Remembering my fight for Jerusalem

The 1967 Six Day War was a fight for national survival, but no long-term strategy followed the victory. Consequently, 50 years later, Israel continues to feel the effects that have followed.

Prior to the conflict, Israel was surrounded by Arab states, seeking its destruction, and the Israelis were living in fear. No one gave any thought to post-war ramifications, but rather, policy and decision makers within the Israeli government were entirely focused on the immediate goal of military victory.

After the Six Day War ended, there was a large divide in Israel regarding whether the country should control predominantly Palestinian areas, risking its Jewish majority, or whether Israel should return to the 1948 borders and once again face existential security risks. Nevertheless, this debate did not emerge into a concrete diplomatic plan on how to proceed in the future.

At that time, the Palestinians did not appear on Israel’s diplomatic radar as a consideration that had to be accounted for. The area was solely perceived with the traditional division of Arab states on one side and Israel on the other. Amongst the Palestinians, there was no emergence of a leadership capable of committing to a final peace agreement. With no thoughts of the future by Israel’s governing Labor Party, events continued to flow on their own accord, and Israel began constructing an increasing number of settlements.

During the war, on the eastern front, King Hussein, of Jordan, controlled the entirety of Judea and Samaria. It was unimagined that within just a short period time, the IDF would disgorge his forces into the eastern side of the Jordan River. Subsequently, after the war ended, Yigal Alon, the Labor Minister at the time, submitted a plan that called for Judea and Samaria to be divided, based on Israel’s security considerations. There were no discussions of reaching a solution with the inhabitants of these areas.

After King Hussein relinquished all claims to the West Bank, Israel missed an opportunity to reach an agreement with certain well-known Palestinian families, who inhabited the area for many years. In Judea and Samaria, notable families had been residing in cities such as Hebron, Jenin, and Jerusalem, for over 1,000 years. (Personally, my family has lived in Israel for 14 generations and was well acquainted with the influential Palestinian clans.) Instead, almost three decades after the Six Day War, the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO were executed, where Yasser Arafat and his people were permitted to inhibit the Gaza Strip and Jericho, from their base in Tunisia.

When I was the head of the Foreign Ministry’s Middle East Department, the Nashashibis, one of the two key Palestinian clans, invited me for a meeting. They had heard rumors that Israel was planning on placing their territories under Arafat’s control, and they made their objections very clear. They expressed deep concern that such control would be detrimental to the Palestinians due to Arafat’s radical revolutionary approach and his lack of experience and knowledge of local issues.

Today, 24 years after the Oslo Accord has been signed, it is impossible to say that Israel can reach an agreement with the current Palestinian Authority. Such an agreement would require both the Israelis and Palestinians to have leaders who have the capability to make decisions of great impact, necessitating them finding support for their views. Consequently, both sides will have to make painful compromises in relation to past peace agreements that have been signed with Egypt and Jordan.

The aforementioned has become the legacy of the Six Day War. Unfortunately, the two choices that Israel is now faced with are both dangerous and risky for the country. By holding on to the whole Palestinian territory, with two million Palestinians residing there, Israel in turn will jeopardize its Jewish majority. However, if Israel relinquishes these territories, that is not ideal either. This can be detrimental at a time where borders in the Middle East are collapsing like dominoes, and at a point in world history where radical Islamic groups (i.e. ISIS) and Iran are expressing their hatred more than ever before. It is clear that, at this time, neither solution will bring peace and comfort to the Israeli people. In turn, Jerusalem is in the unenviable position of having to decide which of the two dangerous paths Israel should take.

Those who follow the views of the first prime minister and founding father, David Ben Gurion, view the Jewish statehood as the primary goal of Israel and are opting to surrender most of the territories. This view is conditioned on the fact that any Palestinian state that subsequently arises is demilitarized and that Israel maintains military control of the Jordan Valley in order to prevent the entrance of radical forces. Overall, leaving Judea and Samaria is by no means a good option, but it is likely the lesser of the two evils, if preserving a Jewish state is the guiding objective.

I can personally relate to this view, as I have deep and personal memories of fighting in the Six Day War. I fought as an infantry soldier in the Jerusalem Reconnaissance Unit. Having been born and raised in the city, I was literally fighting for my home during numerous battles that my unit fought against Jordanian forces. The eruption of hostilities caught my unit by surprise. The general impression was that King Hussein, who was the more pragmatic and reasonable figure among Israel’s neighbors, would not join in the Egyptian and Syrian aggression. We wrongly conceived that the war would pass us by and that we would mainly be focused in the northern (Golan) and southern (Sinai) fronts. As a result, it came as a shock when Jordanian forces began shelling western Jerusalem and capturing the Armon HaNatziv and Ramat Rachel areas.

Operating under the IDF’s Central Command, our jeeps were the first to enter Jordanian controlled territory, in the first days of the war. I clearly recall masses of Israeli residents in West Jerusalem throwing candies at us, as we deployed eastwards towards the battle zone. I also distinctly remember the face of a girl who was a high school friend of mine, standing in the crowds. She was in utter shock when she realized that her fellow classmate was one of the first people heading into combat.

My unit fought in Armon HaNatziv and Motzav Hapa’amon (the Bell Position), where we suffered many casualties. We then proceeded to enter Bethlehem, en route to Hebron. In Bethlehem, we were the first to enter Rachel’s Tomb, where I was stunned to find that a well, dug by my great-great-grandfather, had remained intact. It moved me deeply to cast my gaze on the well. According to my family tales, this well was dug because local Arab residents refused to bring water pots to Jewish visitors at the holy site.

On the other side of the road was Gush Etzion, where Israeli forces involuntarily abandoned in the 1948 War of Independence. My father, who served in the IDF, fought at Gush Etzion, and he used to show it to me from afar. He would share with me the terrible feeling he felt when being forced to withdraw. And there I was, nearly 20 years later, in the unit that was the first to enter it.

Our unit then reached Hebron, where we entered the Cave of the Patriarchs (Ma’arat Ha’machpelah), accompanied by Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren. Even for the secular soldier, like myself, knowing that this was the exact spot where the Jewish nation began was very moving and shadowed over us as we entered the site. As we passed a crack in the stairs leading to the Cave, Rabbi Goren informed us that Jews were prevented from passing further, until now.

Unfortunately, although Israel was victorious, the war resulted in many tragedies. On the southern front, around 1/3 of our unit, which was deployed to combat against Egypt in the battle of Ali Muntar, was killed in action at the entrance to the Gaza Strip. This force was ambushed by the Egyptians, and many were killed by a wave of Egyptian fire. However, despite these tragedies, stories of life also emerged. For instance, at the Cave of the Patriarchs, about a week after the war ended, an officer from my unit got married at the holy site. His wedding had previously been put on hold due to the conflict. This was the first modern-day Jewish wedding at this site.

Today, 50 years since the war’s end, both personal and national memories have fused together for those who fought. The war’s legacy continues to impact the national fate of the state of Israel. The clock is ticking faster each day, and it is becoming more difficult to find solutions for the remnants of the Six Day War, especially as Israel’s entanglement with the Palestinians grows deeper and more complicated.

Edited by Yaakov Lappin

Co-Edited by Bahar D. Simani

Notice: The views expressed above do not represent the views of the IDF or the Foreign Ministry. They are reflective solely of the views of the author.

About the Author
Pinchas Avivi concluded his diplomatic career as Senior Deputy Director General in charge of global, strategic and multilateral affairs for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2014. He has held key positions, including those of Deputy Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the Central Europe, Eurasia and Russia division. He was also the Ambassador of Israel to Turkey. He is a diplomatic advisor to Our Soldiers Speak (www.oursoldiersspeak.org)
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