Tuesday, June 05, 2007
The Battle for Jerusalem
Forty years is a long time in a lot of places, but not in Jerusalem, where history--recent and from the distant past--stare you in the face everywhere you go
It was forty years ago this week that the Six Day war broke out. Within those six days, Israeli forces seized East Jerusalem and the West Bank (then under Jordanian rule), the Syrian Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip (then under Egyptian control), and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
This week Jerusalem marks 40 years since the city was made whole, and we are focussing on that, and those who were witnesses to those dramatic days.
I met Abraham Rabinovich, an American journalist who covered the war, on a hot afternoon on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City.
Rabinovich arrived in Jerusalem in the days before the war, and recalls an eerie atmosphere of fear and anticipation. And while he was busy covering the lead up to the war, the morning it broke out he was occupied with far more mundane matters.
“I was at the dentist in downtown Jerusalem getting a tooth pulled,” he recalls. “As I was leaving, sirens sounded. It wasn’t clear what that meant. There was no sound of artillery. About 20 minutes later on the radio, someone said the Egyptian army is moving toward the border, there are serious battles raging.”
Shimshon Cahaner was a major in the Israeli paratroopers, and was down near the border with Israeli preparing to be dropped in the Sinai. But plans changed. The Israeli armoured columns cut through the Sinai like a hot knife through butter, so in the middle of the night they were flown to Jerusalem, where artillery exchanges between the Jordanian and Israeli armies presaged the opening of a new front.
He was among the troops that stormed through Lions Gate, at the eastern edge of the Old City. In preparing this story my producer, Mike Schwartz, and I found old footage of Cahaner at the scene. His beard is now grey, and he still walks with a slight limp from an old war wound, but he recalls that day like it was yesterday.
“The high point was when I crossed through the Lions Gate to 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 recalls.
Abdallah Budairi, now 85 years old, was nearby, serving with the Jordanian Army. I spoke with him in his ancient house, built into the walls of the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as Al-Haram Al-Sharif, the Holy Sanctuary.
He recalls an army that was completely unprepared for war. “Why did we get into a war?” he asked me. “If that’s what you want to do, you need a plan. There was no plan. They had nothing. It was a one-sided war, in which Israel did as it pleased.” There were individual acts of bravery by lone soldiers, but a complete breakdown among the officers.
He was captured by Israeli troops, and taken to the Temple Mount, where he waited his turn to be interrogated.
“An Israeli officer came up and told us, Jericho has fallen,” he told me.
The whole experience was devastating, and he’s never really recovered from it. “If I told you I cried, yes, I cried,” he said, shaking his head in disgust, as if it had happened yesterday, not forty years ago.
Abraham Rabinovich was also on the Temple Mount, and saw the prisoners sitting on the ground. When he spoke to some of the soldiers there, relaxing after the battle, he heard the same debates 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. There was a great difference of opinion.”
Sari Nusseibi runs Jerusalem’s Al-Quds University, the premiere Palestinian educational institute in the city. He was sixteen years old when the war broke out, and takes the long view of the war.
While Abdallah Budairi described the day Jerusalem fell as “the blackest day of my life,” Nusseibi sees within Israel’s stunning victory the seeds an Israeli defeat.
Under the trees on the university’s campus in the northern Jerusalem suburb of Beit Hanina, Nusseibi, told me 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, “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 war 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.”
That the conflict isn’t really over is clear. Israel calls Jerusalem its eternal and undivided capital. Although the barbed wire and mine fields that divided the city from 1948 until June 1967 are gone, invisible barriers still exist. If you want to take a taxi from Israeli west Jerusalem to a Palestinian neighbourhood in the east, ask the driver first. More often than not, Israeli taxi drivers will refuse to take you. You are unlikely to find an Israeli strolling down the main Palestinian shopping district on Salah Al-Din Street.
Likewise, there is nothing “eternal” about Israel’s control over Jerusalem. While they might not agree on a lot of things, no Palestinian faction would ever advocate relinquishing the Palestinian claims to east Jerusalem. All the while, the growth of the Palestinian population of Jerusalem far outstrips that of the Israelis.
And even Israel’s claim that Jerusalem is its capital is one most countries on earth have problems with. Almost all embassies—including that of the United States—are in Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem, and recently there was an uproar when the American ambassador (along with most others) declined to attend ceremonies here to mark the city’s reunification in 1967.
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. The West Bank and the Golan are still under Israeli occupation. Palestinians still reject Israeli control of east Jerusalem. Israel controls all access to the Gaza Strip. And violence is still a daily fact of life.
Israel and the Palestinians are still at war, 40 years after the Six Day War.
-- From Ben Wedeman, CNN Jerusalem Correspondent
ABOUT THIS BLOGHear from CNN reporters across the globe. "In the Field" is a unique blog that will let you share the thoughts and observations of CNN's award-winning international journalists from their far-flung bureaus or on assignment. Whether it's from conflict zone, a summit gathering, or the path least traveled, "In the Field" gives you a personal, front row seat to CNN's global newsgathering team.