JERUSALEM — Had Israel had its way when the Six-Day War broke out 45 years ago, on June 5, 1967, there would have been no war with Jordan, Jeru-salem might still be a divided city and the West Bank still under Arab sovereignty.
With the bulk of its army deployed along the border with Sinai, Israel went to great lengths to avoid war with Jordan. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan had told intimates that Israel would lose a whole generation of paratroopers and tank crewmen in the coming confrontation with Egypt. The last thing it wanted was the opening of another front to the east.
As the Israeli planes were returning from their pre-emptive strike against Egypt in the opening act of the war, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol sent a message to Jordan’s King Hussein through the United Nations. Israel had no intention of attacking Jordan, he said.
Even when Jordanian guns opened up two hours later on Israeli Jerusalem and other targets along the border, Israeli troops were ordered to respond only in kind — rifle fire for rifle fire, mortars for mortars — and to avoid escalation. Israeli officials hoped that King Hussein’s honor would be satisfied with a static exchange of fire across the border.
However, as part of his defense pact with Egypt, Hussein had handed over command of his army to an Egyptian general, Abdel-Moneim Riad, whose object was to push the Jordanian armed forces into conflict with Israel so as to draw off Israeli forces from the Egyptian front.
It was only after Radio Cairo announced that Jordanian troops had conquered the Israeli enclave on Mount Scopus in northern Jerusalem that Israel decided to drop its restraint. The Jordanians had in fact not attacked Mount Scopus but Israel understood the announcement as a clear statement of intent. For 19 years, since its War of Independence, Israel had maintained a 120-man garrison on the mount, a mile behind Jordanian lines. The garrison was rotated in bimonthly convoys under U.N. protection.
To link up with Scopus, the General Staff ordered a reservist paratroop brigade to the capital. On the first night of the war, it attacked across no-man’s-land through the heart of the Jordanian defenses around Ammunition Hill. The hill was captured after a fierce battle. Meanwhile, other Israeli forces took up positions on the fringe of the walled Old City and awaited orders to break in.
The Israeli Cabinet, however, was deeply divided on the issue. Many of the ministers, including all the religious ministers, opposed taking the Old City on the grounds that the international community would not permit the holiest sites in Christendom to come under Jewish sovereignty. Some were concerned that damage to the holy places would bring down upon Israel the ire of the international community.
Interior Minister Moshe Haim Shapira, head of the National Religious Party, proposed internationalization of the Old City rather than Israeli sovereignty. The ministers recalled how Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, had been forced to withdraw from Sinai in 1956 under intense pressure from both Washington and Moscow. Recalling that event at the beginning of the war, the prime minister told the Cabinet that any territory captured from Jordan, including the Old City, would have to be returned at the end of the war.
But as the Jordanian army melted away and as the extent of the Israeli success against the Egyptians became apparent, the government bowed to the inevitable and ordered the capture of the Old City. Forty-eight hours after the battle had started, a half-track containing paratroop brigade commander Col. Motta Gur burst through Lion’s Gate into the walled city and turned onto the Temple Mount.
Israel had concluded, almost as an afterthought, that the return to ancient Jerusalem was a dictate of history that the reborn Jewish state could not ignore.