As a correspondent for the Baltimore Sun during the 1967 Six-Day War, I found myself in the Old City of Jerusalem two days after it was captured by Israeli forces from Jordan.
On June 5, 1967, Israel attacked Egypt in a pre-emptive strike following Egypt’s threats and blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba, Israel’s only access to the Red Sea. In response, Jordan, Syria and Iraq joined Egypt. The combined armies were defeated, turning a page in Israel’s life as a young country and bringing more than a million Palestinians in the occupied territories under its rule.
“Can you take me to the Western Wall?” I asked a teenage Palestinian boy standing at the Damascus Gate entrance to the Old City. He guided me through the labyrinth of cobblestone streets where the wondrous smells of the Arab souk lingered, but where every shop was closed.
Finally, down steps was a narrow alley in front of the Western Wall. Dust-covered paratroopers were kneeling, praying and crying, some singing the “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, next to bearded Hasidic Jews dancing in black coats and hats. For 19 years, Jordan’s occupation had prevented Jews from praying at this sacred place.
I turned to the boy and offered to pay him for guiding me.
“You are a Jew?” he asked.
“I don’t want anything,” he said kindly.
“Was anyone hurt in your family?” I asked.
“Three brothers were badly hurt. A shell landed near my house in East Jerusalem. They were outside playing.”
An Israeli soldier approached us. “You’d better leave,” he said.
“Why?” I asked him.
“Because you’re with me,” said the boy. “They don’t want me here.”
I couldn’t help but recall Defense Minister Moshe Dayan’s words: “We did not come to Jerusalem to conquer the Holy Places of others . . . but in order to safeguard its entirety, and to live there together with others in unity.”
A few days later, I traveled north to Kibbutz Dan near the Syrian border. The Syrians had shelled the kibbutz, forcing the children and women to stay in cramped underground shelters for five days. Old men and youths, not quite old enough to be in the army, successfully fought the attacks. Despite damage to livestock, crops and buildings, only two people were slightly injured. A teenager repairing a barn told me, “I will never leave. This is my home.”
Traveling through the Sinai Desert on the way to the Suez Canal, I saw the remains of war: bloated Egyptian corpses, abandoned uniforms and shoes, destroyed tanks.
A boatman was ferrying released prisoners across the canal. On the far side were peaceful gardens of bougainvillea. On my side were burned Egyptian army trucks.
Leaving the pack of journalists who preferred to interview an Israeli colonel, I encountered a group of barefooted, Egyptian children.
“Where are you going?” I asked. A girl about 8 years old answered in broken English, “To find food.”
“Why did you stay during the war?”
“My home is here.”
A passing Israeli soldier had candy bars and cans of food. He gave some to the children.
When I recall the Six-Day War, I think of the children.
In the Middle East, past is present. The future belongs to the children. We ignore them at our peril. Without dialogue and without peace, future generations will experience hostilities for another 50 years.
Shimon Peres, a founding father of Israel, poignantly proposed that nations “should dream together for a Middle East in which all the countries are willing to exchange the dispute of the parents with peace for their children.”
John S. Friedman is an associate professor of media and communications at SUNY Old Westbury.