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From the heights of Mount Scopus

An excerpt from “Battle for Jerusalem”


by Abraham Rabinovich

May 24, 2012 | 3:34 pm

Prewar view from Israeli Jerusalem toward the wall of the Old City. Street at left is blocked by concrete anti-sniper walls, behind which cars are parked. At center, the slender minaret of David’s Tower can be seen. The Old City wall ends at right on Mount Zion, dominated by the Dormition Church and its bell tower. Wooded ridge in distance is Jebel Mukaber with Government House compound in center. Trees at extreme right of ridge mark the training farm. Photo courtesy Israel Government Press Office

Prewar view from Israeli Jerusalem toward the wall of the Old City. Street at left is blocked by concrete anti-sniper walls, behind which cars are parked. At center, the slender minaret of David’s Tower can be seen. The Old City wall ends at right on Mount Zion, dominated by the Dormition Church and its bell tower. Wooded ridge in distance is Jebel Mukaber with Government House compound in center. Trees at extreme right of ridge mark the training farm. Photo courtesy Israel Government Press Office

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Dr. Avraham Biran, director of Israel’s Department of Antiquities, received a call early on the second day of the war from the wife of Yigael Yadin, the former army chief of staff and Israel’s most eminent archaeologist. Since the start of the crisis Yadin had been serving as military advisor to Prime Minister Eshkol. With the army entering Jordanian Jerusalem, Yadin wanted Biran and two colleagues to check out the condition of the Rockefeller Museum and ensure that the museum’s collections were secured, particularly the Dead Sea Scrolls in its possession. The three men drove to Col. Gur’s headquarters and presented themselves to the brigade commander. Climbing onto a half-track with Col Gur and his staff, they crossed no-man’s-land and entered the museum from the rear.

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.

The 71st Battalion was bivouacked in Wadi Joz where the men were distributed among private homes. The Arab families living there were asked to assemble in one or two rooms and were left alone there. Some soldiers who attempted to converse with the occupants found older men willing to talk, occasionally in remembered Hebrew; but the young men were silent and sullen. The soldiers helped themselves to food and slept on beds when they could but avoided looting. (Second-line troops arriving later were to prove less scrupulous. There was, however, no instance of rape or sexual molestation.)

The troops had had nothing substantial to eat in two days, and commanders permitted them to break into groceries. (Journalists were to find shutters on jewelry shops and camera stores intact.) The most sought-after beverage was not spirits but Pepsi-Cola, which the Arab boycott had succeeded in banning from Israel and which most of the Israelis had never tasted.

Not all the Jordanian civilians accepted the Israeli occupation with resignation. Soldiers from the 71st were on a street in Wadi Joz when a man ran out of a house shouting in Arabic and firing a pistol at them. To Lieutenant Gad, he seemed old enough to be his father and for a fraction of a second he wondered if there was a way to stop him without shooting. The man fell in a burst of fire. He knew he was going to die, thought Gad, and knew what he was dying for.

* * *

Late Tuesday night Nasser, who had not until now informed Hussein of the destruction of the Egyptian air force, dropped his final veil in a message transmitted to the king. It was at last an abandonment of self-delusion and posturing.  “My dear brother, King Hussein. We find ourselves face to face with one of those critical moments that nations are sometimes called upon to endure. It demands courage beyond human capacity. We are fully aware of your difficult situation as at this moment our front is crumbling too. Yesterday our enemy’s air force inflicted a mortal blow on us. Since then our land army has been stripped of all air support and forced to withstand the power of superior forces. When the history books are written, your courage and tenacity will be remembered.”

* * *

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.

An antiquated bus was parked at the side of the road, 50 yards from the gate. Haimovsky asked what to do about it. “Hit it,” said Ben-Gigi. Heavy fire was coming from the ramparts and Ben-Gigi thought that if the bus were set aflame the smoke might shield the paratroopers as they moved up the road. Haimovsky had collected seven shells on his lap for quick firing. He pumped two antitank shells into the bus with little visible effect. When he tried an explosive shell the bus caught fire. Black smoke poured out and the wind drove it back against the Jordanian positions on the gate as Ben-Gigi hoped.

Haimovsky, a school administrator, presumed he should try to open the gate. Magnified in his periscope, the gateway was seen to be closed by two tall metal-sheathed doors. The right door was partially blocked from view by the smoke. Haimovsky aimed for the upper hinge of the left door and fired. The top of the door canted backwards under the impact, permitting him to see through into the Old City itself. He was looking straight up the Via Dolorosa.

Meanwhile, Gur himself had joined the race for the gate, following the tanks down from the Mount of Olives in his half-track. Driving the vehicle was Sergeant Ben-Tsur, a bus driver in civilian life. The brigade commander ordered him to pass Ben-Gigi’s tank. Ben-Tsur swung around it and started up Lion’s Gate road. The gate was hidden by a thick column of smoke. The loaded half-track struggled up the incline, Ben-Tsur’s foot pressing the accelerator to the floor. He could feel the heat from the burning bus as they passed it. Suddenly, he was through the smoke. Just ahead loomed the gate. There were two huge doors, the left one hanging partially open. He steered for the center of the gate. The half-track slammed hard and the left door toppled backward, the right door swinging open. An Arab wearing a kheffiya jumped clear behind the gate, and a shower of small stones from the damaged arch fell into the half-track. They were inside the Old City.

Captain Zamush mounted the city wall alongside David’s Tower and encountered an armed Jordanian, who surrendered. The Jordanian was stunned. “Aren’t you from the Iraqi army?” he asked. Paratroopers who entered the Jordanian barracks found clothing neatly laid out for inspection on tightly made beds. A private named Yaacov found a large drum, which he hauled up the narrow stairway to the rampart on the city wall. The day before, his weapon had stopped a Jordanian bullet that would have hit him in the chest, and he sounded out his joy now with a vigorous beat.
In Israeli Jerusalem, from where the paratroopers could be seen moving along the ramparts, civilians began coming out of the old stone houses of Yemin Moshe and Mamilla and pouring into the streets. Others crowded balconies. Youngsters ran toward no-man’s-land, and civil defense wardens, fearful of mines, kept them back.. Above the shouts of the crowd could be heard the triumphant rat-tat-tat of the drum.

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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