Israeli troops at Government House in the Old City of Jerusalem after taking over the Jordan-held part of the city following heavy fighting, June 6, 1967 (illustrative). Israel Army/AP

The Officers Who Began the Occupation Fear for Israel’s Future

Fifty years ago, two officers in the 16th Jerusalem Brigade were among the first to cross the Green Line and begin the occupation of the West Bank. They recall the early euphoria and pinpoint when they believe things turned sour

As the Six-Day War broke out on the morning of Monday June 5, 1967, there was only one mobile Israeli military force stationed in Jerusalem. The bulk of the Israel Defense Forces had been stationed on the Egyptian and Syrian borders, and the Israeli leadership still believed that King Hussein of Jordan would keep his country out of the war. Rather than violate the terms of the 1949 cease-fire agreements, the forces being held in reserve for a possible escalation on the Jordanian front were kept on the Coastal Plain.

When Hussein decided, at Egypt’s urging – and despite assurances from Israel that it had no intention of attacking Jordanian-held territory in the West Bank and Jerusalem – to order his military to launch artillery barrages and airstrikes on both military and civil targets, including Tel Aviv and Netanya, and then a second barrage on West Jerusalem, the only IDF force in the city was the 16th Jerusalem Brigade.

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

Most of the brigade’s soldiers, mainly reservists who lived in Jerusalem or students at the Hebrew University, were told to remain stationary and man the chain of outposts snaking from north to south, overlooking no-man’s-land and eastern Jerusalem.

The only force capable of responding to an attack was the brigade’s reconnaissance company: 130 men with 20 vehicles, jeeps, trucks and half-tracks, which were based to the south of the city, near the Sataf springs. The company, more commonly known as Hasayeret Hayerushalmit – the Jerusalem patrol unit – had been called up two weeks earlier, when the emergency period began.

Ofer Vaknin

The night before the war, they had carried out an exercise at the old Castel fortress, practicing capturing a fortified enemy position. Their main contingency plan was being called in to relieve the Israeli enclave on Mount Scopus – the original Hebrew University campus that had been surrounded by the Jordanians in 1948 and remained empty of students for 19 years – with only a changing complement of ill-equipped soldiers guarding the building.

“If anyone produced a Hollywood movie about our unit, it would be called ‘Saving Mount Scopus,’” recalls Yossi Langotzky, now 83 but then a 33-year-old reserve major, called up from his geology studies to take command of the company. “I’d been an officer in the Jerusalem Brigade for 13 years by then and commanded the unit since 1962. Not once had anyone ever spoken to us about occupying the West Bank. The one mission we prepared for was to force our way to Mount Scopus.”

Despite the Jordanian bombardment, then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan were still hoping to avoid war with Jordan. Langotzky spent the morning prowling around brigade headquarters at the Russian Compound, listening to the news coming in from the Egyptian front, where the IDF was advancing.

Shortly after noon came news that the Jordanian army had crossed the border in southern Jerusalem, occupied the UN compound in no-man’s-land and was preparing to advance toward the Israeli neighborhood of Talpiot. Finally, an order came from the IDF General Staff and the company made its way down Hebron Road, to an objective it had never been trained for or expected to be sent on.

>> Read more: How Israel quietly demolished the Western Wall’s Muslim neighborhood >> The 52 words that foretold the future of Israel's occupation in 1967

At 15:30, the Israeli counterattack began. While the first soldiers of the company, led by Langotzky, were entering the UN compound, coming under fire from the Jordanians, an order came from Dayan to hold back because the head of the UN peacekeeping unit had called to say he still hoped a cease-fire could be arranged. “After we had already taken the compound, the order came not to take it. Too late,” says Langotzky.

Langotzky and his men didn’t realize it at the time but they were the first Israelis to cross the Green Line (the then-international borders) on June 5 – the first Israeli soldiers to begin 50 years of occupation of the West Bank, without any orders. “It wasn’t an official war,” recalls Langotzky. “Fierce company and battalion commanders were leading the State of Israel.”

Unlike the Egyptian front, where the IDF was carrying out a detailed war plan, Langotzky recalls “fighting without maps or clear orders” on the Jordanian front.

‘I’ll bring you Jerusalem’

One of his younger officers in the battle was Reuven Gal, now 75 but then a 25-year-old psychology student. “We felt in the days leading up to the war that it was a fateful moment; that it wouldn’t be just another war,” he tells Haaretz. “On the last Shabbat before it began, I took a jeep from the base to visit my wife in Jerusalem. She was crying at the door as I left and I said, ‘Don’t worry, if there’s a war I’ll bring you Jerusalem as a present.’ I know, it sounds kitschy now.”

Rami Shllush

Two days later, as he led his platoon toward the entrance of the UN compound, Gal remembers looking north at the Old City. “It was 2 P.M. and I saw the Temple Mount, surrounded in smoke from all the artillery fire. We were about to attack and I said to myself, ‘If I get killed in the next few seconds from the heavy machine gun the Jordanians are firing at us, at least the last thing I’ll see in life will have been the Temple Mount.’ I’ve always been totally secular and as far as I was concerned I was fighting a war for survival – my wife was only a kilometer away. But we were beginning to feel a part of something much bigger.”

Over the next few hours, the company, along with other elements of the Jerusalem Brigade, fought a series of three fierce battles against Jordanian troops – taking the UN compound, then the fortified “Sausage” and “Bell” positions – defended by barbed wire, minefields, machine-gun nests and networks of deep trenches.

By nightfall, though they hadn’t realized it at the time, they had basically secured Jerusalem from the south. That night, the Harel 10th Mechanized Brigade secured the northwestern approaches to the city. While the iconic battles within the city by the 55th Paratroopers Brigade were still to come over the next two days, for all strategic purposes the Jerusalem front was all but in Israeli hands, with the Jordanians already beginning to flee eastward, back across the river.

Early on Wednesday morning, the 16th Jerusalem Brigade was on the move again, toward the last of the Jordanian positions south of Jerusalem – atop Jabal Abu Ghneim, where today’s neighborhood of Har Homa stands. On the top of the hill, which they had to ascend by foot, there was supposed to be an entire Jordanian battalion. When the Israeli soldiers finally arrived, drenched in sweat and out of breath, they discovered the Jordanian soldiers had fled during the night, leaving much of their heavy weaponry behind.

“On top of Har Homa, we heard for the first time on our operational wireless sets that [the paratroopers] were planning to go into the Old City,” recalls Gal. “That was the first time I think we felt we were making history.”

Over the next 24 hours, the company led the Israeli forces taking Bethlehem, then the fields and ruins of the Etzion bloc, where the Israeli farmers and defenders had lost the battle 19 years earlier. By Wednesday morning they had captured Hebron, and with it the entire southern half of the West Bank. All opposition had melted away. The Jordanians had disappeared and the local Palestinian population – at the time just called “Arabs” – sullenly accepted the change in occupier, from Jordanian to Israeli.

Even today, Gal feels it necessary almost to apologize for the feelings he had back then, 50 years ago.

“I was the first Israeli to go into the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. I remember asking myself, ‘Is this what the Americans raising the flag at Iwo Jima felt? Despite not being religious, I really felt I was connected with Jewish history, entering the resting place of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Even if it was just a myth – I felt it.”

Many of the officers in the company had similar moments during the West Bank advance. “You’re not a religious person, but the fact that Jews had dreamed of these places for 2,000 years made them special,” says Langotzky. “I was the first to return to Kfar Etzion, on Wednesday evening. I told my driver to make for the old oak tree that I remembered from school trips before 1948. That was where one of the soldiers switched on his transistor radio, and there was a recording of the moments in which the paratroopers had reached the Western Wall, and the sound of Rabbi Goren blowing the shofar there. I broke down in tears, like a child. It was a strange mixture of feelings. We hadn’t wanted a war with the Jordanians, but even as a the son of a secular family whose parents ate on Yom Kippur, I was still a kid who had grown up in Jerusalem and had visited the Western Wall before 1948 and wanted to return.”

‘Not acting like conquerors’

The war also changed the lives and career paths of Langotsky and Gal. Both found themselves returning to military service in what was soon to become a much larger and more professional IDF. Langotzky had barely returned to civilian life before he was summoned back to become a senior officer in the intelligence branch, in charge of expanding the special operations and intelligence-gathering units. Two years after the war, having completed his master’s degree in clinical psychology, Gal also returned to service, first as psychologist for the Israel Navy and then as founder of the IDF’s behavioral sciences unit – in effect, the IDF’s chief psychologist.

PIERRE GUILLAUD/AFP

Both men finally left army service in the early 1980s as colonels, but remained deeply involved in military life for many years after. They have unique perspectives on how the IDF and Israeli society have evolved in the subsequent five decades.

Each of them awoke to the new realities of the occupation and its influence on Israel at different points – though one episode at the end of the war already brought it home to them.

“One of our soldiers had taken a necklace he had found in an empty home in a village we drove through,” recalls Gal. “Yossi saw it and ordered the entire unit to line up, and anyone who had taken something along the way had to drive back and return it. It was still important for us then to make it clear we were not acting like conquerors.”

Many reservists were discharged with the war over, but the company was kept on for weeks. “Our main mission was simply to patrol the West Bank with our vehicles and show a presence,” explains Gal. “We went to every village, places we only dreamed of before. I felt we were returning to the land of our fathers, and that history had given me a rare chance. It was clear to me we wouldn’t leave the West Bank, but also that we wouldn’t be occupiers and there would be a peace agreement or some kind of federation with the Jordanians, and we would still visit these places – not as conquerors with weapons, but as civilians. The Palestinians we met didn’t want to talk to us. They would close themselves in their homes when they saw us coming. But I still didn’t think I was occupying them. I respected them. I was sure they would open up to us when they realized it would be good for the Palestinian economy as well,” he says.

“A few days after the war, I was interviewed on Army Radio and said I didn’t believe there would be any more wars and that I hoped we could take the opportunity of being in a position of strength to make peace,” remembers Langotzky. “I didn’t realize then how powerful religion and messianism would turn out to be.”

The euphoria wore off very slowly. “In the first years after the war, I would go with a friend hiking through the West Bank,” says Gal. “Our only map was a Bible. Just a couple of secular Israelis who loved nature and the land and the Bible. We would walk to villages with names based on the ancient Hebrew sites, like Jaba and Mukhamas. I didn’t for one moment entertain the idea that we should change the names back or stake our own claim to the land. I thought the people living there should stay and that as a Jew I should have the right to hike there. Not occupation, just to reconnect with my roots.”

Those feelings began to change, though, when other Jews started staking their claim.

“When the first attempts at settlement began in Sebastia [a site near Nablus where, in 1975, religious Israelis tried eight times to build the first settlement in Samaria], I remember saying to myself that we’re beginning to get into trouble and the moment we build settlements there, things won’t be so simple,” recalls Gal. “I began to realize the glorious victory that at the time seemed to be a solution and the start of a productive outcome for all sides was becoming a zero-sum game.”

‘On the way to a tragedy’

As a military psychologist, Gal was to have a second moment of awakening in 1982, when he was sent to assist the IDF forces evacuating the town of Yamit in Sinai as part of the peace agreement with Egypt.

“We were warned that some of the settlers barricading themselves there may have explosives and I heard them shouting from the water tower that they would never give up. And then they threw things on the soldiers and fought them,” he recounts. “For the first time, I saw a situation that could lead to civil war and a Jewish extremism that saw Israeli soldiers as the enemy. I supported leaving Sinai, both as a civilian who believed in the peace agreement and as an IDF officer carrying out the government’s orders. It seemed the natural thing to do. But suddenly we were in a situation where Jews could kill IDF soldiers, and it seemed we were on the way to a tragedy.”

As a military psychologist and, in the last three decades, one of the leading researchers in Israel on the ties between the IDF and civil society, Gal has been fully exposed to the effects of 50 years of occupation. Langotzky, on other hand, admits that for most of this time he “lived in a bubble.” In the first 15 years, working in special operations and intelligence, the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza – which involved large parts of the IDF – was only peripheral to his work. Leaving the IDF, he finally returned to geology and worked for oil exploration companies. And in 1999 he discovered Israel’s first offshore natural gas fields. He admits that his politics were hawkish until relatively recently.

“Only in the last decade or so, when I started to slow down, I began to think a bit about what has been happening around us,” he says. Langotzky never had much patience for the religious settlers, but he wasn’t much of a peacenik either. “For 2,000 years the whole world screwed us, and the Arabs still want to destroy us,” he says, in his blunt way, “and we should do everything to stop them. But that doesn’t justify the way they [the settlers] are acting, against all the teachings of the prophets on how we should treat the non-Jews among us fairly. They don’t understand how their settlements have corrupted us from within by making us the masters. All because of their idiotic messianic belief that we are a Chosen People and God will protect us. As if you can believe in a merciful God after six million were burned to death.”

‘Bullying state’

While for Gal it was a gradual realization, Langotzky sees the situation in grand historical arcs. The settlers “are repeating the mistakes of the Second Temple, when religious fanatics with a direct line to God decided to rebel against the Romans and brought upon us destruction and 2,000 years of exile,” he says. “Religion may have preserved us in exile, but there wouldn’t have been Zionism if people had waited for God. I don’t believe they can destroy Israel, but they’re transforming it into a bullying state where I don’t want my children and grandchildren to live.”

Gal was concerned with these developments 30 years ago. “In 1987 I was no longer in the army. But as an academic, when the first intifada broke out I realized it was influencing Israeli society in new ways. Not an existential war, but an erosion of the moral compass and character, both of our society and army. At first I was concerned if the soldiers would be able to fulfill their role, when young men were having to carry out nonmilitary constabulary missions. One day, a woman called me, a kibbutz member from Gesher. She said her son was the soldier who had been photographed in the newspapers breaking a Palestinian protester’s arms. I met her and her son: This man who had looked such a frightening figure in the photograph was sitting there, a broken kid, traumatized by his own violence and brutality. Only later, when I began meeting Palestinian academics and taking part in joint events like the Parents Circle [for bereaved Palestinians and Israelis] did I fully wake up to the effect this was having on young Palestinians as well.”

And yet, despite all that has happened in the last 50 years, Gal is less worried about the army. “From all my research, I find that ultimately the army still sticks to its values of purity of arms, sticking to the mission, and it succeeds in adapting its ethical codes to the changing circumstances. I’m not worried about the IDF. I’m worried about the future of Israeli society – an entire public that can’t recognize we are occupiers and the negative and immoral aspects of ruling over our neighbors for so many years. Our oppression of them has desensitized us. We see human beings as objects and are passing that onto our children.”

skip all comments

Comments

Sign in to join the conversation.

Required field
Required field

By adding a comment, I agree to this site’s Terms of use

  1. 1