Making the old city young again

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Between Liberation and Unification
by: Yossi Beilin

We had gone out that day toward Nekhel, in the heart of the Sinai Peninsula. The 8th Armored Brigade shed its camouflage nets, and suddenly the radio waves were full of high-frequency Morse code transmissions and even higher frequency voices. My radio picked up the news that east Jerusalem had been conquered and that our forces had reached the Western Wall. And I, a 19-year-old soldier, stood and cried like a child.

I very much wanted to speak with my parents. I knew what this news would mean for them. But there was no way of doing so, other than by absconding with the gigantic communications truck, which was needed for more important things. I vividly recalled all the times we had visited Jerusalem and climbed to the roof of the Strauss home, from which we had a view of the Old City toward the Western Wall. I could never see the actual wall from that spot, but I did see Arab Legion soldiers, who, for whatever reason, gave me the shudders. And I remembered thinking that I would never see the wall, other than in pictures, and I was envious of my parents who had visited and touched its stones.

I remembered my eagerness to hear every bit of information possible about what was happening behind the ugly fence separating the west of the city and the east, about what was happening on the other side of the mysterious Mandelbaum Gate. I remembered the lecture given by an American visitor at Sokolov House in Tel Aviv one Friday, who told the crowd of his visit to Jordan, about the shattered Jewish gravestones on the Mount of Olives and the decrepit state of the Western Wall, and I recalled my anger at the diminutive king who was violating the ceasefire agreement with us. Suddenly, it was possible to go there.

When the war ended, we arrived at a Jordanian army encampment near Ramallah. We had mixed feelings upon entering the camp. Pictures of King Hussein, in his army uniform, were scattered on the ground. In the soldiers' quarters were half-finished meals; apparently the soldiers had received news of the Israel Defense Forces' imminent approach and had fled eastward. There was no water at the camp. The little water we had was delivered by a mobile water tanker. Our real dream was to shower and shave for the first time in a month. Our company was ordered onto a khaki-colored bus to go to a military base in Jerusalem, so we could shower in cold water with laundry soap, before returning to the Jordanian encampment.

On the way back to the encampment, we told the driver we wanted to stop at the Western Wall. He said he had orders to return us without delay. We managed to convince him, and he drove us to the wall. I had no idea where the plaza had come from. How had the Moroccan Quarter disappeared?

But the stones were so thrilling that the question was forgotten. As rational and anti-fascist as we were, we nevertheless wept at the sight of the stones.

The unification of Jerusalem was, for us, different from the Qalandiya and Shuafat refugee camps. It was not about the Palestinian neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, nor was it about Al-Aqsa mosque nor the 28 Arab villages annexed in those euphoric days. It was about the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter. Still today, this symbolizes the reunification of Jerusalem for me.