Forty eight years ago, the squawk of an incoming radio transmission echoed through the war room at IDF Central Command. On the afternoon of 7 June 1967, the voice of Colonel Motta Gur was heard proclaiming triumphantly “Har Habayit BehYadaynu! – The Temple Mount is in our hands!”
With those words, 19 years of anti-Jewish desecration and discrimination came to an end. After the Jordanian capture of Jerusalem’s Old City in 1948, Jews were denied access to the Kotel and other holy sites throughout Judea and Samaria. Synagogues and Jewish cemeteries were destroyed, their contents ransacked. Hebrew headstones were used in the construction of latrine urinals at Jordanian Army bases. But over two days of bloody fighting on 6-7 June 1967, Gur’s 55th Parachute Brigade put those wrongs to right by liberating eastern Jerusalem and reunifying the eternal capital of the Jewish people.
The war itself was the culmination of Arab brinkmanship and sabre rattling that had roiled the Middle East during the northern spring of 1967. On April 7, Syrian fire against Israeli tractors plowing fields in the Hula Valley escalated into a large scale air battle in which six Syrian MiGs were shot down with zero Israeli losses.
On 14 May, President Gamal Nasser of Egypt declared a national state of emergency and dispatched thousands of troops into the Sinai. Three days later he summarily evicted UN peacekeepers from their buffer zone along the Israeli frontier, moving units of the Egyptian army into close proximity with the border. And on 22 May, Nasser ordered his forces to open fire on any Israeli merchant vessel that tried to pass through the Tiran Straits at the entrance to the Red Sea. By imposing an armed blockade on an international waterway, Egypt’s president was committing an act of war.
Nasser’s belligerent actions were also matched by equally bellicose words – incendiary rhetoric promising the bloody destruction of the Jewish state at the point of Arab bayonets. On 27 May Nasser announced “Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel. The Arab people want to fight. The mining of Sharm el Sheikh [the Straits of Tiran] is a confrontation with Israel. Adopting this measure obligates us to be ready to embark on a general war with Israel.”
And Nasser was joined in his fire and brimstone threat-making by other Arab leaders. Iraqi President Abedel Rahman Aref took to the radio on 31 May to declare: “The existence of Israel is an error which must be rectified. This is our opportunity to wipe out the ignominy which has been with us since 1948. Our goal is clear – to wipe Israel off the map. We shall, God willing, meet in Tel Aviv and Haifa.”
King Hussein of Jordan signed a military alliance with Nasser, placing the Jordanian armed forces under Egyptian command. And when Israel moved to end this parade of Arab pugnacity with a pre-emptive strike against Egypt, Hussein made the fatal mistake of joining the war with attacks against Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Motta Gur’s 55th Parachute Brigade was originally slated to make a combat jump into El Arish, blocking a key road junction in the northern Sinai through which Egyptian reinforcements would have pass. But Yisrael Tal’s armoured division was advancing so quickly into the Sinai that the jump was ultimately deemed unnecessary.
With the Jordanian front heating up, Gur was ordered to move his brigade to Jerusalem and prepare for an assault against the Arab east of the city. The 66th Parachute Battalion was tasked with capturing a heavily fortified Jordanian position on the northern outskirts of east Jerusalem called Ammunition Hill. This complex of bunkers and stone-line trenches lay directly astride the route leading to the isolated Israeli garrison in the Mt Scopus enclave that housed the original Hebrew University campus. The relief of Mt Scopus was a priority objective for IDF Central Command chief Major General Uzi Narkiss, who feared the 118 man Israeli force, equipped solely with small arms, might be overrun by Jordanian armor. Ammunition Hill had to be taken – and quickly.
The paratroopers of the 66th began their assault at 02:30 hours on the morning of 6 June. Under direct Jordanian machinegun and mortar fire they had to clear a path through the minefields and barbed wire concertina fences before entering the trench complex. From there it became a close-quarters, eyeball-to-eyeball fight with its Jordanian defenders.
The paratroopers had been briefed to expect opposition from a single platoon of 30-to-50 men. But unbeknownst to IDF intelligence, the Jordanians had reinforced their contingent on Ammunition Hill to company strength – between 120 and 150 men. Thus the Israeli paratroopers faced ferocious resistance as they fought their way through the trenches and bunkers. The cost in lives was tremendous – when the smoke of battle cleared 36 Israelis and 71 Jordanians lay dead. Of the 14 paratroop officers who entered the fray, four were killed and 10 were wounded – a casualty rate of 100 per cent. But the troopers’ successful capture of this key Jordanian position opened the way for the Israeli envelopment of the Old City from the north and the relief of the Mount Scopus garrison.
As the 66th battled its way up Ammunition Hill, its sister battalions – the 28th and 71st – attacked farther south. Advancing through the Sheik Jarah and American Colony Quarters, both battalions incurred serious losses in bitter house-to-house fighting. But by mid-morning on 6 June, Israeli paratroopers had linked up with the Mt Scopus garrison and were in the process of capturing the Rockefeller Museum opposite Herod’s Gate. The IDF was now in control of the entire northern flank to the Old City.
The following morning, the paratroopers moved to consolidate Israeli gains by capturing the Augusta Victoria and Mount of Olives ridge to the east. By noon on 7 June, the Old City itself was the sole remaining unfinished chapter in the story of Jerusalem’s redemption and liberation.
The Israelis moved to take the Old City with a combined arms force of tanks and paratroopers who attacked through the Lions Gate. A Sherman tank from the 10th Armoured Brigade put two shells through the wooden gate, opening the way for Gur’s troopers. Within twenty minutes, the Israelis had made their way through the rabbit warren of Old City laneways to reach the Kotel, the holiest site of the Jewish People.
In 1967, the Kotel looked nothing like the open space visitors see today. Residential homes had been built up almost to the walls of the Temple Mount so that the Kotel simply looked like one of the narrow alleyways that abound in the Old City.
Following the IDF tradition in which senior officers accompany their troops in front line fighting, Colonel Gur arrived at the Kotel just minutes after the lead units of his brigade. Beckoning his radioman to approach, he put the handset to his mouth and spoke the words that have since been an indelible feature of Jewish history. IDF Chief Rabbi Major General Shlomo Goren arrived soon after, with a Torah and Shofar in hand. The sounds of the Shofar’s Tekiya and Truah were soon echoing through the Old City for the first time in 19 years.
In an interview on the occasion of Yom Yerushalayim 2015, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat spoke of how, accompanied by a friend, he visited the grave of his great grandfather on the Mount of Olives. The friend pondered aloud whether Nir’s ancestor – who died in 1924 – could have imagined the tremendous tragedies and triumphs experienced by the Jewish people over the past nine decades. The phoenix-like rise of Am Yisrael from the ashes of the Shoah to redemption through the establishment of Israel as a sovereign Jewish state; the loss of old Jerusalem in 1948 and its reclamation in 1967.
“It’s mind boggling” replied the Mayor. “It is unimaginable that we’ve had such huge accomplishments as a nation and a people in Jerusalem. So I think we should be very proud. It’s not that we don’t have challenges; it’s not that it’s all behind us. But I think we should be very, very proud of the accomplishments of our generation.”