The atmosphere in Jerusalem’s Old City in the days before the Six-Day War was “magical,” as Abdulla Schleiffer would recall.
“No one did anything but stand around, congratulate each other and praise Nasser.”
Schleiffer, a Long Island-born Jew who had converted to Islam, was appalled at the light-headed optimism all about him. A member of a prominent local family suggested to him that as soon as the fighting was over they cross together to the Israeli side of the city and claim victor’s spoils. Schleiffer was an editor at an English-language daily in the Jordanian half of divided Jerusalem. He found the buoyant mood in the Arab city bizarre, as if rhetoric alone could win the war that was about to descend upon them.
A colleague who went to the Red Crescent offices in Jerusalem to donate blood found the premises empty except for the manager. The latter asked whether there had been an accident in the newsman’s family that required a donation of blood. There was no organized effort to stock up on food, designate shelters or prepare local hospitals for an influx of war casualties. Civil defense equipment consisted of little more than armbands.
Schleiffer called on the governor of Jordanian Jerusalem, Anwar al-Khatib, to voice his concern. Khatib agreed to assemble local leaders to discuss the situation. At the meeting, committees were formed to organize a proper civil defense framework, but little tangible would emerge.
On Friday, June 2, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Ahmed Shukeiry, was lifted on the shoulders of a crowd after giving an impassioned speech at al-Aksa Mosque saying that Israel was on the verge of destruction and that there would be few survivors.
On the Israeli side of Jerusalem, the grim mood matched in intensity the euphoria on the Jordanian side. In the War of Independence 19 years before, the city had been cut off for months by the Arab Legion. Unspoken but widely envisioned by Jerusalemites for the coming conflict was the image of the Warsaw Ghetto; buildings turned to rubble from which the battle would continue. The Holocaust was not far from anyone’s thoughts. Tourists had been pouring out of the country since the crisis began in mid-May. Some foreign academics teaching at Hebrew University left the country quietly, too embarrassed to say goodbye to their Israeli colleagues.
I arrived in Jerusalem as a reporter five days before the war. When I asked directions in English of a woman on the street near the King David Hotel, she looked at me sharply and said, “Haven’t you gone home yet?” When I said I had just arrived, she nodded and pointed out my destination. The King David itself, I would learn, had gone overnight from 86 percent occupancy to one percent.
The Arab world, with a population of 80 million, was rising up behind Egypt’s charismatic leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, against Israel’s three million. Unlike the Sinai Campaign 11 years before, when the French air force had provided cover over Israel as part of a British, French, Israeli collusion against Egypt, the country now stood alone against a broad Arab coalition with three times as many tanks and warplanes as Israel.
The fear, however, energized rather than paralyzed. On the home front, long-standing emergency plans were put smoothly into action. Jerusalem municipal trucks dumped sand at street corners while sacks for sandbags were made available at all groceries. Callers seeking advice from the city engineer’s office on preparing home shelters were visited within hours by an official with a plan of their building. “These beams will provide support if you’re hit upstairs,” one resident was told. “Fifty sandbags along that wall will do the trick.’ With able-bodied men mobilized, women residents cleared out cluttered basement shelters in their apartment buildings. Civil defense workers prepared schools and other public buildings as evacuation centers for 20,000 people. In parks and other open areas sites were prepared for mass burials.
Volunteering became an obsession. Long lines of residents formed every day to contribute blood. In areas where no shelters existed, hundreds of yeshiva students turned out to dig trenches for emergency cover. Rabbis declared the situation to be one of pikuach nefesh, a matter of life or death, which permitted—indeed, made mandatory—vital work on the Sabbath. A civil defense worker was startled the last Sabbath before the war to see yeshiva students carrying shovels being led to a digging site by their rabbis who took off their jackets and joined in the digging. With memory of the 1948 siege still vivid, the authorities had warehoused food staples for half a year. “He who prepares for the Sabbath,” Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin would say after the war, citing an old proverb, “has what to eat on the Sabbath.”
On the morning of June 5 at Tel Nof air base, pilots were wakened at 3:45 a.m. Filing into the briefing room, their eyes focused on the terse announcement on the blackboard: “Zero Hour 0745.” When all were seated, the squadron leader greeted them. “Good morning. We go to war with Egypt today.”
In a nearby orange grove where a paratroop brigade commanded by Col. Motta Gur had spent the night, an officer rose before dawn even though he had no duties at that hour. He looked expectantly towards the air base but could see no sign of unusual activity. The brigade had been designated to drop into northern Sinai to prevent Egyptian tank reinforcements from reaching the battlefront. A change of plans, however, would bring the brigade to Jerusalem this night.
The troops were wakened at 6 a.m., and the kibbutz orchards were soon bustling. The men were making coffee when a succession of roars erupted from the base. The sound grew in intensity as planes began to rise above the tree line—dozens of them following each other into the sky like children playing tag. The aircraft, low-slung with bombs and rockets, wove themselves into formations of four and headed south at treetop level. At the airfield a mechanic wept as the planes swept past him, wave after wave, glinting in the sky like a sword unsheathed. In the orchards the paratroopers watched in silence, awed by what they were seeing and by what they knew must come. They then drifted off to write postcards home. “We’re seeing the start of the war,” wrote one. “We hope it’s finished soon. We’ll do what we can to finish it soon.”
Abraham Rabinovich covered the Six-Day as a reporter for an American newspaper and stayed on in Israel to write The Battle for Jerusalem. He recently released a revised, 50th anniversary edition. This is an excerpt from his book.