The Battle for Jerusalem

An unintended conquest

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'Prose that is as graphic as it is lucid. The Battle for Jerusalem is deservedly acclaimed as a classic of its genre.' Prof. Howard M. Sachar, author of A History of Israel. 

'Extraordinarily dramatic'. Prof. Edward N. Luttwak, author of Stategy: The Logic of War and Peace 

Abraham Rabinovich arrived in Jerusalem five days before the Six Day War as a reporter for an American newspaper. He covered the battle for the city and was on the Temple Mount a few hours after its capture. To understand the momentous events he had witnessed, he subsequently interviewed 300 soldiers, officials and civilians.

The conquest of the Old City, a major event in modern Middle East history, was something that Israel's leaders had not planned and that some of them did not want.

The book was written soon after the war, when memories were fresh. The current revised edition expands the context, political and military, and offers new perspective from both sides of the battlefield.

With the outbreak of war with Egypt, Israel sought to avoid a second front. Hours after Jordan opened artillery fire, Israel refrained from substantive retaliation as it sought a cease-fire. Only after Jordanian troops penetrated the Jewish city did Israel respond on the ground, and even then in measured stages.

The Israeli cabinet was divided over capture of the Old City. It was, surprisingly, the religious ministers who argued against it most vigorously. They feared that Israel could not stand up to international pressure if it annexed an entity that was not just the cradle of Jewish history but also sacred to Christianity and Islam. However, events created a vacuum on the West Bank into which Israel was inexorably pulled, step by step.

We witness the heated debate in Jordanian military headquarters where King Hussein had handed over command of his army to an Egyptian general. The latter's strategy was designed to meet Egypt's needs, not Jordan's. It would cost Jordan the West Bank.

The book begins with a description of Jerusalem as a divided city, split between Israel and Jordan since Israel's War of Independence. With the onset of the crisis in 1967, anxiety grips Israeli Jerusalem which had been besieged for months in the earlier war and elaborate emergency measures are set into motion. On the Arab side of the city, by contrast, there is euphoria and anticipation of an easy victory. Virtually nothing is done to prepare the civilian sector.

The Israeli general staff pushes for a pre-emptive air strike against Egypt but the government resists. Tensions reach a point where at least one general, Ariel Sharon, considers the possibility of a putsch. The appointment of Moshe Dayan as defense minister opens the way to war.

Defense of Israeli Jerusalem is entrusted to the Jerusalem Brigade, made up of local reservists. The greatest concern is Mount Scopus, an Israeli enclave behind Jordanian lines. An Israeli armored brigade is dispatched from the coastal plain with orders to reach Scopus by flanking the Jordanian line. It would have to breach thick minefields and scale difficult terrain as it races a brigade of Jordanian tanks coming up from Jericho. With time pressing, a paratroop brigade is ordered to relieve Scopus by driving through the center of the Jordanian defenses.

The reader follows the grueling battles in the trenches of Ammunition Hill and the streets of east Jerusalem through the eyes of the men who fought there. We see the growing isolation of the Jordanian garrison in the Old City, their last bastion. In a room lit only by distant flares, the Jordanian commander informs the local governor that he is pulling his troops out. A number of soldiers choose to remain and engage the Israeli troops from the alleys and ramparts of the walled city. A classic tale.

Updated: September 2012

September 22
Abraham Rabinovich
Matthew Horner

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