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.