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Saturday, May 23, 2015
- Colonel Arik Achmon remembers the euphoria the day in 1967 when his Israeli army brigade captured Jerusalem’s Old City.
He ran with his commander, the then Colonel Mortechai Gur, through the city’s desolate cobblestone streets and arrived at the Western Wall.
There, he joined dozens of soldiers, some dancing and singing, some praying with helmets in hand, at this holiest of Jewish religious sites.
What struck him most was the vastness of the compound, now housing Islam’s golden Dome of the Rock, on which the ancient Jewish Temple once stood and to which his people had now returned.
“It was like I’d entered another world,” Achmon, now retired, reminisced. “It was a very strong feeling, not just being at the Wall itself, but the whole site. It was a big victory for us.”
In just six days, Israel captured east Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, the Gaza Strip and Sinai from Egypt and the Golan Heights from Syria. On the second day of fighting, paratroopers from Achmon’s 55th Brigade stormed the Old City. The day was June 6, 1967.
Thirty years later, as Israelis celebrated this week the victory of a war that united Jerusalem under the gun and gave them the strategic territorial depth they desired, they also grappled with the repercussions of what turned out to be a bitter-sweet conquest.
For while the war ensured Israel’s survival at the time, it also forever changed the country’s political landscape and mired the nation in a divisive debate over what to do with the newly- acquired land and the Palestinians living there, say analysts here.
“Politics now became solely involved in questions of territory and peace,” said Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. “The debate became centered on what to do about the two million Palestinians.”
Right after the fighting stopped Israelis felt relief at winning a war against the odds that had been fought on three fronts simultaneously, Achmon recalled. “We went from being a very small, stressed country to a big one,” he said.
Suddenly, Israel had territory to bargain with in return for peace with its Arab neighbours. In 1979, it made its first trade, relinquishing the barren desert Sinai to Egypt in return for a comprehensive peace treaty.
But as time went on, other land-for-peace deals would prove harder to make. The newly acquired territory, especially in the West Bank — the Judea and Samaria of the Bible — would come to be seen by half the nation as an integral part of Israel, miraculously won. Giving it up for peace was unthinkable.
The other half would eventually entertain the idea of withdrawing from the West Bank and Gaza, where two million Palestinians living under Israeli military rule clamored for independence.
But the split would also paralyze a society weighing the unwanted choice between hanging onto territory filled with biblical and historic significance or giving it away for peace until the Palestinian uprising beginning in 1987 forced it to make a decision.
“The debate became a cost-benefit argument between those on the right who said ‘we can’t trust the Arabs and we shouldn’t give up our heritage’ and those on the left who were willing to contemplate territorial concessions for peace,” said Hazan.
By 1990, when Israel began negotiations with the Arabs in Madrid, a peace camp had been firmly established that eventually conceived the idea of an agreement on Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza that could then lead to statehood.
Meanwhile, an increasingly militant nationalist camp began a campaign to dot the West Bank and Gaza with small settlements that would make any future military withdrawal impossible.
By 1977, they were aided by a like-minded government led by teh right-wing Likud party, which had just ousted the centre-left Labor party for the first time in Israel’s short history. By the time Labor returned to power in 1992 and turned toward peacemaking with the Palestinians, the Likud had tripled the number of settlements in the West Bank.
When Labor, on its return to power, agreed to cede territory to the Palestinians in September 1993, the decades-old debate over land-for-peace turned into a nasty polemic with slogans likening the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin to a Nazi. The frenzy culminated in 1995 with Rabin’s assassination by a Jewish extremist.
For Achmon and many Israelis, that tragic event has its roots in the Six Day War. “The bad thing about the war was that afterwards some dangerous nationalistic tendencies emerged,” he said. “Victory is a spoiling event. You have to know how to use your strength wisely and you have to think about the other side.”
For every Israeli victor in 1967, there was a Palestinian standing in defeat. While Achmon celebrated at the Wall, for instance, Mohammed Sharabati, a Palestinian, remembers hiding in his house just outside the Old City’ crenellated walls.
When Israeli tanks rolled into the city, he spirited his mother and younger siblings to Jordan and then fled with his brother to a cave where he watched defeated Jordanian soldiers retreat to Amman.
When he returned, the Israeli army had occupied the Arab half of the city. “I remember being completely shocked,” Sharabati said. “It all happened so easily, so quickly. I thought, ‘We lost all of Palestine, we lost everything’.”
Like many Israelis, Achmon’s awareness of the Palestinians’ position is what is pushing him toward peace. As Achmon sees it, if Israel keeps control of the West Bank and Gaza, it will be faced with the choice between “apartheid” or giving the Palestinians “full democratic rights”. He doesn’t want either.
So after thirty years, he is willing to contemplate ceding part of what he fought so hard to gain. “It’s better to separate and let them rule themselves,” he said. “We have to live and let live, even at the price of a less secure geographical position.”