Tuesday, June 05, 2007

A defender of Jerusalem


Greer Fay Cashman talks to Uzi Narkiss, a long-time warrior who dreams of peace.
The earliest, most vivid childhood memory of Brig.-Gen. (res.) Uzi Narkiss, who commanded the forces which captured the Old City in the Six Day War, is of the 1929 Arab riots.
He was four years old at the time and was crowded into a house in Jerusalem where several fearful families had gathered. The women and children were sent down to the cellar where there was a well and the men, armed only with sticks, remained upstairs to defend them in case of attack. Reminiscing last month about his long military career, Narkiss surmised that this first conscious knowledge of a threat to his existence had somehow shaped the rest of his life.
Narkiss is the eldest son of Polish immigrants who arrived in Jerusalem soon after World War I. His parents later lost some 150 relatives in the Holocaust. His father was employed to sell the works of the students at the Bezalel art academy. In return, the school's founder and director Prof. Boris Schatz allowed him to live rent-free in a Bezalel-owned apartment adjacent to the school. Uzi Narkiss was born there on January 6, 1925.
For a while, the family changed residence every year until they moved to Nahalat Ahim, a nearby neighborhood built by Yemenites. Land stretching from the original Bezalel building to what is now Sacher Park had belonged to the Greek Orthodox Church. Schatz bought it up, then sold individual plots to Bezalel employees, including the senior Narkiss. The family home was built in Nahalat Ahim in 1930 and two more children were born there.
Uzi Narkiss went to school at Gymnasia Rehavia, where one of his classmates was Ra'anana Meridor, mother of Finance Minister Dan Meridor. Another contemporary was president Izhak Ben-Zvi's son, Eli, who was killed in the War of Independence. A couple of years ahead of him was Yigael Yadin, who went on to become Israel's second chief of general staff, a professor of archeology, politician and deputy premier.
Narkiss has fond recollections of the Gymnasia. "It was not like it is today," he remarked. "Although all our teachers came from abroad, we learned to speak Hebrew properly. They were perfectionists who didn't spare the rod in order to achieve results."
In Narkiss's day, the Gymnasia was also strong on inculcating a knowledge of and love for the land as was the youth movement Mahanot Ha'olim, which imbued its members with both a love of the land and a commitment to settle on kibbutz.
Clad in regulation blue shirts and khaki shorts, Narkiss scaled every mountain in the country to watch the sunrise and trekked through every hiking trail and wadi to learn the topography. Ideology may have been the motivating force behind these trips, but a more urgent reason for their frequency and intensity was the need to be familiar with the terrain when fighting against or escaping from the Arabs and the British.
"We were all dedicated to the establishment of a Jewish state," Narkiss remarked. "That was our raison d'etre." And the pinnacle of it all was going to a training farm in preparation for kibbutz.
At age 13, like so many other youngsters of his generation, Narkiss joined the Hagana, acting initially as a courier. If his parents were aware of what he was doing, they betrayed no sign. So many people were involved in clandestine activities in those days that it was prudent not to ask questions.
INDUCTED into the Palmah in 1941, Narkiss spent five years engaging in military operations from places as far apart as Kibbutz Negba in the South to Kfar Giladi in the North. In 1946, he was sent to Ramat Rahel to head a work group which loaded sacks of potash onto a Haifa-bound train. But the real reason for his transfer was to blow up the railway track.
It was one of three acts of sabotage against the British that he was involved in during that period. Another was a failed attempt to divert British attention from the illegal immigrant ship Orde Wingate, and the third was the destruction of the Allenby Bridge in June 1946.
Haim Bar-Lev, who many years later became IDF chief of general staff, was responsible for the overall Allenby Bridge operation, while Narkiss was in charge of the 35-member explosives team. This sabotage effort went exactly according to plan.
Exhausted by all these exploits, Narkiss took a one-year break to study Arabic and philosophy at the Hebrew University, whose foundations were laid in the year he was born. Neither students nor lecturers had cars in those days and the means of transport was the Hamekasher bus which left at 15-minute intervals from downtown Jerusalem for the Mount Scopus campus.
But the political upheavals of the day made study a luxury which Narkiss could not afford. On his last day at the Hebrew University, Arabs set fire to the Mamilla commercial center which was full of Jewish shops.
Narkiss was sent by Palmah chief Yigal Allon to be the commander of the Dead Sea and the Etzion Bloc. He subsequently fought in the War of Independence with the Palmah 4th Battalion in Kiryat Anavim, then in later conflicts on the road to Jerusalem and in the city itself.
During Pessah 1948, the Hagana ordered the Palmah to launch an assault on Katamon, which was one of the most prestigious Arab neighborhoods. Only a few of the wealthiest Jews lived there side by side with their Arab counterparts. The monastery at San Simon had been captured by Arab forces, which included a large number of Iraqis.
Narkiss and his men embarked on their mission from the building which he moved into 21 years later and where he still lives today. In 1948, it was the last Jewish building in the western zone of the city. Today it stands on the seam of Hanassi and Hapalmah streets. Rehov Hapalmah, according to Narkiss, was named in honor of the Palmah conquest.
Katamon was an eye-opener for him. "It was the first time in my life that I saw a refrigerator. Every house in Katamon had one. My parents didn't have a tenth of what I saw there."
There was practically no looting by the Israeli soldiers. "They didn't have time," Narkiss noted. "As soon as they blew up one house, they went on to the next."
Mount Zion was also held by Iraqi, Saudi and other Arab forces. On May 16, Narkiss received an order to attack Mount Zion. The order was carried out on the evening of May 17. On May 18, he was told to break through the Zion Gate and to continue to the Jewish Quarter.
When he learned that the Arab Legion had invaded the Old City, he realized that his troops were not a match for them, and ordered a retreat. "From then until June 1967 all the gates to the Old City remained closed."
WHEN Narkiss was a youth, he had visited the Western Wall every Shabbat. "It was a common denominator for all of us, secular and religious. The British never let us go up to the Temple Mount, but we could go to the Wall and to the Jewish Quarter. So we went from the western approach to the Wall every Shabbat - not to pray, but to say Shalom."
For Narkiss, the victory of the Six Day War was the closing of a circle. "Then, we no longer needed the permission of the British. We came to the Temple Mount and a small Arab boy showed us the way to the Western Wall."
Narkiss speaks in soft, measured tones, his voice and face devoid of emotion. But the memory of the magic of that brief conflict which changed world perception of the State of Israel and caused Jews everywhere to walk 10 feet tall brings a twinkle to his eye and a new cadence to his speech.
"We never planned to do what we achieved in the Six Day War. We're proud that in no time and without plans we came to the Western Wall, and conquered eastern Jerusalem in eight hours of fighting."
It all could have ended quite differently. When news first reached him of sporadic shooting and some shelling by the Jordanians, Narkiss had to decide whether this was merely another incident or the outbreak of war. It took him two hours to make up his mind. What convinced him that this was more than an incident was the Jordanian seizure of UN headquarters and the attempt by Jordanian forces to break through from there to the south of the city. "I decided that this was war and that we had to retaliate and take advantage of the opportunity to reunite Jerusalem."
Once the decision had been made, Narkiss had to go into high gear. Speed was of the essence because he had to beat not only the enemy, but the clock, as Narkiss was concerned that the UN Security Council would order a cease-fire if convened. "I didn't want to see myself again as in 1948 standing in front of a closed gate."
The Jerusalem Brigade, the Harel Brigade - which Narkiss had fought with in 1948 - and the Paratroop Brigade, all of them reserve units, share the credit for the reunification of the capital. "They fought in an indescribable fashion and with tremendous dedication. They were all totally committed because they understood that this was the battle for Jerusalem."
Narkiss has been asked many times to describe what he felt when he was able to once again touch the stones of the Western Wall. He has never been able to find an appropriate expression. "What could I say? It was great. But what is great? Only a poet can put it into words - and I'm not a poet."
Nor is he a prophet. He is only too painfully aware of how erroneous the forecasts were in the euphoric aftermath of the war. "We thought that with that brilliant victory we had overcome all our problems with the Arabs." It took only two days for Israel to realize that such wishful thinking was to put it mildly - premature.
For more than 25 years after the reunification of the city, Narkiss attended Jerusalem Day commemorative events in the company of two other Jerusalem-born veterans - Yitzhak Rabin, who in June 1967 had been chief of general staff, and Mordechai Gur who had been the commander of the Paratroop Brigade which had recaptured the Old City. After Gur took his own life while dying from cancer and Rabin was struck down by an assassin's bullet, Narkiss "felt like an orphan. It's not pleasant to be there without them - alone, yet not alone."
How does Narkiss foresee Jerusalem in the year 2000? "The only consequence which the year 2000 has for us is the result of a national election. Jerusalem is complicated and will remain complicated. It's impossible to change that precisely because Jerusalem is the cradle of the three great faiths." Yet for all that, he cherishes the dream that in his lifetime he may yet see "a quiet and tranquil Jerusalem open to all who want to live here."