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Forty years later, Jerusalem still a divided city

Story Highlights

• Despite Israeli victory 40 years ago, conflict for Jerusalem has never died
• Israeli paratrooper says taking the old city was greatest moment in his life
• Jordanian officer says he cried that day, calls it "the blackest day of my life"
• Journalist: Israeli soldiers in 1967 debated questions that still linger
By Ben Wedeman
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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Shimshon Cahaner was among the first Israeli soldiers to storm into the Old City of Jerusalem 40 years ago. He remembers that historic day as if it were yesterday -- the thrill he and other Israeli troops got when they raced through Lions' Gate at the eastern edge of the Old City.

"I ran inside with my gun and I touched the wall -- the stones of the wall of Jerusalem -- and I felt something I can't believe," he says, his beard now gray with age.

Days before, Cahaner had been deployed near Israel's southern border preparing to be dropped into Egypt's Sinai Peninsula when plans suddenly changed. Israeli armored columns cut through the Sinai so rapidly that the paratroopers were flown to Jerusalem, where artillery exchanges between the Jordanian and Israeli armies presaged the opening of a new front.

Abdallah Budairi, now 85, was nearby serving with the Jordanian army. He too well recalls that day, June 7, 1967, when Israeli troops took Jerusalem, the sacred city to Jews, Muslims and Christians. It was, he says, "the blackest day of my life." (Watch soldiers describe their feelings that day Video)

"If I told you I cried, yes, I cried," he says, shaking his head in disgust.

He spoke from his ancient house, built into the walls of the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as Al-Haram al-Sharif, or the "Holy Sanctuary."

The Temple Mount is where Israeli solders brought him after his capture. While he waited to be interrogated, he says, an Israeli officer "came up and told us 'Jericho has fallen.' "

He recalls his army was completely unprepared for war. There were individual acts of bravery by lone soldiers, he says, but a complete breakdown among the officers.

A conflict that hasn't ended

This week marks 40 years since the Six Day War broke out. In the span of six days, Israeli forces seized Jerusalem and the West Bank (then under Jordanian rule), the Golan Heights (then under Syrian rule), Gaza (then under Egyptian control) and Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.

But the conflict has never stopped. (Watch how the occupation divides Israelis Video)

Israel claimed Jerusalem as its "eternal and undivided" capital. The barbed wire and minefields that divided the city from 1948 until June 1967 might be gone, but invisible barriers still exist.

If you want to take a taxi from Israeli West Jerusalem to a Palestinian neighborhood in the east, you ask the driver first. More often than not, Israeli taxi drivers will refuse to take you. You also are unlikely to find an Israeli strolling down the main Palestinian shopping district on Salah al-Din Street.

The divide is also in wealth. According to the Jerusalem Center for Economic and Social Rights, nearly 50 percent of Jerusalem's Palestinian population is classified as low income -- those who earn less than $500 a month -- compared with around 20 percent among Israeli residents of the city.

By most estimates, the growth of the Palestinian population of Jerusalem outstrips that of the Israelis, and no Palestinian faction would ever advocate relinquishing the Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem.

And even Israel's claim that Jerusalem is its capital is one most countries around the world don't recognize. Almost all embassies, including that of the United States, are in Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem.

American journalist Abraham Rabinovich covered the Six Day War and was at the Temple Mount where he saw prisoners sitting on the ground. When he spoke to some of the Israeli soldiers there, he heard the same debate that would reverberate through Israeli society over the occupied lands for decades to come.

"Some said ... 'We should give everything back except for our holy city.' Some said, 'We should give nothing back,' " he recalls. "There was a great difference of opinion."

Palestinian: 'Sympathy for my oppressor'

Sari Nusseibi runs Jerusalem's Al-Quds University, the premiere Palestinian educational institute in the city. He was 16 when the war broke out and takes the long view of the conflict. He sees within Israel's stunning victory the seeds of an Israeli defeat.

Under the trees on the university's campus in the northern Jerusalem suburb of Beit Hanina, Nusseibi says that in June 1967 Israel "found itself actually bringing together the bits and pieces of the Palestinian people that had been divided for the previous 20 years: the Palestinians from Israel, the Palestinians from Gaza, the Palestinians from Jordan."

Suddenly, he says, "it was possible for the Gazan Palestinians, for instance, to come and pray at the Holy Mosque. Now this was a strange twist to Israel's victory in 1967."

From his perspective, in June 1967, Israel won a battle, but the war -- not the Six Day War, but rather the decades-old conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in this small sliver of land -- is by no means over.

"It must be depressing for [Israel] that it can't really do what it wants with a people like us, untrained, uneducated, without anything, with no equipment, with no background, nothing."

Shaking his head with a bemused smile, he adds, "I actually feel a little bit of sympathy for my oppressor."

The battle for Jerusalem, and the Six Day War, were a decisive defeat for Egypt, Syria and Jordan, but there was nothing decisive about the aftermath. Israel and the Palestinians are still at war, 40 years later.


Shimshon Cahaner says storming into the Old City of Jerusalem for Israel was something he'll always remember.



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