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Six Day War: Jerusalem, United in Theory

The Dome of the Rock stands behind the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City.
Gali Tibbon
AFP/Getty Images
The Dome of the Rock stands behind the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City.

In the Six Day War of June 1967, Israel defeated the combined armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, capturing the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula. For Israel, it was a stunning triumph; for Arabs, a humiliating defeat.

Israel no longer occupies the Sinai or Gaza, but its continued hold over the other territories has stymied efforts to bring comprehensive peace to the Middle East.

The third part of a five-part series on the Six-Day War follows.

After Israeli paratroopers captured the old city, Jews celebrated reunification of the divided city and renewed access to Judaism's holiest site, the Western Wall.

But today, many long-time residents of Jewish West Jerusalem say the city is "united" in theory only.

Israeli paratroopers entered Jerusalem's old city on June 7, 1967, through Lion's Gate, the easternmost passage, and tried to make their way to the sacred Western Wall and Temple Mount.

But a problem arose: they didn't know where they were going. Jews hadn't been allowed in this Jordanian-controlled part of the city since before 1948.

Israeli soldiers reached the remains of the second temple, which had been destroyed 2,000 years ago, after asking an old Palestinian man for directions.

For the Jewish state, then just 19-years-old, and for paratroopers, some of whom were Holocaust survivors, returning to the holiest place in Judaism was exhilarating.

"Even for these very secular kibbutznicks, people who'd never been inside a synagogue in their life, the feeling was overwhelming," said American-Israeli historian and author Michael Oren. "Chief of staff Yitzak Rabin comes down and Moshe Dayan, the defense minister, comes down, both very secular Jews, they read Psalms at the wall and wept. It was just overwhelming for anybody."

As the war ended, the barbed wire fences separating East from West came down. Thousands of Jews and Arabs alike poured into Jerusalem's streets near, and in, the Old City.

"It was so mobbed that you couldn't walk in the streets," said Yael Arieli, 84, who has lived in West Jerusalem all her life.

Arieli remembers curious Palestinian families staring and pointing at Israeli streetlights, which didn't exist on their side of the fence, and eagerly exploring the much larger Israeli supermarkets. Arieli's friend from childhood, 83-year-old Trudy Dotan, said it was jubilation punctuated by moments of awkwardness — knowing some families had lost husbands, sons or brothers.

"It was a euphoria — you can say whatever you like," Dotan said. "There was a huge concert and we all went. Everybody was there. It was very frightening because we knew this boy — somebody was killed in this family and nobody knew exactly what to say."

Arieli says that right after the war, she could suddenly take her children to places they'd only heard about.

"All of sudden it was open and we could go to Hebron, to Bethlehem, and to all these places," Arieli said. "And we started traveling all over the country."

Just a week earlier, many Israelis feared the Jewish state faced potential destruction from combined Arab armies. Now, with the stunning victory, there was a genuine feeling of optimism, Arieli said.

Jonathan Livni, 65, said he shared that sense of hope. He was a reservist studying law when the Israeli army called him back to duty during the Six Day War.

After the victory, he and many fellow soldiers viewed the conquest of the West Bank from Jordan as an opportunity for genuine coexistence with Palestinians.

"You know I remember the euphoria that I, as a solider, had after the '67 War," Livni said. "I thought — here we are coming with a modern state into a very backward area. And we would teach them new methods of agriculture, new ways of dealing with industry. At that time, I was euphoric about the chances that we had now to work an agreement between the two nations that were at war."

Little by little, that idealism slipped and hardened into realism, Livni said. Jerusalem, a city he had hoped would become a model of coexistence, became more and more divided.

Jewish settlements expanded in the occupied West Bank. Palestinian violence grew. In Jerusalem, each side withdrew into its own neighborhoods.

By the time the first Palestinian intifada erupted in 1987, most Jews had stopped going to the open-air markets, or their favorite shop or restaurant in Arab East Jerusalem. Few Arabs today spend time in West Jerusalem.

Israel just celebrated 40 years of Jerusalem's reunification with fireworks, concerts and a parade. The divisions are now more deeply ingrained than anything fences or barbed wire can impose, Livni said.

"It's within the people more now ... and that's much harder to undo," he said. "If we celebrate the fact that Jews can go to the Western Wall — fine. But if we celebrate the fact that now the city is open to populations of both sides to go everywhere then it's a joke. When I say 'come across,' to me it means people mingle, go to cafes, restaurants. None of this exists! So, 40 years of 'unification' is a joke," Livni said.

Livni's wife, Dr. Helen Castiel-Green, said the only time she ever really interacts with Palestinians is at work. Hospitals have become one of the only places in Jerusalem where the two groups work closely together.

"Working with the Arab Palestinian — they're working with you, and when there is a terrorist attack they are reacting exactly like you to save the injured people. But out of the hospital, you feel separation, a big separation," said Castiel-Green.

Livni, an attorney and a wine connoisseur, also laments that the city he fought for 40 years ago has become ever more dominated by Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews. More and more secular Israelis, like himself, have left or are thinking of leaving.

"It's becoming more and more oppressive," Livni said. "The fact that all ... everyone around me is Orthodox means that many times when I want to do things I think about it and say, 'Wow, I'm in a minority in the city.' And that's the type of city I don't want to live in. And that's a great disappointment because I've spent most of my life here."

Dotan and Arieli said they think both Arabs and Jews realize compromise on Jerusalem's Old City is the only path to a viable, two-state peace deal. The octogenarians — both of whom were here some two decades before Israel was a state — have lived through half a dozen major wars and two Palestinian uprisings.

"There are options," Dotan said of Jerusalem. "Maybe Jews control their parts, Arabs control theirs. Maybe an international force. ... All of us, at last, want, at last, you know, to stop having the wars and find a solution that's a political solution and a human solution."

"The gun is not the answer," Arieli said. "We've tried it for a long time. So, let's start something else."

The debate over the status of Jerusalem remains as complex and contentious as ever. Wrapped in sacred symbolism, history and emotion, small moves by either side can set off riots — or worse.

"Sometimes people don't like to talk about it," Dotan said. "But no peace will ever stick without resolving Jerusalem."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.
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