May 24, 2012
From the heights of Mount Scopus
An excerpt from “Battle for Jerusalem”
This is exclusive to jewishjournal.com
Bullets whined through jagged windowpanes as the archaeologists walked through the galleries. It was two decades since access to the Rockefeller had been closed to Israelis. Exhibit cases had been smashed by ricocheting bullets and the floor was littered with glass. Battle-weary paratroopers sat or sprawled in the corridors. A dozing private opened an eye as the group approached and fixed it on Biran. “Hey, fellows,” he yelled, suddenly wide awake, “now we can get an explanation.” A score of bone-weary soldiers picked themselves off the floor and followed the archaeologists on one of the most unusual museum lecture tours ever given. Shots echoed through the galleries and glass display cases periodically shattered as Biran and his colleagues explained the significance of some of the finds.
The archaeologists noted that hardly anything had changed since they had last been there. Items marked “removed for repairs” on cards dated 1947 still had not been returned to the display cases. One of the few changes was the plastering over of Hebrew gallery signs chiseled into the walls; the equivalent signs in Arabic and English remained. Biran had hoped to make arrangements to protect the exhibits, but it was obvious that with a war going on around the museum this was impossible. Before leaving, he asked the soldiers to keep an eye on things and make sure nothing disappeared.
* * *
While the museum below was filling with soldiers, Captain Schwartzberg kept up his duel from the tower with the Arab positions on the Old City wall, sometimes assisted by one or two men. Machine-gun bullets poured into the tall arched windows and bazooka shells beat a tattoo against the walls outside. Schwartzberg’s legs and cheeks were bleeding from shrapnel. He sat on the floor firing through alternate windows, sometimes placing his helmet on a chair and shoving it with his foot in front of one window while he fired out the other. A young soldier with him had a flask of cognac, and periodically they would pause for a nip. Machine guns, ammunition boxes, and sandbags were passed up the winding steps by other soldiers, and the tower began to take on a cozy look.
Schwartzberg descended briefly with the keys he had taken from the guards in order to make sure no one was hiding in the basement rooms. He came across a strongroom containing the museum’s coin collection and remembered seeing it on exhibit when he was a boy. He did not come on the room where the museum’s Dead Sea Scrolls had been secured the eve of the war.
Most of the men dozed off on the floors, disregarding the whine of bullets and explosions. At one point the chandelier at the main entrance fell with a loud clatter. The men lying under smaller chandeliers in other rooms moved aside and resumed sleeping.
* * *
Descending from the Mount of Olives, the two lead Israeli tanks reached the turnoff to Lion’s Gate. One continued past it and took a blocking position farther up the main road. The second tank halted and turned its gun toward the gate. The tank commander was Sergeant Ben-Gigi. To him had fallen the task of hammering open the gates of the Old City. The Moroccan-born tinsmith, whose workshop was within 200 yards of Jaffa Gate on the opposite side of the walled city, was unmoved by the occasion. He regarded the gate as simply another enemy strongpoint to be reduced, and he ordered his gunner, Moshe Haimovsky, to open fire.
Many of those soldiers who had stood dry-eyed at the Western Wall shed tears now. Looking down at the cheering residents from the firing positions that had dominated them for years, the paratroopers had the feeling of deliverers. Lieutenant Yair could hear the Jerusalemites singing the Hatikva across no-man’s-land. Civilians approaching close to the wall called for a flag to be raised. Yair, who had remained near the Citadel, turned to Lieutenant Bitan, who had awakened him three weeks before at Kfar Blum with his mobilization order, and told him to raise a flag atop the minaret, known as David’s Tower, rising from the Citadel.
Bitan descended from the wall and raced up the graceful minaret’s spiral staircase. Climbing on a metal railing, he fixed the flag to the spire, teetering over a sheer drop as he did so. Of all the flags raised that day, none had a more dramatic impact than this, proclaiming to the Jews of Jerusalem that the Old City was taken.
Four Arab dignitaries strode across the Temple Mount to the knot of Israeli officers beside the Dome of the Rock. Governor Khatib asked in English whom they could speak to. Colonel Gur, who was kneeling over a map on the ground, rose and replied that he was in command. Khatib introduced himself and Gur shook his hand. Khatib declared that the Jordanian army had left the city. There would be no further organized resistance, he said. If no one resists, replied Gur, peace will descend on the city. Gur said his soldiers had strict instructions not to molest the population or destroy property. However, if shooting came from any house it would be destroyed.
The decision to abandon the Old City without a fight lost Jordan the last chance it had of salvaging something from the war. As the Americans would discover at Hue in Vietnam, a battle in an ancient, walled city is an excruciating business, even for modern armies with massive firepower. Israel would have felt far more constrained about using firepower in Jerusalem’s Old City than the Americans would feel in Hue. A few hundred Jordanian soldiers and hundreds of armed civilians with large stocks of ammunition would have been a formidable force in the maze of the Old City. The Jordanians could not win the battle but they could hope to hold out until the international community, particularly the Christian world, forced through a cease-fire on terms that would accommodate some of Jordan’s demands.
This excerpt is reprinted with permission by the author. The Kindle edition of “Battle for Jerusalem” can be ordered through amazon.com at a list price of $9.99.
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