, to a hospital.

Finally a cease-fire was announced. Immediately, Flint, the Canadian chairman of the Jordanian-Israeli Ceasefire Committee, bravely headed for the wounded. Although he carried a white flag, he was cold-bloodedly murdered by Jordanian bullets.

Flint had intended to return home at the end of the year, and to publish a book about his experiences in Palestine. The title he had planned for the book: “Blessed are the Peacemakers.”

A two-story shomera, or guard tower, in the Botanical Gardens on Mount Scopus is a memorial to Lieutenant-Colonel George Flint and the four Israelis who died during an attack on the site. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Thousands of years ago, an Israelite farmer would build a watchtower — “shomera” in Hebrew — in his fields. Isaiah 21:8, reads “O Lord, I stand continually on the watchtower by day, and I am stationed every night at my guard post.”

That’s why the two-story shomera that stands in the Botanical Gardens on Mount Scopus is such an appropriate memorial to Flint and the four Israelis who died during that unprovoked attack.

A blurry map

Between the wars in 1948 and 1967 tensions often reached ridiculous new heights. They were the direct result of the temporary borders created in 1948 during a meeting between Moshe Dayan, commander of Israel’s forces in Jerusalem, and his opposite number, Abdullah Tal of Jordan.

Expecting to get together again for revisions, they wrote within the agreement that they “assume there will be further discussions… [and changes].” Yet the preliminary lines on their map, written with soft grease pencils which expanded from the heat and blurred over time, became permanent borders.

UN personnel and representatives of Israel, Trans-Jordan and Egypt pore over a map of Jerusalem at the residence of the Syrian Catholic archbishop near Damascus Gate, Jerusalem, August 22, 1948. Moshe Dayan is seated, wearing an eye patch. (AP/Jim Pringle)

The Dayan-Tal agreement split one of the streets in Jerusalem’s Abu Tor neighborhood in half. So for the 19 years that Jerusalem was divided, one side of the street was in Jordan, and the other was in Israel.

The Bathroom Affair

Although there could be friendly acts between people on both sides of the street, every tiny change in the status quo gave rise to complaints and condemnations. One Israeli family that lived 50 meters from a Jordanian army position had only an outdoor latrine. When the political situation was tense it became dangerous to walk into in the yard, so in 1965, a few days before Yom Kippur, the family began building an indoor bathroom.

On Yom Kippur morning an Israeli representative to the Mixed Armistice Committee received an urgent summons to appear: the Jordanians claimed that Israel had violated the status quo. As this was the holiest day of the Jewish year, the Israeli tried to delay the meeting. But the Jordanians replied that they couldn’t be responsible for what might happen from their side.

The Jerusalem house that sparked the so-called “Bathroom Affair” in 1965. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Incredibly, on Yom Kippur, the Mixed Armistice Committee (which included Israeli, Jordanian and United Nations representatives) sat for 18 hours discussing bathrooms. Thirty-six recorded pages of these “crucial” talks still exist. Israel was condemned, in the end, but the family got their bathroom in what is still known, today, as the Bathroom Affair.

A papal road

In 1964 Pope Paul VI announced that he would like to visit Mount Zion. At the time, a narrow dirt path along the slopes led to the mountain’s holy sites. The path was located partly in no-man’s land, with one end in Israeli territory and the other in Jordanian.

Prior to the Pope’s arrival Israel decided to turn the path into a paved road so it would be easier for his car to reach the Cenacle, the traditional Christian site of Jesus’ Last Supper. The Jordanians didn’t object, and the road was prepared for his visit.

After he left, Christian pilgrims flocked to Mount Zion and traffic jams were common. In 1966 Israel began widening the road, taking great care not to touch any Jordanian-held property. But oh!, what a ruckus ensued when Israeli bulldozers unwittingly tossed a few clods of dirt onto Jordan’s side of the border. The Jordanians complained to the Ceasefire Commission — and work on the road was stopped.

The Jerusalem road constructed for a papal visit in 1964. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

With Mount Zion on the front lines adjacent to the Old City, Israel set up a base on the grounds and in the buildings of the Bishop Gobat School (today the Jerusalem University College) located on its the slopes. But there was a problem: the wide Hinnom Valley lay between Western Jerusalem and Mount Zion.

Across the valley

How was the army to get troops and supplies across the valley and up the mountain with the Jordanians perched on the ramparts atop the Old City walls? How were they to evacuate the wounded? And the problems didn’t end even after the division of the city, for anyone and anything moving below the Old City walls was a potential Jordanian target.

One solution was a partially covered trench that ran between the Gobat School and the Yemin Moshe neighborhood on the other side of the valley. Unfortunately the tunnel, which remained in place until the city was reunited in 1967, was too narrow to handle much traffic and included many impractical bends.

So engineer Uriel Hefetz came up with the idea for a cable car, and in December of 1948 the army stretched a 200-meter (650-foot) long steel cable across the Hinnom Valley from today’s Mount Zion Hotel on Hebron Road to the Gobat school. Three soldiers were needed on each side to hand wind the cable.

The cable car constructed in 1948 over Jerusalem’s Hebron road. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Although the cable car was used for only a short time it was kept ready, like the tunnel, for any emergency. So secret was the cable car that until it was revealed to the public in 1972 few people in the country knew that it had ever existed.

The cable is still there, visible from the bridge which spans Hebron Road, the valley and Mount Zion. It is an integral part of the Cable Car Museum located in the Mount Zion Hotel.

High-wire artist Philippe Petit is no stranger to cables. In 1971 he became famous when he walked a tightrope between the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and three years later he was arrested after an unauthorized walk between the Twin Towers that once towered above New York.

Twenty years after the reunification of Jerusalem, Mayor Teddy Kollek invited Petit to perform a similar stunt across the Hinnom Valley within the framework of that year’s Israel Festival. Petit was delighted with the idea. For this, his longest high-wire amble so far, he donned a jester’s costume and in a symbolic gesture of peace released a dove from his pocket and daringly crossed a valley that had once divided the city in two.

Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel. Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.

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