Six Day War: The East Jerusalem Controversy

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The second 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.

Part One

Listen to the first part of the Six Day War series here.

About the Series

Six days of war between Israel and its Arab neighbors in June 1967 reshaped 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.

Abid EhSheik at the ruins of his former home. i

Abid EhSheik at the ruins of his former home in Issawiya, East Jerusalem. Eric Westervelt, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Eric Westervelt, NPR
Abid EhSheik at the ruins of his former home.

Abid EhSheik at the ruins of his former home in Issawiya, East Jerusalem.

Eric Westervelt, NPR
Abid EhSheik surveys his land in Anata. i

Abid EhSheik surveys his land in Anata. Eric Westerverlt, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Eric Westerverlt, NPR
Abid EhSheik surveys his land in Anata.

Abid EhSheik surveys his land in Anata.

Eric Westerverlt, NPR
Author Gershom Gorenberg

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977. Debbi Cooper hide caption

itoggle caption Debbi Cooper

A Palestinian Perspective

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

Shortly after the Six Day War ended, Israel annexed East Jerusalem in a highly controversial move that is still not recognized internationally.

Yet while East Jerusalem's Palestinian residents abhor Israeli rule, many prefer Israeli medical and other services and remain wary of the Palestinian Authority.

When war broke out on June 5, 1967, the authorities in Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem had made no emergency provisions for war. No medical or food supplies had been stockpiled and no bomb shelters had been built for civilians.

Howla Daoud, who was 11, lived in the same place she does now, in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of the city. Her rented house sits right next to what used to be the fence line dividing Israeli West Jerusalem from the Jordanian-controlled East.

"I remember when the war started, all the shooting," Daoud said. "Our family didn't have a shelter. We didn't know where to go or what to do. The neighbors started talking about hiding in a cave in the orchard that was right over there, not far from our house."

Afraid and hungry, Daoud's family and six other families jammed into the tiny cave, while the fighting raged around them. Jordanian soldiers retreated — as Israeli paratroopers swept through the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

"We only had bread and water in the cave," Daoud said. "We came out after eight days and I went to see what was inside the Jordanian army barracks nearby. It was quiet, I'll never forget, I saw two dead Jordanian soldiers inside the barracks."

After the War

By the end of June 1967, just three weeks after the war, Israel annexed East Jerusalem and offered citizenship rights to Palestinians. Most refused. Today virtually all of the Palestinians living East Jerusalem have residency rights, but cannot vote in parliamentary elections that determine Israel's national government. Back in 1967, many Palestinians were unsure what to do, Daoud said.

"Some of the neighbors fled to Jordan. But I remember very well my father and mother saying, 'No way. Nothing will push us out of Jerusalem," she said.

In many ways, the Daoud family's struggles are emblematic of the problems faced by many Palestinians in the city since the war.

Howla Doaud and her husband, Abid AhSheikh, 60, currently pay rent to the Custodian for Absentee Properties, a division of the Israeli Finance Ministry, for their modest home. That's because their rented house is caught up in a long-running ownership dispute between Jewish and Palestinian families.

As the land dispute ricocheted through the Israeli courts, the Daoud family grew increasingly worried about the precarious status of their rental. So in the late 1990s, family members pooled their money and began to build a place of their own in Issawiya, an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem, closer to the West Bank.

One year after the Issawiya home was built, the Israeli authorities declared the house illegal. The Daouds had not gotten the proper building permits, they were told. Israeli bulldozers flattened the home.

"My sons and I worked five years in order to save money to save this house," AhSheikh said. "And they came and demolished it in a minute. They crushed our future in a minute."

AhSheikh works in construction, and many of his jobs are in the city's Jewish neighborhoods. He was renovating the home of an Israeli police officer when the demolition order came.

"He said, 'I'm sorry — I have to implement the orders.' He could do nothing," AhSheikh said. "This place was my insurance in case we ever get evicted. Now what do I do?"

According to a recent World Bank report, Israel demolished 157 Palestinian-owned buildings in East Jerusalem after declaring them illegal between 1999 and 2003. The World Bank called it a discriminatory practice that has led to housing shortages — and stymied business and employment opportunities — in East Jerusalem.

After their home in Issawiya was demolished, the Daouds were disillusioned about their future in East Jerusalem. So, they pooled what little money they had left and bought a small piece of land in Anata, a village next to Jerusalem just inside the West Bank.

"You see it's just a few meters from the wall," AhSheikh said, pointing through a barbed-wire fence to a cement foundation on a small grassy hill.

Israeli construction equipment sits nearby. His land is about to be cut off from East Jerusalem – and he isn't allowed to build there. The property, it turns out, is too close to the separation barrier, a 460-mile-long mix of fencing and cement walls that Israel is building in and around the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel says the fence is necessary to stop suicide bombers and other Palestinian attacks in Israel. For AhSheikh, the barrier was his family's final setback.

"Nothing. The land is useless now. It's too close to the wall. They won't let me build," he said.

Access to Jerusalem

AhSheikh's daughter, Fahtin, said that even if the Israelis allowed them to build in Anata, the family can't risk getting cut off from Jerusalem or losing their Jerusalem residency permits. Her mother needs dialysis three times a week for her kidney disease. Fathin says her mother prefers the Israeli medical care she gets in Jerusalem.

"If we build that house behind the wall it will be very difficult to get to the hospital or get to our work. We will lose those rights," she said.

In 2006, Israel granted more than 81,000 entry permits for Palestinians to receive medial care in Israel. Asked if her family would prefer to be under the Palestinian Authority, Fahtin mostly dodged the question.

"We are troubled by all the political confusion in the Palestinian Authority," she said.

Those conflicting feelings are widespread among East Jerusalemites, who are living under "occupation deluxe," said Israeli writer Gershom Gorenberg.

"They are very resentful of their inequality — of harassment by the Israeli bureaucracy," Gorenberg said. "At the same time, they are terrified very often of being under the rule of the Palestinian Authority because PA is so corrupt. It's much poorer and their lives are already so dependent on the Israeli economy."

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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