Israeli-Arab relations witnessed a historic event last week. Modest and hidden from the limelight of the media, it touched everyone who attended it, moving some to tears: Israeli and Jordanian war veterans who fought each other 45 years ago visited together their shared combat zones in Jerusalem, honoring each other and paying tribute to their fallen comrades.

On the second day of the 1967 War, Israeli paratroopers seized control of the Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem, held by two Jordanian infantry companies. After four hours of bitter fighting the hill was taken at the cost of 36 Israeli and 71 Jordanian dead, and several dozen injured from both sides. Overwhelmed by the bravery and perseverance of their enemies, the Israeli soldiers improvised a small epitaph in the form of a sign on top of a Jordanian rifle, which said: “Army of Israel, IDF: buried here are 17 brave Jordanian soldiers. June 7 1967”. The battle on Ammunition Hill  has since become a famous landmark of Israel’s wars.

This June, 45 years later, Jordanian officers who participated in the battle for Jerusalem visited the battle sites along with their former enemies. Sponsored by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and organized by the Israeli Economic Cooperation Foundation (ECF) and the Amman Center for Peace and Development (ACPD) in Jordan, the two-day visit included meetings between former Israeli and Jordanian commanders, a joint tour of the battle sites and a memorial ceremony at Ammunition Hill.

I accompanied the group during the first day of the visit. It was an amazing sight. Combatants who killed and sent their soldiers to destroy and die were sitting in a circle, amused, reminiscing about the battles. A Jordanian officer, who had joined the army after his father was killed in action in 1956, was astonished to learn that the Israeli officer sitting in front of him commanded the military strike in which his father was killed. Joking with their friend, the Jordanians suggested a vendetta against the Israeli officer’s father or, alternatively, a tribal reconciliation between the families. I translated their remarks to Hebrew, noting the surreal dialogue to myself. The Jordanian officer moved on to describe the way he had fooled the Israelis who captured him by declaring that he was “a military teacher”. A month later the Israeli soldiers showed him a proud picture of his in an album of the Army War College, labeling him “the most stubborn Jordanian prisoner of war” they ever captured.
This light atmosphere changed dramatically as we arrived at Ammunition Hill for the unique memorial ceremony.

The national poet Haim Gouri,  a company commander in 1967, read his famous, chilling poem, “Here Lie Our Bodies”. I followed him by reading the Arabic translation of the poem which I prepared the day before. I read the powerful words, Ha hiyya ajsaduna jathima, transforming foe to friend and fighting the tears over the loss of young lives regardless of their nationality. The Jordanian company commander who had defended the Hill read the names of the fallen Jordanian soldiers, followed by the Israeli deputy commander of the battalion that attacked the hill, who read the names of the fallen Israeli soldiers. It was the first joint memorial ceremony ever in which the names of fallen Israeli and Arab soldiers were read consecutively. To borrow from Guri’s poem, for a brief moment, the soldiers of the silent Israeli and Jordanian companies of the Hill came back to life, staring quietly at each other for the last time through the eyes of their families and brothers-in-arms.

The small crowd was excited as the Israelis gave the Jordanians a large photo of the improvised epitaph of June 1967. The moment the ceremony ended, former Israeli paratroopers encircled the former Jordanian commanders, pulling at my sleeve to translate their words. Tell him that we may have been lions, but they were tigers! Tell him I’ve never been at such an exciting memorial ceremony! Tell him we never ever encountered such steadfastness! And suddenly, an Israeli paratrooper and the Jordanian company commander shook their heads in disbelief as they realized that they had fought each other with their bare hands in the ditch right beneath them. The agitated Jordanian commander urged me: tell them that only those who fought each other like this can understand the real meaning of peace.

We left the place as the sun set. My mind resonated with the words of a former paratrooper: tell him that if the Israelis that are here were all the Israelis, and the Jordanians that are here were all the Arabs, we would have had a comprehensive peace a long time ago. I translated this to the Jordanian commander, and for a moment a thought crossed my mind: perhaps he is right.

Dr. Assaf David is a research fellow at the Truman Institute for Peace and an adjunct lecturer at the Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is also a co-editor of Canthink, a website of Israeli Middle East specialists seeking to enrich the Israeli public discourse on Middle East issues, Israeli-Arab and Jewish-Muslim relations. This article was posted (in Hebrew) on the Can Think site on June 23, 2012.