JERUSALEM — On June 7, 1967, a young American reporter looking for adventure witnessed the aftermath of a battle that would change the course of history for Israel and the Jewish people.
After hearing rumors about Israeli paratroopers entering the ancient walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, Abraham Rabinovich, with a notebook in hand, headed toward the forbidden eastern side of the city, until then in Jordanian hands. Passing through the former checkpoint that divided the city, he then walked, unhindered, to the area known as the Temple Mount to Jews and Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary, to Muslims — a sacred site for both religions.
“The setting was monumental. The esplanade was full of battered old jalopies and vans, Israeli paratroopers were wandering about — some were sleeping, others celebrating — and prisoners were being led in,” Rabinovich said.
Now 83, the retired journalist said he realized the moment was historic, “but I had no real sense of what it all meant.”
“I asked a group of soldiers what might happen now,” Rabinovich recalled. “Someone said: ‘They started the war, so we should keep what we’ve taken.’ Another said: ‘They can have everything back except our holy city.’ ”
And thus began a debate about Jerusalem’s status that continues today, he said.
On Wednesday, Israel will mark 50 years since that battle, part of what it calls the Six-Day War, which began June 5, 1967, when Israel launched a preemptive strike against the armies of three Arab nations: Egypt in the south, Jordan in the east and Syria in the north.
In a ceremony Monday, veterans shared their stories and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the war was a “miraculous show of defense.”
“The war brought us back to our homeland, back to the inheritance of our patriarchs, in the heart of which is a united Jerusalem,” said Netanyahu, who joined the army two months after the war and served as a paratrooper.
The war took place over six days. In that short time, Israel defeated its three foes, capturing not only Jerusalem but also taking the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, part of the Golan Heights from Syria and the West Bank from Jordan.
Some called Israel’s victory a miracle. According to minutes of the Ministerial Committee on National Security released by the Israel State Archives, even those leading the country were shocked.
For many Israelis, the most important achievement was gaining control of Jerusalem and reuniting the two sides of the city. With the Old City in Israel’s possession, Jews could once again pray at one of their holiest sites: the Western Wall.
Within weeks of the June war, the Israeli government declared sovereignty over Jerusalem’s Old City and its eastern neighborhoods, a move still not recognized by much of the world and contested by the Palestinians.
Israel later annexed the Golan Heights, a decision also not recognized, although the Sinai was returned to Egypt as part of the Camp David Accords in 1978. And the status of Gaza and the West Bank are still in dispute, with the Palestinians hoping the two territories will eventually make up an independent state.
In a statement Sunday, Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said that for Palestinians, this week marks “50 years of oppression, subjugation and daily control over all aspects of people’s lives.”
Avraham Sela, a professor emeritus from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a veteran of the Six-Day War, said, “There was such euphoria in those days,” there was never a second thought about Jerusalem’s fate, it would always stay in Israel’s hands.
No one could think of any other scenario, he said.
“But when the intifada [the violent Palestinian uprising against Israel] started in the 1980s, Israelis could not believe that these populations, which had lived peacefully with us for two decades, would do this,” Sela said. “We did not think or feel what the other side was going through.”
Said Guy Laron, senior lecturer of international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem: “I think Jerusalem was an open wound from the war of 1948. A lot of blood was spilled around Jerusalem and it was almost in the palm of Israel’s hand, but the army did not have enough artillery or air power at the time.
“With hindsight, annexing Jerusalem was not done with a lot of forethought, they did not think about what it would mean to annex the city’s eastern neighborhoods,” he said, or its non-Jewish holy sites.