Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Live from the Western Wall


Television producer Yossi Ronen recalls broadcasting the liberation of the Temple Mount and Western Wall. The third of three eye witness accounts provided to 'Bamahane - IDF Magazine' by men who took part in the key moments of the Six Day War, which helped change the course of Jewish, Middle East and world history.
At the beginning of June 1967, as Israeli forces prepared to confront the Egyptian army, most Army Radio reporters were situated in the south of the country. Those in the regular army and in the reserves were with their units in the field, and each day phoned in reports. I had started working at Army Radio two months earlier. As the newest rookie, I was assigned the "dirty work" of taking dictation from these reporters. So when the Jordanians began shelling Jerusalem, there was nobody available to report on what was happening in the capital. In spite of my inexperience in the field, I asked to leave for Jerusalem. I envisioned a city under siege, as it had been during the War of Independence, with nobody there to report on what was happening. To my great disappointment, my request was denied, due to a shortage of available vehicles and tape recorders. It was only toward evening that help arrived from an unexpected source. A 23-year-old from Holon, by the name of Yossi Velni, presented himself to Dayan, and announced that because he had not been drafted, he was requesting to volunteer for Army Radio. He had a Grundig tape recorder and a powerful Triumph motorcycle, and so my problem was solved.
On the morning of Tuesday, June 6, we raced over the empty roads leading to Jerusalem. Around Ramle, we had to evade a military roadblock, which tried to prevent us from continuing due to Jordanian shelling along the way. We arrived in Jerusalem, and found that the streets were almost empty. In the background, sounds of explosions could be heard. Most of the city's residents were in bomb shelters. In order to be brought up to date, and then to join one of the units fighting in the field, we headed to the Jerusalem regimental headquarters. This was on a rooftop several stories high - the Histadrut building on Straus Street. The sight which greeted us could have been taken from a movie. Jerusalem was spread out below us, and beyond it Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives. Israeli Air Force planes dove relentlessly toward Jordanian posts, and at concentrations of tanks in the area of what is now Ma'aleh Adumim. A bit to our north, we could see the shelling around King Hussein's unfinished palace, next to the police academy. In the south we could watch the battle of Armon Hanatziv.
Our tape recorder was running nonstop. I described the planes' dives as though it were an Independence Day parade. We located an unmanned switchboard a few floors below us, which we used to pass on the recorded material to the studio in Jaffa. We spent the night on the roof, from which a giant searchlight illuminated the combat area across from us.
Throughout the morning of Wednesday, June 7, Velni and I were glued to walkie-talkies from which emanated various battle commands. Suddenly we recognized the familiar voice of the commander of the paratroops brigade, Colonel Mordechai "Motta" Gur, giving orders to the battalion commanders to occupy the Old City: "Attention, all battalion commanders! We are sitting on the mountain range which looks down on the Old City, and are about to enter it. The Old City of Jerusalem, which all generations have been dreaming about and striving toward. We will be the first to enter it!" "Eitan's tanks are progressing from the left and will enter the Lions Gate. Move! Move to the gate! The final rendezvous will be on the open square above." It was clear that Gur was referring to the open square of the Temple Mount. With us on the roof was General Shlomo Goren, at that time the chief rabbi of the Israeli army. He informed Gur over the walkie-talkie that he was on his way to meet him, so as to be among the first to enter the Old City. Accompanied by his loyal assistant, Rabbi Menahem Hacohen, Goren ran down the dozens of steps. Deciding in a split second, I ran down after him, followed by Velni. It was only in the car that Goren realized he was not alone.
During a fast drive in the direction of the Mandelbaum Gate, which had served up until then as a crossing point between Jewish and Arab Jerusalem, I told him that we were Army Radio staff members, and that it was our intention to join up with Gur. Upon our entry into Jordanian territory, we were stopped by the paratroopers, who were on their way toward the Old City. We were forbidden to continue by car, since the entire area was under sniper and shell fire. So we left the vehicle and continued quickly on foot. As far as I remember, we were the only ones in the whole area running without helmets or weapons. Goren was armed only with a shofar and a Bible, and we carried only a tape recorder and a knapsack filled with batteries and rolls of recording tape.
We ran, while trying to stay as close as we could to the Old City wall to our right, but exposed to the sniper fire coming from the Mount of Olives on our left. Our mad rush was made even more difficult by the short cord, approximately two meters long, connecting my microphone to the recorder carried by Velni. Not knowing better, I continued to describe into the microphone what was happening in an out-of-breath rush of broken sentences. Today I know that it was precisely my lack of professional experience which contributed, more than anything else, to the authentic documentation of the breakthrough into the Old City. As we ran, we passed two lines of paratroopers who were progressing carefully toward the Lions Gate. Goren was determined to get to the head of the line as quickly as possible. At the top of the street leading to the Lions Gate, we passed a still-smoking Jordanian bus. We stopped only at the gate itself, which was blocked by an Israeli Sherman tank which had gotten stuck in the entrance. We climbed over the tank and entered the Old City.
Now the excitement reached its peak. Goren did not stop blowing the shofar and reciting prayers. His enthusiasm infected the soldiers, and from every direction came cries of "Amen!" The paratroopers burst out in song, and I forgot my role as "objective reporter" and joined them in singing "Jerusalem of Gold." We reached the Temple Mount. Deputy Chief of General Staff, General Haim Bar-Lev and head of the Central Command, General Uzi Narkiss, were also on hand. Dozens of soldiers flowed onto the square, and the senior commanders gave short, emotional speeches.
Narkiss recalled the unsuccessful attempt he led during the War of Independence to liberate the Old City. With great emotion, he finished with the words: "Never has there been such a thing, for those standing here right now. I am speechless. We all kneel before history."