Remembering the Six-Day War

American-born writer Abraham Rabinovich interviewed 300 Israeli soldiers and civilians for “The Battle for Jerusalem: Israel’s Unintended Conquest,” his history of the Six-Day War. It has just been expanded and released as an e-book on Amazon. Here is a brief excerpt, describing the moments before Israeli forces captured the Old City of Jerusalem 45 years ago, in June 1967.

All day Monday, the projector crewmen on the roof of the Histadrut Labor Federation building had waited apprehensively for nightfall, when they would go into action. In lighting up targets for the artillery observers, the men knew, they themselves would become the principal target for the Jordanian guns.

Dennis Silk, the poet, had always understood that in peacetime a searchlight unit was a suitable assignment for an “artiste” like himself, but that in war the job carried exceptional hazards. He worked as a proofreader at the Jerusalem Post and vividly recalled a story he had once handled describing a retaliation raid against a Syrian position. The Syrians had turned on a projector that had been eliminated by Israeli fire in 20 seconds. Silk had read the story with a pang of empathy for the Syrian crew.

Abraham Rabinovich (center) with Israeli paratroopers on the Temple Mount hours after Jerusalem fell into Israeli hands, June 1967.

With darkness, the projectors were hauled out of their enclosure and trundled into the open. Silk felt unexpected exhilaration pushing his projector up a ramp and into battle. Jerusalem was spread out below in the throes of apocalypse. Every quarter on the Jewish side of the city was being pounded by shellfire. Tracers from machine guns raced toward each other across no-man’s-land, and flares hung suspended on the horizon like Chinese lanterns. The Jordanian fire seemed to Silk hysterical, a lashing out without any apparent plan. Out in the darkness the Israeli gunners were waiting silently under fire to deliver their blow at the telling moment. The artillery officer shouted “light” and ducked behind the parapet. Like a man pulling the switch of an electric chair in which he himself was sitting, Silk reached up and yanked the projector handle.

Mike Ronen saw the light suddenly flick on, illuminating the Arab positions opposite him. Far to the rear there was the sound of artillery firing. Seconds later the area in the spotlight erupted in smoke and flying debris. The light switched off but a moment later, it was gripping another position. For the men in the trench, who had endured an unremitting pounding since morning, the sight was euphoric, as if someone was putting a giant finger on their tormentors and crushing them. A massive barrage hit beyond Shuafat to the north, where the Jordanian artillery batteries were located. The enemy fire became even more frenzied; shells hit just behind Ronen’s trench, making an ugly clanking sound before exploding. The shells were red hot and coming in so low that he could read his watch in their glow.

In the Bait Hakerem quarter, where the paratroopers were waiting, Capt. Rutenberg gathered his men and outlined the company’s mission. They had been assigned Ammunition Hill, the heart of the Jordanian defenses. They would cross no-man’s-land in single file. If anybody stepped on a mine, he said, the man behind would step on him and keep moving forward. Nobody, he stressed, was to stop to pick up wounded.

It was not until 1:15 a.m. that the public received its first indication of who was winning the war when Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin and Air Force Commander Motti Hod spoke on the radio. Despite the hour, there was hardly anybody over the age of 10 who was not listening. There had been no indication since the initial war bulletin 17 hours earlier whether the two sides were still fighting on the Sinai border, whether Israeli locations had been overrun or, indeed, whether disaster was imminent.

In his calm voice, Rabin reported that Israeli troops had broken through the Egyptian lines and reached El Arish. He also noted that Jenin had fallen, revealing penetration of the West Bank. Then Hod came on to describe in a dry voice the destruction of the Arab air forces, letting fall the incredible figure of 400 enemy planes knocked out. In case listeners thought they had heard wrong, he proceeded to give a detailed breakdown for each of the Arab countries (300 Egyptian planes destroyed, 20 of them in the air…). Israeli losses were given as 19 planes.

The Israeli barrage on Ammunition Hill failed to inspire weary troops along other parts of the line. Shells had snapped communication lines, and the troops knew only what they could hear and see. What they could hear was shelling all around them, and what they could see was mounting casualties. Officers, hoarse from shouting above the noise of firing all day, found it difficult to talk.

Out on Shmuel Hanavi Street, a Jerusalem Brigade intelligence officer returning from a forward trench at 2:30 a.m. was transfixed by a strange, keening sound suddenly audible through the explosions. It was a moment before he recognized it with a chill as the full-throated shout of men charging into battle. The paratroopers were going in.

Abraham Rabinovich
immigrated to Israel five days before the Six-Day War. He worked as a reporter for the Jerusalem Post for 30 years and wrote several books, including “The Yom Kippur War.”