The long lines of silent young men moved single-file through the blacked-out streets, illumined only by flashes exploding in the approaching distance. Not even the outlines of houses were visible, as if the city of white stone had been reabsorbed by the hills. It was a cool June night in Jerusalem, but many of the men were sweating. Their uniforms were olive green or camouflage-patterned, US Army surplus more suitable for the jungles of Vietnam than for urban warfare. Most of the men were in their twenties, reservists abruptly extracted from university or from farms. For most this would be their first war. They were entering battle already exhausted: many had stayed awake through the night before, too anxious for sleep.
It was just past midnight, and the men of the 55th Paratroopers Reserve Brigade were heading toward no-man’s-land, the swath of barbed wire and minefields and trenches dividing Jordanian-held East Jerusalem from Israeli-held West Jerusalem. That morning the Israeli air force had launched a preemptive strike against Egypt, whose leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, had moved his army to the Israeli border, blockaded Israel’s southern shipping route, and threatened the imminent destruction of the Jewish state. The Jordanian army had opened a second front in Jerusalem, shelling Jewish neighborhoods and hitting hundreds of apartments. Most residents were in shelters, all lights extinguished. Every so often a jeep or ambulance raced, without headlights, through the empty streets.
Lieutenant Avital Geva, twenty-six-year-old deputy commander of Company D, 28th Battalion, walked at the head of his men. He squinted into the darkness and saw nothing, not even shadows. Avital left the front of the line and walked alongside the men. “Spread out, guys,” he urged quietly, “spread out.”
Nearby, on a fourth-floor rooftop, Major Arik Achmon, chief intelligence officer of the 55th Brigade, was on the radio with the central front command near Tel Aviv, seeking information on the Jordanian troops barely a kilometer away. Headquarters didn’t seem to know much more than he did. Until the night before, the brigade’s battle plans had focused on a parachute jump into the Sinai Desert, and Arik had organized the necessary intelligence. But then, when the Jordanians began shelling Israel’s capital, the men of the 55th were hastily dispatched onto requisitioned tourist buses and driven to Jerusalem.
A shell crashed into the facade of the building. Arik was covered with the dust of shattered bricks. “Helmets!” shouted Colonel Motta Gur, commander of the 55th Brigade. Arik checked himself: steady, as always.
The paratroopers filled the side streets that ended in no-man’s-land. Sandbags were piled before little stone houses with corrugated roofs. Flares formed red-and-white arcs, exposing the paratroopers, flashes of silhouettes.
“Medic!” Dozens lay bleeding. Avital Geva rushed through the darkness, shouting people’s names.
A flash. Avital fell. “My face!” he screamed. “My face!” Someone laid him on a car, pointed a flashlight at his face. Covered with blood. Gasping, conscious, he was carried into a jeep, which sped through the exploding streets.
Corporal Yoel Bin-Nun, bearing on his back his unit’s communications box, ran through the blacked-out streets. In civilian life he was a yeshiva student and knew these Orthodox streets; now, though, he was totally disoriented. He was trying to find the men of the 71st Battalion, who were scheduled to be the first of the brigade’s three battalions to cross into no-man’s-land. They would be followed by the men of Yoel’s battalion, the 28th. And it was Yoel’s assignment to follow the 71st to the crossing area, radio his battalion, and then point a flashlight, guiding his fellow soldiers into East Jerusalem. But where was the 71st?
02:15. Israeli sappers cut an opening in the first line of barbed wire. Bangalores-long metal tubes filled with explosives-were extended through the opening and detonated, creating a narrow scorched path in the minefield.
Yoel Bin-Nun found the crossing point. Crouching, he aimed his flashlight toward the men behind him and repeated, “Pirtza pirtza pirtza”- breach breach breach.
-Yossi Klein Halevi
Excerpt reprinted by permission of the publisher