What Israel Gained - and Lost - by Unifying Jerusalem

Fear has driven Israel’s behavior in Jerusalem since 1967; from a city formerly associated with majesty and holiness, it has morphed into an alienated real estate project

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Israelis guarding Western Wall in Jerusalem, June 16, 1967, during the Six Day War.
Israelis guarding Western Wall in Jerusalem, June 16, 1967, during the Six Day War.Credit: AP
uzi benziman
Uzi Benziman
uzi benziman
Uzi Benziman

On June 7, 1967, as soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces 55th Paratroops Brigade made their way toward the Western Wall, Eitan Ben-Moshe, an officer in the engineering unit of Central Command, suggested to the newly appointed military governor of Jerusalem, Col. Shlomo Lahat, that the public toilets abutting the Wall be removed. The toilets were part of the Mughrabi quarter, which had become a slum are during the Jordanian period of rule, and was home to 135 families.

>> Six-Day War - 50 Years On: Special Coverage >>

The next day, David Ben-Gurion, then an MK from the Rafi party (an offshoot of Labor), accompanied by Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek and Yaakov Yanai, the director of the Nature and Parks Authority, visited the Western Wall. The former prime minister sobbed with emotion. As he looked around he noticed a sign on the wall that said “Al-Buraq” (the name of the Prophet Mohammed’s horse, which, according to later Islamic tradition, had been tethered at the Western Wall). The aged leader ordered the soldiers who were escorting him to remove the sign.

He then snapped at Yanai, “Aren’t you ashamed? Look, a toilet next to the Wall.”

“We just got here yesterday,” said Yanai, apologizing.

But Ben-Gurion was adamant: “Even so, it’s intolerable.”

Thus the way was paved for the razing of the entire Mughrabi Quarter – the act that set in motion Israeli demolition and construction in Jerusalem for the next 50 years, during which the face of the city was continuously changing.

The Mughrabi neighborhood was leveled by means of a “nod-and-wink” procedure – without official decisions, written authorization or a specific policy. There was motivation to take action, the adrenaline surged: This was an opportunity that must not be missed.

The concern about international reaction that dictated the decision-making that led to the conquest of East Jerusalem and the city’s unification, was also reflected in the events that led to a complete overhaul of the form and character of the Western Wall area.

Ben-Moshe received the impression from Lahat that he could go ahead and demolish the Mughrabi Quarter. The head of IDF Central Command, Maj. Gen. Uzi Narkiss, was briefed, gave his approval and advised, “Best to do it and not ask questions.” Maj. Gen. Chaim Herzog, the military governor of the West Bank, was also informed in advance, but Defense Minister Moshe Dayan was not apprised of the operation until after it was underway (that’s his version, at any rate).

The Western Wall in 1967.Credit: Yehuda Eisenstark, State Archives

Teddy Kollek, who was involved in the project after Yanai told him about Ben-Gurion’s displeasure, shared the information with Justice Minister Yaakov-Shimshon Shapira. Shapira’s response: “I don’t know for certain what the legal situation is, but whatever has to be done, do it fast, and the God of Israel will help you.”

The pretext for the demolition was the perceived need to create the physical conditions for the tens of thousands of people who were expected to arrive in the area four days later, on the Shavuot festival. In order to play down the operation, responsibility for its implementation was entrusted to the parks authority and to Mayor Kollek, without any declared government involvement.

Kollek convened a small group of friends in his home – well-known archaeologists, historians and landscape architects – to consult about the scale of the demolition and the boundaries of the new plaza that would abut the Western Wall.

The decision that was made – to demolish the entire Mughrabi neighborhood, save for two streets and a small group of houses – and create in its place a prayer space with an intimate character, was hastily sketched on a random piece of paper and signed by all present: architects Arieh Sharon, Yohanan Mintzker and Dan Tanai; archaeologist Michael Avi-Yonah; and parks authority head Yanai. This amateurish decision-making process was no different from the way in which the East Jerusalem municipal council was dissolved, as described in the first part of this article.

The demolition operation itself was entrusted to the Association of Contractors and Builders in Jerusalem – again, to avoid any possible evidence of involvement on the part of government authorities.

Leveling the quarter

On Saturday evening, June 10, building contractors arrived at the site with sledgehammers and other tools and began to smash the structure housing the toilets that Ben-Gurion had complained about. But the workmen were elderly, and despite their enthusiasm and motivation, the job was too much for them. Ben-Moshe, observing the goings-on on behalf of Central Command, brought in two bulldozers operated by civilian contractors. Within hours, it was all over.

A reservist officer first went through the neighborhood and ordered all the residents to leave. Most obeyed, and hauled their belongings to a collection point at Zion Gate, from which they were evacuated to the Muslim Quarter and to the neighborhood of Shoafat, in the city's north. A small group who lived close to the structure housing the toilets objected. Ben-Moshe stood before them, shrugged his shoulders and declared: The bulldozer will advance. When it began to smash the walls of the house, the occupants emerged, weeping bitterly. After the quarter was leveled, it was discovered that one elderly woman, Hajjah Rasmiyyah Ali Tabaki, had remained in her home and been killed.

The next morning, Maj. Gen. Narkiss visited the site and ordered the remaining work in the newly created plaza to be completed quickly. Seeing that the operation was not generating negative repercussions, Ben-Moshe decided on his own to demolish as well the few houses and two streets that had been designated for preservation.

Moshe Dayan, who arrived in the afternoon, ordered the surface to be leveled and the remnants of the neighborhood hauled away, in order to eradicate any sign of it. Religious Affairs Minister Zerach Warhaftig (National Religious Party) was taken aback at what he saw when he visited the site that same day; he wanted to know who had decided on the demolition and said he had doubts about its legality.

Warhaftig was not the only cabinet minister or high-ranking official who had to contend with a fait accompli. Foreign Ministry officials, who demanded that Col. Lahat stop the destruction of the Mughrabi Quarter for fear of international reaction, soon realized that the military governor was ignoring them. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol called Gen. Narkiss to find out why houses had been razed. “I will look into the matter,” Narkis told him with feigned innocence. The same pattern was repeated in the Jewish Quarter, where Lahat authorized middle-ranking army officers to evacuate the Arab inhabitants and house them elsewhere. Subsequent attempts ostensibly made by the army to find those responsible for the operation got nowhere.

This freewheeling behavior continued for a few days, until East Jerusalem’s official annexation (on June 29), which had the automatic effect of annulling the power of the military government and making civilians responsible for handling the mechanics of the unification. It was Moshe Dayan, above all, who set in motion the developments that would shape the reality in the city for the coming generations.

At the time Dayan joined the cabinet, Prime Minister Eshkol had signed a pact with him stipulating the defense minister’s powers and spheres of activity. The document, which demarcated the boundaries of their respective realms of responsibility, had been drawn up as part of the political move that forced Eshkol to coopt Dayan into his government. Under the pact, Dayan was forbidden to open a new military front without Eshkol’s prior approval.

But the agreement said nothing about the defense minister’s powers in connection with the establishment of a military government. So, when a military administration was imposed on East Jerusalem and the West Bank, Dayan maintained that he was in charge, and he ran things according to his own wishes. It was Dayan who provided Lahat and Narkiss with a kind of alibi with regard to the evacuation and demolition initiatives that the two agreed to or approved – whether explicitly or implicitly – in East Jerusalem immediately after the IDF’s entry. It was only after the fact that the cabinet committee for security affairs addressed the subject.

Prime Minister Levy Eshkol and Lt. Col. Shlomo Lahat talk to Israeli troops stationed in one of the camps on the West Bank, September 20, 1967.Credit: Ilan Bronner, GPO

Dayan also played a key role in the process that led to the city’s capture and unification. He determined the nature of the military’s conduct vis-a-vis the Old City. He rebuffed pressures to break into the area immediately, ordering instead a three-day siege in an attempt to bring about a surrender without a battle. And it was Dayan who determined the new boundaries of the unified city; who formulated the division of powers on the Temple Mount between Israel and the heads of the Muslim Waqf religious trust; and who forced all the relevant authorities – army, police, Shin Bet security service, municipality and government – to allow the city’s Jewish and Arab residents to mix with each other just three weeks after the fighting ended, thus creating an irreversible state of affairs.

Settlement and sovereignty

In the second half of June 1967, several cabinet ministers met in Teddy Kollek’s home, where they heard Ben-Gurion urge the rapid population of East Jerusalem with Jews. Among those present were Dayan, Interior Minister Shapira and two Likud ministers without portfolio in the unity government, Menachem Begin and Yosef Sapir.

“Tens of thousands of Jews must be settled [in East Jerusalem] within a short time. Jews will agree to settle in East Jerusalem, even in shacks. We must not wait for organized neighborhoods to be built. The important thing is for Jews to be there,” Ben-Gurion argued fervently. (On another occasion, after the war, Ben-Gurion expressed publicly his opinion that the Old City walls should be torn down.)

Two weeks later, the phone rang in the office of Yehuda Tamir, the director of Ashdod, a construction company, and former director general of the Housing Ministry. On the line was Prime Minister Eshkol, who summoned Tamir to a meeting as soon as possible. Tamir arrived that very night.

“I’ve got myself into a noose and I need someone to be in it with me,” Eshkol told him in his folksy style. What he meant, he explained to his interlocutor, was that he had undertaken to implement the project of populating East Jerusalem with Jews. Eshkol may have believed that sovereignty over a territory was acquired by means of settlement, or he may have taken to heart Ben-Gurion’s strong views on the subject. In any case, he decided to head up the project that aimed to bring about a massive Jewish presence in the annexed territory as speedily as possible.

Still, the notion that settlement was a means to ensure sovereignty had its ironic side. That ethos had been valid during the period of the state in the making. Nevertheless, in July 1967, a month after Israel, with its powerful army, its international standing and its economic resources demonstrated uncontested supremacy – the prime minister felt that these things were not sufficient to consolidate the Jewish state’s standing in the Middle East. He reverted to the tried and true formula: physical settlement on the ground.

Tamir told Eshkol that he was on board. He drew up a plan to rehabilitate the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and settle 5,000 Jews there, and to build new Jewish neighborhoods along the seam line between the eastern and western parts of the city. Ministers Begin and Warhaftig objected to this approach. They insisted that the settlement effort must encompass the entire Old City, rather than make do with the establishment of new Jewish neighborhoods in the empty areas adjacent to it. Jews, they said, should move into existing Arab neighborhoods.

Eshkol sided with Tamir, who argued that concentrating the effort on creating new neighborhoods would achieve the goal more efficiently and more rapidly, and would rapidly increase the Israeli presence in East Jerusalem. Tamir also cited legal and political difficulties that Israel would encounter if it tried to interweave Jewish settlers in the fabric of Arab life in the Old City and the neighborhoods immediately surrounding it. Nevertheless, in order to accede in part to Begin and Warhaftig’s request, Eshkol ordered the creation of a front company that appeared to be foreign, that would buy land and buildings for Israel in areas populated by Arabs. In practice, this initiative produced only meager results, as the Arab property owners to whom the company made overtures generally knew who was pulling the strings.

Tamir’s first major move was to issue an expropriation order covering 3,345 dunams (836 acres) in order to establish Israeli neighborhoods in north Jerusalem – in Givat Hamivtar and French Hill; and in the southeastern area near Government House (Armon Hanatziv). All told, the plan called for 10,000 Jews to reside in these neighborhoods, which were chosen in order to create a contiguous Jewish presence between the city’s west and east. Proposals to extend the expropriated area to the furthest margins of the municipal boundaries, mainly in the area of what is now the Neveh Yaakov neighborhood, were rejected, for fear of provoking a detrimental reaction abroad, and also in order to bring the scale of the expropriations in line with the state’s ability in practice to build new neighborhoods.

Eshkol and Tamir maneuvered between the government’s concern about the international community’s response and their ambition to populate East Jerusalem with Jews. In pursuit of the goal, the prime minister authorized Tamir to bypass existing procedures, ignore statutory regulations and install temporary structures on parts of the expropriated area.

The initial stage of expropriation, which took effect on January 11, 1968, was followed by two additional land seizures, totaling more than 13,000 dunams (3,250 acres), both in the seam area between the two parts of the city and, mainly, along the external line that marked the city’s new boundaries.

Today, in the wake of 50 years of new construction, more than 200,000 Jews live in Jerusalem’s new neighborhoods across the Green Line. The settlement ethos articulated by poet Natan Alterman in “Morning Song” (“We will dress you in a gown of concrete and cement”) in 1932 has proved itself.

Unconscious catalyst

Underlying the Israeli leadership’s approach to the urban aspects (for example, the demographic, cultural, architectural and economic impact) of Jerusalem’s unification was the apprehension that the international community would force Israel to revoke its annexation of the city’s eastern part. That concern impelled politicians, planners, architects and senior officials to create facts on the ground quickly, in order to cement Israel’s rule over the two parts of the city, and over as large an area as possible across the Green Line beyond the former municipal boundaries of East Jerusalem.

The unconscious catalyst for this stemmed from a basic motivation that inexorably drove the country’s leaders to East Jerusalem beginning on the morning of June 5, 1967. Apprehension about international reaction underlay the tactics of the occupation, the procedure of the annexation, the demarcation of the city’s boundaries and the policy of demolition and construction – and the same fear continues to dictate present-day decisions about Jerusalem.

Jerusalem's city center in 2015.Credit: Sivan Gil

The result of this lack of self-confidence is a bulimic city that is spreading every which way and that has turned its main business center – Jaffa Road – into a kind of frayed cord, along whose inordinate length lie nondescript stores and small businesses, while at the same time it is constantly engaged in a feverish search for new areas of construction to ensure the Jewish majority. (In the meantime, the proportion of Jews in the city has fallen from 74 percent of the population in 1967 to 63 percent today).

Raucous shtetl

The intensive construction in Jerusalem has contorted the city’s body and soul alike. From a city that was formerly associated in the collective consciousness with majesty and holiness, Jerusalem has morphed into an alienated real estate project. In place of the Tower of David in the Old City, the Chords Bridge has become the city’s visual symbol. The Holy Basin, which for centuries was surrounded by bare hills that set off its distinctiveness, is overshadowed by new construction. The Jewish Quarter, which was intended to be an archaeological site existing in harmony with a residential population of artists, writers and a limited number of students of educational institutions and boarding schools – has become a raucous shtetl, crowded with yeshiva students and rabbis, some of whom are busy preparing for worship at a new temple. Large parts of Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods are today shameful slums, suffering from gross neglect by the authorities.

What happened in the Jewish Quarter is spilling over perniciously into the whole city. Its heterogeneity fading, Jerusalem increasingly recalls Bnei Brak (where some 40 percent of primary-school pupils are ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, and 38 percent are Arabs). A considerable part of the neighborhoods built across the Green Line are populated mainly by Haredim. The economically productive component of the local population – the secular and religiously moderate publics – is leaving (only 20 percent of Jerusalem’s Jews categorize themselves as secular). These demographic and urban developments have changed not only the city’s landscape but its character, in a substantial way. In the public domain, a universalist cultural outlook is locked in battle with the Haredi and nationalist public, which seeks to trample it underfoot. The voice of the Hebrew University is drowned out by the rabid roar of the fans of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team.

Fifty years later, a journalist looks back at the events and compares his notes and observations from then with what has transpired. Of course, I too was caught up in the storm of emotions that swept the whole Jewish public in June 1967, and I identified with the decisions that led to the city’s unification. When I found out about the behind-the-scenes comportment of the decision makers, I held Moshe Dayan in high esteem for the leadership and determination he showed in the face of the hesitation and vacillation displayed by his governmental colleagues. In retrospect, I ask myself what Dayan would say today if he saw the results of his handiwork, and whether the admiration for his behavior stands up to the test of time.

The 50th anniversary is an appropriate occasion to ask what the meaning of the city’s unification is, beyond the realization of tenuous, generations-long national and religious longings. What did the State of Israel gain from the unification, and what benefits did it bring Jerusalem’s inhabitants?

Apart from impassioned vows that the city will remain eternally in Jewish hands, and the flaunting of its ethos of sanctity, the act of unification did not preserve Jerusalem’s distinctiveness, did not make it a source of inspiration or transform it into an architectural or spiritual gem – or, alternately, a symbol of human fraternity and a place where peoples and religions can live together in harmony. No. Unified Jerusalem has become a banal city where the way of life of the tens of thousands of residents of the neighborhoods that were built in its expanded area of jurisdiction across the Green Line is no different from that of Haredim living in such cities as Or Akiva or Petah Tikva.

In practical terms, the annexation of East Jerusalem has done more to hamper than contribute to the city’s development. Emotionally and symbolically, the annexation compensated Israel and the Jewish people for being cut off from the Western Wall and from the Old City in the wake of the War of Independence. But in the wake of the Six-Day War, Israel could have retained control of these sites (and of access to the Temple Mount) even without a massive annexation of the eastern city.

The challenged that faced Israel and its leadership after June 1967 was to shape unified Jerusalem, taking into account both its venerable history and the needs of a developing modern city, and to do it intelligently. Intelligently, means reconciling the impulse to obtain historic justice that would atone for the past wrongs inflicted on the Jewish people in Jerusalem, with the need to avoid sealing the gate to peace. “Intelligently” also means planning life together in the conjoined city in a way that would not tear its fabric apart and wreak havoc on its character. That was the supreme test of Israeli society. Regretfully, this writer’s conclusion is that it failed the test.

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