“The City of Generals” – June 18
As we drove to Tzahala from Tel Aviv's Lod airport early Sunday morning, my hostess, after explaining that her ex-ministry of defense husband could not meet my flight because he was on a military tour of occupied Jordan, filled me in. The waiting had been terrible, the tension intolerable, the children had dug trenches. It was a little easier to wait after Moshe Dayan had been recalled as minister. They had confidence he would act before it was too late. On the fateful morning they had dropped the children off at their respective schools, as usual, and proceeded into Tel Aviv. It was only then that the air raid signals sounded. They did not believe them at first, and took cover only later.
They spent the night in the shelter converted from their garage. Jordanian long-range guns lobbed shells aimed, as their radio declared, at the "City of the Generals.” (Tzahala is a suburb of Tel Aviv, built to house the ministry of defense and military officers and their families. It houses, among others, General Dayan and Chief of Staff General Rabin.) There were a couple of near misses, no direct hits.
We were pretty well along the road to Tzahala by now. Soldiers – boys and girls – were at every road crossing, thumbing rides, many carrying their Uzzi guns slung under their shoulders. These were on leave from their units, the others presumably demobilized to return to their jobs. Bus stops were thronged with waiting passengers; most buses, mobilized by the army, had not yet been released.
“We have won an almost incredible military victory,” my hostess was saying as we drove up before the door, “but by only the very narrowest of margins – 15 minutes, perhaps. And we are neither elated nor do we feel secure. The battle is shifting from the military front to the political front. Before we had to fear only our enemies, now we must also fear our friends.”
Her husband, returning that afternoon, did show a quiet elation. “You can't imagine what it meant to me, a Sabra, to make that tour through Jordan today. When I was a boy I moved about in that country that was then Palestine. But always there was a sense of danger. Today it was wonderful.”
There had been fighting in the Old Town, and on the Jordan side, made more difficult by the desire to spare religious shrines. This meant bitter house to house fighting. But what had impressed my host most of all was the Palestinian refugee camp near Jericho. “Incredibly shocking,” he said. “Now we shall have to find a solution for them.”
That evening the talk ranged from the forthcoming UN General Assembly meeting to the experiences of their sons in the lightning war. Abba Eban, they were agreed, was a fine speechmaker. But this was not a time for fine speeches; it was a time for the Israeli-born, the Sabras. The government was made up of old men – too old for this situation. Still, they knew the sentiments of the people. This opportunity for peace had been dangerously won, and might never come again. Despite Arab agitation, despite the Soviet Union, despite advice from friends, Israel would have to stand firm on the conquered lands – until a peace had been won which assured Israel's right to exist, recognized and defensible borders, and the unrestricted use of Suez and the Straits of Tiran and Old Jerusalem.
All this was interspersed with stories their sons, and their sons’ friends, had told on coming home, stories related by their elders with wonderment and sadness. There were stories of high officer mortality – the officers had always been out in front. There were stories of the incredible dash into Sinai, with the command continually coming through the intercoms. “Don't stop! Don't bother to fight! Never mind mopping up! Forward! After me! Forward!” There were stories of amazing fortifications, in great depth, on the Syrian front, and of their costly capture on terrain so difficult the Israeli tanks had to be assisted by bulldozers. There were stories, finally, of youths who returned in shock, unable to communicate with their parents.
Afula – June 19
A fresh morning breeze tempered the hot sun beating down on the crowd gathered in the military cemetery. The colonel’s tank, which was leading the assault on entrenched Syrian positions, had sustained a direct hit which killed him and five members of his crew. After brilliantly successful action in Sinai, this tank unit had rushed 400 kilometers to Syria, two hours ahead of schedule. The entire unit was composed of reservists, including the colonel, a lawyer in civilian life. The crowd at the services, numbering about 100, comprised family, friends, representatives from his unit, and political associates. The dead man's father read out the Kaddish (lament for the dead). His commanding officer, a beretted brigadier and one of the few men in uniform, described the colonel’s leadership qualities and the action in which he fell. Shimon Peres, secretary-general of the Rafi Party, spoke briefly. The parents kissed the brigadier on both cheeks and departed. No military salute.
Returning to Tel Aviv by way of Haifa, we stopped to see old friends. The husband had left that morning on an official mission. His wife, a journalist and author, spoke in a low voice of her concerns. Israelis were determined this time to have peace. Any government which compromised the prospects for a secure peace would not survive. But the situation was difficult, so much depended on what transpired at the UN – and on the United States.
Tel Aviv – June 20
With the exception of homeward bound, weaponed soldiers and larger than normal groups waiting at bus stops, and many people carrying transistor radios so as not to miss the news broadcasts, Tel Aviv seems normal. But it is bewildered by the reports from New York, amazed that the Arabs and the Soviet Union could cry “aggression” by Israel. Abba Eban’s General Assembly speech, broadcast in full late that evening, was listened to by many. “It was a very good speech,” my host said. “A great speech, perhaps. But it was the speech of a diplomat, a lawyer, crying for justice – not a Sabra’s speech. We’ve done enough crying in the past. We shouldn’t cry any more.”
Occupied Jordan – June 21
The traffic to Jerusalem was heavy, many cars loaded with bearded and caftaned Orthodox Jews. Traffic from Jerusalem was lighter, but in several places we were held up on the two-laned road because of trailer platforms carrying huge, captured Jordanian camouflaged tanks, evidently in prime condition.
Swinging south and east from Old Jerusalem, we entered Bethlehem, glaring white in the hot sun. Its Arab population was 80 percent Christian. In the large square approaching the Church of the Nativity, children accosted Israeli soldiers and civilians, offering postal cards, cold drinks, religious objects. Arabs sat in front of their houses and shops and conversed quietly. Inside the Church of the Nativity, a Jordanian guide was escorting an Israeli group from the Birthplace to the Manger. The group, which comprised the ex-mayor of Jerusalem, other civilians, and a few Israeli officers and soldiers listened respectfully. Bethlehem doesn’t seem too unhappy over the new dispensation.
If Bethlehem’s atmosphere was restrained, Hebron’s is that of a county fair. Hundreds of Israeli soldiers, and as many Israeli civilians, throng the main square, their arms full of purchases, eating ice cream, drinking soda pop, buying rides on donkeys. The Arabs are busily exploiting this tourist bonanza.
On a side street, off the square, is a holy place where Abraham and other Elders of Zion are entombed. Outside stand a number of elderly Orthodox Jews. And here I see for the first time young Orthodox Jews, bearded and with uncut plaited sideburns, in uniform and weaponed. The Arabs had permitted access to the holy place only on Sundays, and only up seven of the 30 steps leading to the sacred site. Now I see two Israeli soldiers, Uzzis slung under their shoulders, knock on the door to seek admission. It opens a trifle, a discussion ensues, during which several other soldiers join the two at the door. They are still arguing when the door is closed in their faces. The soldiers shake their heads but make no effort to press further for the entry denied them to a Jewish holy place by a vanquished Moslem guardian. Strange conquerors!
From Hebron we turn north again, passing to the east of Jerusalem, up the road to Ramallah. On the way we see several crushed automobiles, evidently run over by tanks, and two others bullet-riddled. We pass through small towns that show signs of fighting – shell marks, blasted-out windows. There are numerous military checkpoints along the road. At one of these, we are turned back. An Israeli-licensed car with five passengers cuts behind the checkpoint and, ignoring the shouted command to halt, proceeds up the road. It goes less than a hundred yards when the sentry’s warning shot, fired into the air, brings it to a sudden stop. We return through the Old City, from which most of the rubble has already been cleared.
That evening we sit again and talk, in another Tzahala home. An ex-colonel deprecates the Russian threat and its rearming of the Arabs. “We’ve got the east bank of Suez. Egypt can’t advance on the ground. What can they do – bomb Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, that’s all.” Another ex-officer, who had fought in the 1956 Sinai campaign, and had served before that with the US Marines in the Pacific during World War II, resolves the discussion. He doubts the Russians would intervene with force to save the Arab cause.
“But if they do,” he says, “we won’t die in crematoria.”
En Route Paris – June 22
My seat companion on the El Al flight is a clean-cut, sport-jacketed young man. He is French born, 30 years old, and a Jew. He has dual nationality and two passports – one French, one Israeli. He had fought as a paratrooper in the 1956 Sinai campaign. A reservist, he had sat, along with many friends, in Paris’ Orly airport for 48 hours after the outbreak of the recent fighting, until he could get on a plane to Tel Aviv and rejoin his unit. He was in time for the fight on the Syrian front, where 18 of his friends in the unit were killed. Now released, he is returning to his wife and four-year-old son. He is not hopeful about the outcome of the General Assembly meetings. “We know how to fight,” he said, "but we are not good diplomats. We don't know how to lie.” Then he said, after a pause, “I don't think I want to live in France any more. In France I work. In Israel I breathe.”
This article originally ran in the July 8, 1967, issue of the magazine.