Six Day War: Jerusalem, United in Theory

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The third report in a five-part series.

The Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall.

The Dome of the Rock stands behind the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City. Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images

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In the Six Day War of June 1967, Israel defeated the combined armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, capturing the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula. For Israel, it was a stunning triumph; for Arabs, a humiliating defeat.

Israel no longer occupies the Sinai or Gaza, but its continued hold over the other territories has stymied efforts to bring comprehensive peace to the Middle East.

The third part of a five-part series on the Six-Day War follows.

After Israeli paratroopers captured the old city, Jews celebrated reunification of the divided city and renewed access to Judaism's holiest site, the Western Wall.

But today, many long-time residents of Jewish West Jerusalem say the city is "united" in theory only.

Israeli paratroopers entered Jerusalem's old city on June 7, 1967, through Lion's Gate, the easternmost passage, and tried to make their way to the sacred Western Wall and Temple Mount.

But a problem arose: they didn't know where they were going. Jews hadn't been allowed in this Jordanian-controlled part of the city since before 1948.

Israeli soldiers reached the remains of the second temple, which had been destroyed 2,000 years ago, after asking an old Palestinian man for directions.

For the Jewish state, then just 19-years-old, and for paratroopers, some of whom were Holocaust survivors, returning to the holiest place in Judaism was exhilarating.

"Even for these very secular kibbutznicks, people who'd never been inside a synagogue in their life, the feeling was overwhelming," said American-Israeli historian and author Michael Oren. "Chief of staff Yitzak Rabin comes down and Moshe Dayan, the defense minister, comes down, both very secular Jews, they read Psalms at the wall and wept. It was just overwhelming for anybody."

As the war ended, the barbed wire fences separating East from West came down. Thousands of Jews and Arabs alike poured into Jerusalem's streets near, and in, the Old City.

"It was so mobbed that you couldn't walk in the streets," said Yael Arieli, 84, who has lived in West Jerusalem all her life.

Arieli remembers curious Palestinian families staring and pointing at Israeli streetlights, which didn't exist on their side of the fence, and eagerly exploring the much larger Israeli supermarkets. Arieli's friend from childhood, 83-year-old Trudy Dotan, said it was jubilation punctuated by moments of awkwardness — knowing some families had lost husbands, sons or brothers.

"It was a euphoria — you can say whatever you like," Dotan said. "There was a huge concert and we all went. Everybody was there. It was very frightening because we knew this boy — somebody was killed in this family and nobody knew exactly what to say."

Arieli says that right after the war, she could suddenly take her children to places they'd only heard about.

"All of sudden it was open and we could go to Hebron, to Bethlehem, and to all these places," Arieli said. "And we started traveling all over the country."

Just a week earlier, many Israelis feared the Jewish state faced potential destruction from combined Arab armies. Now, with the stunning victory, there was a genuine feeling of optimism, Arieli said.

Jonathan Livni, 65, said he shared that sense of hope. He was a reservist studying law when the Israeli army called him back to duty during the Six Day War.

After the victory, he and many fellow soldiers viewed the conquest of the West Bank from Jordan as an opportunity for genuine coexistence with Palestinians.

"You know I remember the euphoria that I, as a solider, had after the '67 War," Livni said. "I thought — here we are coming with a modern state into a very backward area. And we would teach them new methods of agriculture, new ways of dealing with industry. At that time, I was euphoric about the chances that we had now to work an agreement between the two nations that were at war."

Little by little, that idealism slipped and hardened into realism, Livni said. Jerusalem, a city he had hoped would become a model of coexistence, became more and more divided.

Jewish settlements expanded in the occupied West Bank. Palestinian violence grew. In Jerusalem, each side withdrew into its own neighborhoods.

By the time the first Palestinian intifada erupted in 1987, most Jews had stopped going to the open-air markets, or their favorite shop or restaurant in Arab East Jerusalem. Few Arabs today spend time in West Jerusalem.

Israel just celebrated 40 years of Jerusalem's reunification with fireworks, concerts and a parade. The divisions are now more deeply ingrained than anything fences or barbed wire can impose, Livni said.

"It's within the people more now ... and that's much harder to undo," he said. "If we celebrate the fact that Jews can go to the Western Wall — fine. But if we celebrate the fact that now the city is open to populations of both sides to go everywhere then it's a joke. When I say 'come across,' to me it means people mingle, go to cafes, restaurants. None of this exists! So, 40 years of 'unification' is a joke," Livni said.

Livni's wife, Dr. Helen Castiel-Green, said the only time she ever really interacts with Palestinians is at work. Hospitals have become one of the only places in Jerusalem where the two groups work closely together.

"Working with the Arab Palestinian — they're working with you, and when there is a terrorist attack they are reacting exactly like you to save the injured people. But out of the hospital, you feel separation, a big separation," said Castiel-Green.

Livni, an attorney and a wine connoisseur, also laments that the city he fought for 40 years ago has become ever more dominated by Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews. More and more secular Israelis, like himself, have left or are thinking of leaving.

"It's becoming more and more oppressive," Livni said. "The fact that all ... everyone around me is Orthodox means that many times when I want to do things I think about it and say, 'Wow, I'm in a minority in the city.' And that's the type of city I don't want to live in. And that's a great disappointment because I've spent most of my life here."

Dotan and Arieli said they think both Arabs and Jews realize compromise on Jerusalem's Old City is the only path to a viable, two-state peace deal. The octogenarians — both of whom were here some two decades before Israel was a state — have lived through half a dozen major wars and two Palestinian uprisings.

"There are options," Dotan said of Jerusalem. "Maybe Jews control their parts, Arabs control theirs. Maybe an international force. ... All of us, at last, want, at last, you know, to stop having the wars and find a solution that's a political solution and a human solution."

"The gun is not the answer," Arieli said. "We've tried it for a long time. So, let's start something else."

The debate over the status of Jerusalem remains as complex and contentious as ever. Wrapped in sacred symbolism, history and emotion, small moves by either side can set off riots — or worse.

"Sometimes people don't like to talk about it," Dotan said. "But no peace will ever stick without resolving Jerusalem."

Six Day War: Shaping the Modern Middle East

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The first report in a five-part series.

Six Day War Timeline

View a timeline of events that took place between the Israelis and Egypt, Syria and Jordan during the Six Day War.

In the Six Day War of June 1967, Israel defeated the combined armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, capturing the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula. For Israel, it was a stunning triumph; for Arabs, a humiliating defeat.

Israel no longer occupies the Sinai or Gaza, but its continued hold over the other territories has stymied efforts to bring comprehensive peace to the Middle East.

The first part of a five-part series on the Six Day War follows.

In the spring of 1967, Israel grew increasingly alarmed by threats from Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The popular leader of the socialist Pan-Arab movement threatened to close the straits of Tiran, a vital passageway that would cut off Israel's southern water link to the outside world. Nasser used a bogus Soviet tip that Israel was about to invade Syria as a pre-text to kick out United Nations peacekeepers from Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula.

"He had never really liked this force and wanted to use the Soviet report as an excuse to evict UNEF, the U.N. emergency forces," said historian and author Michael Oren. Oren wrote Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East. "This he proceeds to do. He puts 100,000 of his men into Sinai, with several thousand battle tanks and war planes — and makes defensive pacts with Iraq and Syria — and declares intention to wage a war of destruction against Israel."

But on the morning of June 5, Israel struck first. The devastating pre-emptive attack destroyed most of the Soviet-supplied Egyptian air force before the MiG jets ever got off the ground. That night, a defiant Nasser called for jihad.

"Oh Arabs, this is the day for Holy War, this is the day for vengeance," said Nassar.

In the Sinai Peninsula, Israeli armor smashed through Nasser's defense lines with relative ease. The fight quickly became a rout. By nightfall of the second day, Egyptian forces were in full retreat and, with them, Nasser's wider Pan-Arab ambitions crumbled.

Nearly 10,000 Egyptian soldiers were killed in the first 48 hours of fighting.

"It was a shock, a nightmare. It was, somehow, the dream turned sour," said Ahmed Maher, a former Egyptian foreign minister. "The whole purpose of the Revolution was to build a strong country — politically, economically and militarily — and to put an end to the situation in which Israel was dominant.

Israelis celebrate Jerusalem Day

Israelis celebrate Jerusalem Day, May 16, marking the 40th anniversary of the capture and de facto annexation of East Jerusalem. Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

In the opening day's fight, Syrian fighter jets attacked Haifa, Israel's most populous northern city. The Israeli air force quickly hit back at Syrian bases, effectively taking out the Syrian air force.

In the meantime, Syrian artillery units in the Golan Heights began shelling Rosh Pina and other towns in Israel's north.

Israel largely ignored the artillery at first.

While the offensive in Egypt was going far better than planned, Israel was reluctant to use ground forces against Syria and badly wanted to avoid a wider fight with Jordan, which then occupied the West Bank, Oren said.

"On that morning of June, the Israeli government sent a message to King Hussein of Jordan, saying, 'What's about to happen in the south is between us and the Egyptians. You stay out of it and we'll stay out of it. Don't do anything,'" Oren said.

About the Series

Six days of war between Israel and its Arab neighbors in June 1967 re-shaped the modern Middle East.

The repercussions of the conflict continue to reverberate. To some, the Six Day War, or the June '67 War, as Arabs prefer to call it, never really ended.

To Israelis, victory brought reunification of Jerusalem, renewed access to holy sites, and greatly expanded the size of the fledgling Jewish state. For Palestinians and Arabs, including Egyptians, Syrians and Jordanians, it was a humiliating defeat that cost them the West Bank, Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights.

To coincide with the 40th anniversary of the war, NPR is taking a close look at its enduring legacy — the continued fight over East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.

Israeli soldiers were given careful orders not to shoot back if Jordanian forces opened fire. Under intense pressure from Arab states, King Hussein had placed his Army under the command of Egyptian generals. At 10:30 a.m. on June 5, those generals gave the order to open fire on Israeli-held West Jerusalem.

From Augusta Victoria Ridge near the Mount of Olives, Jordanian artillery units began raining 75 mm shells down on the city. Some 900 buildings were destroyed and 20 Israelis killed in a relentless barrage.

At the same time, Jordanian jets attacked the coastal cities of Hadera and Netanya, and Jordanian long-range guns just outside the West Bank city of Jenin began shelling the outskirts of Tel Aviv. Throughout this, the orders held firm: Israel did not return fire.

The "don't fire" orders collapsed, however, when Jordanian infantrymen swept up on to a strategic ridge on the north side of Jerusalem. Jordan gained a key advantage in targeting the city. Israel realized that Jordan was making far more than a symbolic nod at Pan-Arab solidarity.

As Jordan was about to lay siege to West Jerusalem, Israel called in reinforcements from the Sinai battle and sent its Jerusalem Brigade to re-take the ridge, which it did in a fierce fight that included hand-to-hand combat.

Author and historian Michael Oren

Michael Oren, author of "Six Days of War June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East." Courtesy: The Shalem Center hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy: The Shalem Center

"After very intense fighting — I can't stress this enough: The Jordanian armies fought with unprecedented valor — but after 24 hours, the Jordanian army was broken and ... was retreating throughout the West Bank, through Nablus, through Hebron, Bethlehem and across the Jordan River," Oren said.

Israeli forces gave chase and took control of the entire West Bank.

"What you had here was a conquest without a strategic goal," said writer and historian Gershom Gorenberg. "The war was unexpected, the conquest was unexpected and the strategy had to be invented after the fact. And in many ways you could say that to this day, Israel is still trying to figure out what the strategic goal was of conquering the West Bank 40 years ago."

While Israeli forces swept into the West Bank, in Jerusalem Israeli paratroopers entered the old city and reached the Temple Mount and Wailing Wall. Euphoric Israeli soldiers celebrated renewed access to Judaism's holiest site by blowing a rams horn and singing.

The final two days of war were largely a fight with Syria. After Israeli intelligence learned that Syrian forces were near collapse, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan ordered Operation Hammer. Israel quickly gained control of the Golan Heights.

Historic Audio Clips

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Eventually, a U.N.-brokered ceasefire took effect. In less than a week, Israel had more than tripled the size of the territory under its control.

With Israel's total victory in the Six Day War also came weighty responsibilities, especially the occupation of the heavily populated Palestinian West Bank.

After 40 years, including two Palestinian uprisings and waves of deadly suicide bombings, Israel's messy and tragic entanglement with the West Bank continues.

"It's tragic more than anything else," said Israeli peace activist Dror Etkes. "It's a story of waste of energy, of waste of life, of waste of so much potential on both sides — Palestinian and Israel. It's a story that cannot end well. Occupation cannot last."

The war lasted for six days. Four decades later, debate over Israel's victory and its implications remains unsettled.

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