On June 6, 1967, Major Arik Achmon, chief intelligence officer for Brigade 55 of Israel’s paratrooper reservists, celebrated his 34th birthday while standing on a rooftop in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood that overlooked no-man’s-land, a strip of minefields and barbed wire and fortified bunkers separating Israeli-held West Jerusalem from Jordanian-held East Jerusalem. Raising binoculars, he could see little through the near-total darkness and the smoke rising from artillery shells falling on either side of the urban divide. But when he radioed headquarters, seeking an update on Jordanian troop movements, the answer was the same he’d been receiving all day: Sorry, we know as little as you do.
The astonishing, untold story of the battle for Jerusalem was how ill-prepared Israel was for the most mythic battle of its history: The paratroopers’ conquest of East Jerusalem and the Old City, including the two sites holiest to Judaism, the Temple Mount and the Western Wall. Few battles with such fateful consequences were as haphazard and unplanned. Despite periodic accusations that Israel provoked war to seize East Jerusalem, Achmon told me in a recent conversation that there were no accessible contingency plans, and little intelligence.
Even more astonishing was the Israeli decision, at the moment of victory, to concede sovereignty over the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site.
In the weeks leading up to war, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had expelled UN peacekeeping forces from Sinai, initiated a massive troop buildup on the border with Israel, promised the imminent destruction of Israel and blockaded the Straits of Tiran, Israel’s southern shipping route. Finally, on June 5, Israeli planes launched a preemptive strike, destroying most of the Egyptian air force on the ground. That same morning, Jordan’s King Hussein, who had signed a military pact with Egypt, launched a bombardment against Jewish neighborhoods in West Jerusalem. Israel’s Prime Minister Levi Eshkol sent a message to Hussein: Cease firing and we won’t attack. Hussein, convinced by Nasser that victorious Egyptian forces were on their way to Tel Aviv, ignored the appeal.
Paratrooper Brigade 55 had been formed a year before. Though some of its men were veterans of Israel’s commando raids against terrorist bases in the 1950s, most were young reservists in their 20s without combat experience. Most damaging of all, Brigade 55 had prepared for the wrong war. In the weeks leading up to Israel’s preemptive strike in Sinai, Achmon and his team had prepared intelligence reports for the conquest of El Arish, a heavily fortified town on the Sinai coast. “I knew every Egyptian position there,” Achmon told me. “And I knew next to nothing about Jerusalem.”
But then, as Jordanian artillery hit hundreds of Israeli apartments in West Jerusalem, the paratroopers were dispatched to Jerusalem and given 12 hours to prepare for the attack. The mission was, at least initially, confined to stopping Jordanian shelling of Jewish neighborhoods and rescuing a besieged Israeli unit stationed on Mount Scopus, the sole Israeli enclave in East Jerusalem. The limited operation excluded the Old City and its sacred sites.
“Our assignment was impossible,” Achmon said. “You can’t plan an urban battle in 12 hours. You can’t attack fortified positions without adequate intelligence. But we were given the mission and we didn’t for a moment doubt that we would fulfill it. We knew there would be a very high price, but the mission was essential.”
At 2 a.m. on June 6, the paratroopers, commanded by Colonel Motta Gur, crossed no-man’s-land. One of Brigade 55’s three battalions attacked the Jordanian position known as Ammunition Hill, and fought one of the bloodiest battles of the war, hand-to-hand combat in trenches. Another battalion headed toward the Rockefeller Museum, a massive compound built by the Rockefeller family in the 1930s to house archeological artifacts. The Rockefeller was adjacent to the walled Old City and would be the staging point for attack if the government gave the order. But lacking street maps, some units got lost. One officer stopped an elderly Palestinian man on the street and asked him: Which way to the Rockefeller? Another officer missed the turn toward the Rockefeller and led his men directly into a line of Jordanian fortifications. The streets filled with the dead and wounded.
On the morning of June 7, Eshkol sent one last appeal to Hussein: If you agree to peace talks, we won’t invade. Hussein didn’t respond and the government ordered the paratroopers to enter the Old City.
Even at this late stage, the paratroopers had little idea of what awaited them in the narrow alleys within the walled Old City. In fact, most of the Jordanian troops stationed inside the walls had slipped out the night before; the Old City lay open.
Gur’s half-track led the attack, crashing through the massive bronze doors onto the Via Delarosa, then turning left and onto the Temple Mount. Gur and Achmon rushed up a flight of stairs leading to a large plaza—the golden Dome of the Rock and the silver-domed al-Aqsa. Gur radioed headquarters: “The Temple Mount is in our hands.” He wasn’t just making a military report, but staking a historic claim. The focus of centuries of Jewish longing, the place toward which Jews prayed no matter where they lived, was now in Israeli hands.
The brigade’s chief communications officer, Ezra Orni, retrieved an Israeli flag from his pouch and asked Gur whether he should hang it over the Dome of the Rock. “Yalla,” said Gur, go up. Achmon accompanied him into the Dome of the Rock. They climbed to the top of the building and victoriously fastened the Israeli flag onto a pole topped with an Islamic crescent.
Except then the flag was quickly and unceremoniously lowered. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, watching the scene through binoculars from Mount Scopus, urgently radioed Gur and demanded: Do you want to set the Middle East on fire? Gur told Achmon to remove the flag. But Achmon couldn’t bear the notion of lowering the Israeli flag, and so he instructed one of his men to do it instead.
It is, in retrospect, an astonishing moment of religious restraint. The Jewish people had just returned to its holiest site, from which it had been denied access for centuries, only to effectively yield sovereignty at its moment of triumph. Shortly after the war, Dayan met with officials of the Muslim Wakf, who governed the holy site, and formally returned the Mount to their control. While Israeli soldiers would determine security and stand at the gates, the Wakf would determine who prayed at the site, an arrangement that would effectively bar non-Muslim prayer. The Temple Mount was no longer in Gur’s hands.
An unplanned victory ended in a spontaneous concession. No cabinet meeting authorized Dayan’s move. The defense minister simply took advantage of his popularity within the Israeli public to manage Israel’s most sensitive religious problem—an arrangement that has persisted ever since.
In ceding the right of Jews to pray on the Mount, Dayan’s intention was to minimize bloodshed and prevent the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from becoming a holy war. He was supported by most of Israel’s religious establishment, which was keen on preventing Jews from trespassing on the Holy of Holies—the area of the ancient Temple which only the high priest was permitted to enter, and then only on Yom Kippur, and whose precise location was no longer known.
Israelis still vehemently argue over whether Dayan acted with wisdom or weakness. A Knesset lobby has tried, without success, to pressure the government into allowing some form of Jewish prayer on the Mount. Meanwhile, small groups of religious Jews ascend the Mount, seeking to maintain a Jewish presence. As they walk about the stone plaza, they are accompanied by Wakf guards who watch their lips to ensure that no prayers are being recited. Jews attempting to pray on the Mount are escorted away.
For all the pain many Israelis feel in being denied the right to pray at what is, after all, Judaism’s holiest site, every Israeli government, including on the political right, has upheld the status quo.
Now, looking back, Achmon upholds Dayan’s decision to lower the flag over the Dome of the Rock. “We were all in euphoria and only Dayan was thinking with a clear head and understood the wider consequences,” Achmon, who just celebrated his 84th birthday, told me. “Can you imagine what the reaction would have been in the Muslim world if a photograph of that had been published? I’m proud that we raised the flag, and I’m relieved that we took it down.”
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