The Battle for Jerusalem Is in Our Hands

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

This week will mark the 40th anniversary of the battle for Jerusalem in the Six-Day War, but for the officers and fighters who captured the city during those three fateful days, the list of open accounts is still fresh and long. Many are full of complaints about the commanders who were involved, from the political leadership and the chief of staff down to the junior officers in the field. Above all the battle is over the legacy of the commander of the Paratroops Brigade, Motta (Mordechai) Gur, whom some see as a visionary who during the battles saw far ahead, and some blame for the serious failures that claimed heavy casualties.

Most of the fighters kept their mouths shut for four decades, as the legend was stronger than they were. They continued in the standing army and in the reserves, and the Second Lebanon War was the first they saw on television. The failures of the war that were emphasized in the media caused emotional turmoil. Some felt that this was a different army and that this wouldn't have happened to them. Others emphasize that there were no fewer screw-ups made in their time. But the legend covered everything. In 1967 there were no investigative committees.

The order that didn't come

During the early hours of June 5, 1967, the government and the General Staff were preoccupied with the Egyptian front. They hoped to silence the Jordanian sector. They were afraid that the Jordanians would attack the small Israeli enclave on Mt. Scopus. The reserve unit commanded by Motta Gur, which was supposed to parachute into Sinai, was sent to Jerusalem instead, when the parachute drop was canceled, and heavy Jordanian shelling and the attack on the United Nations headquarters in Armon Hanatziv in southern Jerusalem shattered the illusion that quiet could be maintained vis-a-vis the Jordanians.

The orders of the General Staff related only to the defense of Mt. Scopus, and did not mention entering the Old City. From the books published after the war, by GOC Central Command Uzi Narkis and by Gur, it is clear that this was their ultimate goal.

Colonel (res.) Dan Ziv was the deputy commander of Battalion 71 of the 55th Brigade. Eleven years earlier, during the Sinai Campaign, he was decorated for bravery for his part in the battle of the Mitla Pass. During the Yom Kippur War, in 1973, he led the crossing of the Suez Canal in rubber boats. Today, at the age of 71, he still radiates alertness and energy, as he gives a precise rendering of the stages of the fighting.

It is clear to Ziv that the brigade's goal in 1967 was to capture the Old City. "I don't care what the General Staff said and what order Motta received. The civilian leadership was not ready for that at all. What was important was implementation without allowing the wise guys in the General Staff to chatter too much. Today's battalion commanders are just as good as we were, and perhaps even better. They are no less professional or enthusiastic, and they have much better equipment. The difference is that they knew how to give us not only the responsibility for carrying out the mission but the authority to carry it out as well."

Ziv's criticism of the brigade's functioning is voiced cautiously. "I don't have many complaints about the way in which Motta ran the brigade. The planning was outstanding, and within 36 hours they achieved all the goals. It's true that we shouldn't have ended up with 100 guys dead, and with another commander it's possible that it would have ended differently."

Ziv says his unhappiness with Gur focuses on the use he made of the battle afterward. Three months before the war Gur told him in frustration: "They put me in the freezer after the Mitla battle."

"So someone has to restore his honor, so there's a book and festivities," says Ziv. "It's a charade. Every battalion commander is seeking more credit for himself. In general, I felt that the investigation was fudged. We were used to investigations after Arik Sharon's 'revenge' operations [with Unit 101, which attacked Palestinian targets during the 1950s], where you couldn't blur the truth."

Some people are convinced that unwarranted considerations guided the commanders when they embarked on the capture of the Old City. Veteran paratroopers refrain from casting doubt on the necessity of the battle, but Colonel (res.) Yossi Langotsky, who during the war served as the head of the "Jerusalem [Brigade] commandos," says unequivocally that "the bringing in of the paratroops and their activity was based on non-military considerations. They wanted to capture the Old City, and it was a matter of political, emotional and religious considerations. I'm convinced that some of the decisions of the General Staff, the Central Command and of Motta most of all, were to reach the Old City quickly, to capture it and to attain eternal glory."

Where was Military Intelligence?

The first operational failure was revealed when the battalion traveled to Jerusalem in a convoy of buses. As in the Second Lebanon War, when Military Intelligence files about Hezbollah were not passed down to the fighting units, before the Six-Day War a great deal of information had been gathered about the Jordanians, but on the day of reckoning, it was nowhere to be found.

Micha Eshet, the operations officer of the 66th Brigade, was a 24-year-old student, and one of the first officers to reach the city. "At 1 P.M., there was shelling and total chaos at the Schneller camp," he says, "absolutely no intelligence material. Motta took the brigade commanders on a patrol, but they had only what they could observe with their eyes."

Even today there is no consensus as to who was responsible for supplying intelligence to the brigade. The operations officer of the Jerusalem Brigade, Amos Ne'eman, insists that he gave the paratroop officers all the maps and aerial photographs that were on the walls of headquarters. In fact, the only material that reached the companies a few hours before the attack came from an intelligence file Arik Achmon, the paratroopers' intelligence officer, had borrowed two days earlier from Central Command in case the brigade had to operate in Jerusalem. After the war it was discovered that units had sent representatives to the command during the waiting period before the war and "borrowed" intelligence files in case they were sent to Jerusalem. The intelligence officer of the command was quietly suspended.

The battle for Ammunition Hill

The absence of intelligence is only one of the complaints about the battle for Ammunition Hill. The main complaint is that the attack on the fortified target to the northeast of the Old City was unnecessary. Amos Ne'eman has been convinced for years that the bloody battle on the hill and in the British-era police academy, during which 37 paratroopers were killed, was unnecessary. "There are people who died and who didn't even know where they died; it has been eating me up for 40 years."

A few months before the war, the Paratroops Brigade of the regular army had conducted a routine exercise that involved the mock capture of Mt. Scopus. According to officers who served in the sector, these exercises never included the capture of the nearby Ammunition Hill.

Ne'eman is convinced that Gur's enthusiasm for entering hastily into a frontal battle with the Jordanians stemmed from his frustration at the cancellation of the parachute drop and the delay in reaching Jerusalem. While his fighters were still wending their way along the roads, the Jerusalem Brigade had already repulsed the attack on Armon Hanatziv and captured Jordanian outposts south of the city, while the Harel Brigade had embarked on an attack from the north. "In my opinion he was afraid he would miss the war and the glory... He was blinded by the successes of the Jerusalem Brigade and the Harel Brigade, and did not think that the Jordanian army was capable of fighting. Anyone who was present at the briefing at the Evelina de Rothschild school saw the confidence and the contempt for the enemy."

Langotsky also provides an analysis. "Over the years there were many plans about what would happen if a convoy, or Mt. Scopus, was attacked. They had a common denominator, to cut straight from the Mandelbaum Gate [the crossing point between Israeli and Jordanian Jerusalem] to Mt. Scopus. That was a plan the entire IDF was familiar with, and it's not possible that Motta was unfamiliar with it. The options were to do it with the Armored Corps - the tanks of the Harel Brigade that were on the way - or to tell the paratroopers to cut straight via Sheikh Jarrah and to leave the Old City, which would then fall on its own."

The commander of the armored battalion that fought in Jerusalem, Lieutenant Colonel Zvika Dahab, agrees that had they waited for the tanks, the battle would have looked different. "There was a simple plan that they would fire at the bunkers from the main road at a range of 1,200 meters, and then attack. All the tanks were ready. The paratroopers did the opposite of what was planned. In a visit by battalion commanders to Ammunition Hill after the war, I asked why they hadn't used tanks in the battle. Motta and Yossi Yafeh [the commander of Battalion 66, which fought on Ammunition Hill] started to argue between themselves about what had happened."

One of the officers who succeeded in gathering the remaining soldiers of the platoons and squads that had scattered in the trenches of Ammunition Hill, and went on to win the battle was company commander Dodik Rotenberg. According to his deputy, Nir Nitzan, "Dodik has a lot of complaints about Motta and that's why he doesn't attend ceremonies on Ammunition Hill."

Rotenberg refused to be interviewed for this article. But several months ago, in an interview with historian Shaul Weber, he leveled criticism about the planning and the command of the battle, which in his opinion were more deleterious than the lack of information and the haste. Rotenberg turned to Gur after the war, demanding that the battle be investigated and was told "Forget about it, it's a victory and it's a shame to spoil it."

Doron Mor, who was the deputy commander of Battalion 66, insists, however, that "it was an essential battle. We had to take the Sheikh Jarrah junction, and how would it have been possible to take the junction without taking Ammunition Hill?"

Brigadier General (res.) Yehuda Bar, who was the commander of the brigade sappers company, and who participated in the assault on the police academy, says that "of course there were screw-ups - Ammunition Hill was one big screw-up. They surrounded the Jordanians and didn't allow them to flee. The moment that part of Battalion 66 went eastward in the direction of Mt. Scopus, they couldn't leave. Second, there was no coordinated battle there; although there was extraordinary bravery, there were officers there who made mistakes."

In Bar's opinion, it is not Gur and the brigade staff who were at fault, but the commanders who participated in the battle. "On the brigade level, the capture of Ammunition Hill was vital. On the battalion and company level, the conduct of the battle was a screw-up."

Civilians evacuated casualties

The stories of the heroism and the traumas of Ammunition Hill became the central narrative about the battle for Jerusalem, but many officers believe that the more serious failures actually took place as the fighting continued. Yoram Zamosh, the company commander of Battalion 71, who is very active in the battle commemoration project, is a strong critic of Gur. Gur's supporters claim Zamosh is still angry at Gur (who died in 1995), who stormed the Lions Gate before him, since he had been promised before the battle that he would be the company commander who would break through first to the Western Wall.

Zamosh attacks Gur over the fact that during most of the stages of the battle, his staff remained behind. "The absence of Motta and his staff had a negative effect on issues like the evacuation of the wounded - there were cases in which male and female civilians were involved in the evacuation of our wounded in private cars. A brigade commander is supposed to be next to the tanks and the people." Because of lack of guidance, there was also an accident when the tank force that was linked up with the brigade made a wrong turn at the Rockefeller Museum junction, as a result of which a force was stuck in front of a Jordanian outpost, four soldiers were killed and one of the tanks fell into a ditch. "That's what happens when the brigade goes out to battle and the brigade commander is still at his headquarters in the Rockefeller Museum," says Zamosh.

Micha Eshet, the operations officer, also harshly criticizes the conduct of the attack in the direction of the Mt. of Olives and Mt. Scopus on the second day of the war. "Gur's battalion commanders met with him only twice at the Rockefeller, there were not enough command groups during the course of the battle, and in general, what kind of planning is it when three battalions attack the municipal boundary together, without even one brigade diversionary force?" He describes Gur as "an irresponsible brigade commander who wanted to make history in an artificial manner."

Battalion commander Uzi Eilam doesn't buy all the criticism. "You don't have to take seriously everything said by people whose rank did not grant them access to the brigade headquarters." As battalion commander, he was happy that the brigade commander didn't keep overly close tabs on him. He explains the problems as stemming from a lack of time, and criticizes mainly the conduct on the third day of fighting, during the capture of Augusta Victoria hospital, on the Mt. of Olives, and the entry into the Old City.

"That was ostensibly the same plan we had started to implement the day before, and I give Motta the benefit of the doubt that he didn't think it was necessary to issue another group of orders. He didn't convene the battalion commanders, and everyone received orders separately. We reached Mt. Scopus and the coordination between us was not well organized." Eilam's deputy Dan Ziv and other officers in the brigade think that the lack of coordination among the forces that ascended the hills led to at least one incident of "friendly fire," in which company commander Giora Ashkenazi was killed. In the final analysis, says Eshet, when the brigade finally captured Augusta Victoria, "there were no longer any Jordanian soldiers there. If they had done some checking, perhaps it would have been possible to prevent the casualties."

Mt. Scopus is in our hands

In the meantime, without Gur's noticing, the brigade carried out its original mission.

Doron Mor, the deputy commander of Battalion 66, a geologist and educator, and in general not one of Gur's big critics, has difficulty understanding how he broke through the road to Mt. Scopus without the knowledge of the brigade commander. "The brigade received two missions: to break through via Sheikh Jarrah and to be in readiness for the Old City, and to liberate Mt. Scopus. In Motta's book he writes extensively about the first mission, but there is only one sentence about the second - that they informed him from headquarters that Narkis and Doron Mor were on Mt. Scopus."

On day two of the war Mor coordinated the battalion forces that were recovering, in the Ambassador Hotel, from the battle on Ammunition Hill, when Narkis, defense minister Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizman, the IDF's chief of operations, arrived in a jeep. Narkis ordered him to clear the road to Mt. Scopus. Mor took two jeeps and together with Narkis, he made his way to the mount undisturbed. The fear that Mt. Scopus would be attacked was a central component of the IDF plans; at the moment of truth it was liberated offhandedly. Thus relaxed attitude strengthens the claim that the conquest of the Old City was the central aim of Gur and Narkis in the first place.