Through a soldiers eyes

Had the battle at Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem not taken place 40 years ago during the Six-Day War, Jerusalem may very well still be in Jordanian hands. But it did, and thanks to the combatants’ courage, determination and leadership, the 40th anniversary of the city’s reunification is taking place.

Despite a brief attempt by the Jerusalem municipality years ago to clear the battlefield and build apartment buildings over it (an attempt that was scotched by the families of those who fought there), Ammunition Hill today stands as a major historic site in Israel, visited by millions each year who want to “live” the story.

Col. Shimon “Katcha” Cahaner, now director of the site, actually did live it.

He was one of the first members of the legendary 101 commando unit that was founded by the young paratroop officer Ariel Sharon in 1953 as a response to murders perpetrated by infiltrators (referred to at the time as fedayun), who slipped into Israel from Egypt and the Jordanian-ruled West Bank.

In 1953, Cahaner was gravely wounded in an operation on the Egyptian border. “But for my commander, Arik Sharon, who insisted on my being given a certain type of treatment in the field, I would not be here today,” he said. Cahaner spent close to a full year in the hospital and could have been released from the army, but went on to fight in four more wars.

His unit merged with one of the battalions of the Israel Defense Forces Paratroopers Brigade and on June 6, 1967, the Paratrooper Brigade’s 66th battalion launched a direct attack on Ammunition Hill, which commanded the Nablus road, the northern entrances to the Old City and the area of the only border crossing between Israel and Jordan — the Mandelbaum Gate, on the fringes of the fervently religious Mea Shearim neighborhood.

The 66th Brigade was supposed to have parachuted into the Sinai Peninsula but was rushed to Jerusalem instead. At the time, a high-ranking officer in the IDF General Staff operations division, Shalom Dror, told Paratroopers Brigade commander Motta Gur to change direction and head for Jerusalem at once.

Established by the British as a storage place for ordnance, Ammunition Hill was a vantage point from which Jordanian soldiers could menace the Jewish sectors of Jerusalem.

“Two companies of well-equipped Jordanian soldiers were entrenched there — about 250 fighting men in all — while the 66th Brigade, which attacked from the perimeter of the hill, had about 350 men,” said Cahaner. “According to the theory of combat, an invading force must be three times larger than the defending force to increase the chances of success. But the realities of the situation were otherwise.

“Later we fought inside the Old City, from the Lions Gate toward the Damascus Gate. Touching the Lions Gate with my own hands was a no less exciting and emotional experience than touching the stones of the Western Wall three days later, when the fighting was over. During the battle I felt as if I was treading the paths of my people’s history … I have never experienced anywhere else the feelings I had here in Jerusalem.”

In the hand-to-hand battle to capture the hill, 36 Israelis died and 90 were wounded. About 71 Jordanians were killed, and the Israelis prevailed. The hill became almost hallowed ground; it was deemed the key to reunifying Jerusalem.

Shalom Dror also believes in the legacy and lessons of the hill, and volunteers there today. An IDF veteran in his 80s, Dror left his native Germany for one reason: anti-Semitism.

“I experienced the full impact of anti-Semitism as a boy in Dortmund, Germany,” he said, “when one of our teachers came into the classroom and called out the names of all the pupils except me, so as to seat them in their appointed places. When I asked, ‘And what about me, sir?’ he replied, ‘Jews and pigs have no place here.'”

Dror immigrated to Palestine at age 15, despite his parents’ opposition. Upon arrival, he joined the Youth Aliyah; in 1940 he joined the Haganah, and in 1947 he linked his fate with Jerusalem’s and established the first field corps unit, in which he fought in the War of Independence.

It was “a hard war,” said Dror, “but we managed to create a homeland. In that war we were faced with two main tasks: to protect Jerusalem’s Jewish population and to capture the city. We performed the first of these, but the second had to wait for the next generation to complete 19 years later. It was our sons who carried out this task, the youngsters who belonged to what we referred to then as the ‘espresso generation.’ Among them was my son, Danny.”

A 22-year-old officer in the 28th paratroop battalion, Danny Dror was killed by a hand grenade thrown from one of the last remaining Jordanian positions in the Old City of Jerusalem.

“I believe,” said his father, “that the next generation is always better than the preceding one, if it decides to deal with the challenges its predecessors have left. When it does, the sky’s the limit.”

Shalom Dror was part of the group that prevailed upon the municipality to keep the hill a heritage site, and volunteers there in a number of capacities, working closely with Cahaner.

“It is our duty to tell our young people the story of those who fought here and of our commitment to the future of the Jewish people all over the world,” said Cahaner. “This is our responsibility to our nation.”