45 years after the 1967 war: How the Arabs lost Jerusalem


This past June marked the 45th anniversary of the Arab defeat of the 1967 war. War is normally measured by its final outcome, but many individual heroes faithfully gave up their lives for the Arab side, defending the honor of their nations. The actions of those men deserve to be highlighted and explained, especially the contributions of the Pakistani pilot Saiful Azam and the brave Jordanian soldiers of the battle of Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem.

At 12:48 p.m. on June 5, four Israeli jets were descending on Jordan’s Mafraq air base to smash the country’s tiny air force, shortly after the entire Egyptian air force had been reduced to rubble.

To intercept the incoming attack, Jordanian air force commanders deputized Flt. Lt. Saiful Azam, who was on loan as an advisor from Pakistan. Once airborne with other Jordanian pilots, Saiful Azam engaged the attacking aircrafts in an air-to-air combat, shooting down a Mystére commanded by Israeli pilot H. Boleh and shot and damaging another that crash-landed in Israeli territory.

Two days later he was urgently dispatched to Iraq along with several Jordanian pilots to defend the Iraqi air bases against the Israeli air force which by then had ruled without any challenge the Arab skies over Egypt, Syria, Jordan and now Iraq. Here, he again was deputized by the Iraqi air force, along with top Jordanian pilot Ihsan Shurdom, who later became the commander of Jordanian air force, to fly its Hunters in defense of its H-3 and al-Walid air bases. Once airborne the Jordanian and Iraqi pilots with Saiful Azam leading the formation intercepted the attacking Israeli aircrafts that ended up of the shooting down two of Azam’s Iraqi wingmen by the attacking Israelis. It was then when Saiful Azam used his air combat skills flying the Iraqi Hunter shot down two of the Israeli attacking planes.

Within 72 hours, Saiful Azam became the only fighter-pilot in the world to hold the record of shooting down three confirmed kills of Israeli aircrafts in air-to-air combat, a record that still stands today.

His other records included being the only fighter pilot to fly in three air forces ─ Pakistani, Jordanian, and Iraqi. Adding to his record, was his downing of an Indian Gnat aircraft during the Pakistani war with India in 1965, making him yet again the only pilot to shoot down three kinds of military aircrafts in two different air forces.

Azam was honored and awarded medals in Iraq and Jordan for his heroics but despite his remarkable military achievements and services in the Arab world, he remains unknown to the Arab public and very little is written about him in Arabic. A retired colonel in the Jordanian air force told me that “very few people know about Azam’s services outside the air force.” Azam then moved to Bangladesh after it became an independent country and served in its air force until his retirement.

All told, Pakistani Air Force pilots, in addition to Saiful Azam serving in Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and Syria, in 1967 war, downed as many as 10 Israeli aircrafts without losing a single pilot or a single aircraft. Pakistan, moreover, provided the Arab states with numerous military advisors and pilots who also served in 1973 war with remarkable achievements. The Pakistani military also provided critical military restructuring and reevaluation especially to Jordan after the 1967 war.
It is rather strange that the Pakistani contribution to Arab militaries is never mentioned in Arab culture let alone in official Arab histories of the war. Pakistan had a contingent of at least 16 pilots who served as volunteers in Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Iraq in1967 and 1973 wars.

Pakistani air force states that all its volunteer pilots scored direct hits against Israeli aircrafts and suffered no losses. During the 1973 war, for example Flt. Lt. A. Sattar Alvi became the first Pakistani pilot, flying a Syrian aircraft to shoot down an Israeli Mirage in air combat. Similarly and on the Egyptian front, PAF pilot Flt. Lt. M. Hatif , flying an Egyptian MiG-21 shot down an Israeli F-4 phantom in an air combat. Pakistani Air Force did not lose a single pilot or aircraft in any of the wars.

The Battle of the Ammunition Hill

The battle of the Ammunition Hill was one of many close encounter battles between the Jordanian Arab Army and the Israeli army. The ammunition hill in the Shaykh Jarrah area was a military post built by the British in 1930s in the northern part of Arab East Jerusalem. It was where they stored ammunition for the police academy west of it, and was connected by a series of trenches and Bunkers. The Jordanian-controlled hill was situated between Jewish-controlled West Jerusalem and Mount Scopus where the Hebrew University is located which remained as an Israeli enclave inside Arab-held territories after 1948 war.

Capturing the hill, however, was part of multi-prong Israeli offensive along the Green Line that separated East and West Jerusalem with the aim of capturing the Old City. Although this was not an official Israeli political objective, from the outset, as Israeli archives and documents show, at least from the perspective of then Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. It was however, the objective of hawkish defense minister Moshe Dayan and Gen. Uzi Narkiss, the head of Israeli Central Command. Both men viewed Eshkol as a weak politician and in capturing the Muslim Old City; they hoped to achieve historic immortality as far as Jewish history is concerned.

But in the 19 years since the 1948 war, the Jordanian army had fortified this area with a labyrinth of winding concrete bunkers and trenches with camouflaged gun placements that covered the entire underground trench systems. This was done using British style all around 360 degrees defensive strategy.

The overall defense of Jerusalem was assigned to 27th Brigade, which was made up of three Regiments, headed by Brigadier Ali Ata al Hazza with the total combat troop strength of 1,500 men.

On the Israeli side, leading the assault on Jerusalem was the responsibility of Central Command headed by Major-General Narkiss with the preplanned deployment that called for cutting off Jerusalem from the bulk of the Jordanian army in the West Bank should Jordan enter the war.

The Israeli forces were much more organized and bigger than the Jordanian defenders, who, despite having fortified positions to defend, did not have the dynamism and the quality of the Israeli officer corps which had at its disposal tanks, artillery units and airborne paratroopers. But the most important advantage the Israelis held was their training to think independently under fire and to counter-attack their adversaries. This was a quality many Jordanian tactical officers did not have at that time, for many different reasons, with the exception of Lt. Colonel Rakan Inad al Jazi. Al Jazi’s performance in battle as the commander of the 40th armored brigade proved to be equal if not better than his Israeli enemies and who essentially saved the Jordanian army’s honor in tank battles around Jenin in northern West Bank.

At 11:00 a.m., Monday June 5, the Israeli General Staff gave its order to commence its war in the West Bank by dispatching two separate brigades to occupy areas between Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the South and Jerusalem and Ramallah in the North. This strategy resulted in cutting off Jerusalem from the rest of Jordanian forces and its lines of communications between its south and north axis.

On June 5/6, the order was given to Colonel Motta “Mordechai” Gur and his 55th Paratroop Brigade, aided by a company of Sherman tanks and artillery units to attack the Jordanian positions in the Ammunition Hill.

So at 2:00 a.m. on June 6 and according to plan, Israeli troops, unleashed a barrage of heavy artillery and tank fire on the fortified Jordanian positions with the intention of softening them up before the main assault takes place. At this time, however, Gur and Narkiss made the contentious decision to air drop the 55th Paratroopers west of the hill at Sheikh Jarrah soccer field with the aim of advancing them on hill, without air support. This is while other troops were fighting their way up from the east. This decision to air-drop the 55th paratroops by exposing them to a direct Jordanian hail of fire is still an emotional and controversial issue today among those who fought in that battle.

Facing off this Israeli assault was the al Hussein Second Regiment led by Staff Major Mansour Krishan of Ma’an. Krishan assigned his three battalions that made up his 2nd regiment to different areas in Jerusalem. Defending the hill was the Third Battalion commanded by Major Mansour Salem Salaytah of Madaba, Hamoud abu Qaoud and Nabih al Sehiemat of the First and Second battalions were tasked to defend neighboring positions south of the hill at Mandelbaum Gate check point and further down the Green Line.

While attacking forces were pounding the Jordanian positions with relentless artillery from different directions, the Paratroopers mounted a direct frontal assault on the hapless defenders, as they navigated through mine fields and concertina barbed wires. Simultaneously, Abu Qaoud, and Sehiemat battalions were being pushed back by the thrust of the Israeli attacks on their positions, forcing elements of their units to regroup with the defenders of the hill thus beefing up its defenders.

From their positions, Salaytah’s Third Battalion fought back with artillery and mortar fire hitting their targets with superior marksmanship and accurate fire inflicting heavy losses on their assailants. Salaytah’s men fought back with exceptional bravery and determination refusing to give up one inch of their positions knowing that this was their last stand and surrendering was not an option.

Israeli troops, meanwhile, kept up their pressure and were no less brave and determined in their attacks than the defenders in a battle that carried so much personal emotions as well as religious and national significance for both attackers and defenders.

It wasn’t before long, Israeli soldiers started reaching the hill at its southern base and worked their way up to the main trench system. There, the battle was at its fiercest in hand-to-hand combat that was fought from trench to trench, and bunker to bunker between die-hard defenders and determined attackers.

But, while the Israelis were closing in on their positions bloodied as they crept up inch by inch, the Jordanian units were unable to regroup to mount a counterattack against their assailants once they changed their positions and started climbing up the hill. The Jordanians, instead, stuck to their positions and defended them without considering shifting their strategy or counter attack the Israeli troops until it was too late.

Adding to their plight, Jordanian General Command in Amman was unable to send help to the defenders of Jerusalem on time due to the chaos that engulfed the Jordanian command after they mistakenly dispatched their two best and only armored brigades, the 60th south from Jericho to Hebron to meet with the supposed “victorious” Egyptian forces, while the 40th was repositioned from the Jordanian valley at Damia bridge to Jericho.

Brigadier Ata Ali, the man responsible for the defense of Jerusalem telephoned King Hussein pleading for more troops, and he promised him that. Although King Hussein kept his promise the Jordanian situation, however, especially in Jerusalem, was doomed even before the start of the war.

By dawn on June 6, it was all over. The Israelis managed to overrun the defenders in one of the bloodiest battles of the entire war. Israel’s forces lost 50 members while 150 were wounded, whereas the Jordanian suffered 106 dead and 110 wounded, according to Col. Trevor Dupuy’s book, Elusive Victory. For every two Jordanians killed, one Israeli soldier was killed. This was remarkable compared to the overall average of the war of over 23 Jordanians to 1 Israeli. Unlike their Israeli attackers who were honored with a memorial site at the battle ground and a museum and a yearly commemoration by their government, the Jordanians soldiers who fought and died in this battle have long been forgotten in Jordan. It is a shame that their sacrifices were never remembered or commemorated by either the Jordanian military or government or even the Jordanian public.

There is little agreement on precise casualty numbers, but by drawing on numerous written accounts, I estimate some 800 Israelis and over 20,000 Arabs were killed in all battles during the war, a ratio of 30 Arab soldiers to 1 Israeli.

Complicating the plight of the doomed Jordanian defenders, however, were several factors that had to do with the structure of the Jordanian army during the war and the strategy of the war itself. Going to war, Jordan had its forces structured into Brigades as its highest formation, as opposed to Division. Fearing giving too much power to possible Division Commanders, King Hussein opted for a brigade structure, because during the 1950s and the 1960s Baathist and Nasserite Jordanian army officers were notorious for their plots to overthrow him. After the war, Jordan restructured its army into divisional strength formations with the help of Pakistan that proved vital in its superior performance and victory a year later against the Israelis in the battle of Karamah.

Furthermore, the Jordanian infantry Brigade strength had only 1,500 combat troops, aside from its support and supplies units. On the other hand, the Israeli Infantry Brigades strength had between 4,000-5,000 combat troops. Jordanian planners wrongly assumed that an Israeli infantry brigade was, numerically, the same as theirs. This was a major planning error that was confirmed to me by Lieutenant Colonel (ret.) Jamil al Qadi who served as a political and Public Affairs officer in the Jordanian armed forces.

But even with more troops, the Jordanian army would not have been able to stop the Israelis from occupying the West Bank. This because, among other factors, Jordanian defenders often stuck in their positions unable to counter attack the Israeli forces whose formations had different support units in terms of armors and paratroops. This also explains why the defenders of the Hill remained stationery in their positions bravely and frantically defending them until the last man and the last bullet while the Israeli attackers were swarming all round them.

Jordanian strategy in the West Bank, moreover, was defensive. Going to war, Western and Israeli historic documents later showed that Jordan was hoping to just survive it and come out intact. Jordanian General Staff recognized rather correctly that the Jordanian army of around 45,000 would not be able to hold the entire area of the West Bank. As a result, the operational strategy was to capture West Jerusalem from Israel then eventually trade it off with Israeli-captured West Bank territories. It was a fatal and historic error that had its genesis in the inter-Arab fighting and the inherent weakness of Jordan and King Hussein.

This was coupled with the Egyptian leader Nasser and his staff shameless lies that cost the Arabs the West Bank and Jerusalem as I explained in the column “45 years after the 1967 War: The road to defeat.” Recognizing his moral responsibility for this defeat, Nasser had promised King Hussein that the Egyptian priority and strategy going forward should be to regain the West Bank and Jerusalem (by war or peace) not the Sinai. A priority, his successor Anwar Sadat did not care too much about and in fact deliberately worked to undermine.

Jordanian military intelligence meanwhile had very poor intelligence on the Israeli operational plans and strengths, a fact that was later admitted by King Hussein. Compounding these fatal shortcomings was the absence of Jordanian Central Command for Jerusalem that would have organized the defense of the city by covering its outer flanks.

Although the Jordanian General Staff had correctly anticipated the general outline of the Israeli attack on the West Bank, and therefore planned their counter strategy code named Operation Tariq, they neglected to build fixed fortifications to counter the main axes of the advancing Israeli attackers despite having 19 years to plan that.

On a deeper level, the overall performance of the Jordanian army that fought the war in 1967 was substandard in comparison to its performance in 1948. The Jordanian army fought the war in utter confusion and in fog without proper communications or planning between its different units.

This was one of the consequences of King Hussein’s decision, under pressure from his Baathist and Nasserite officers, to fire the British officers headed by Glubb Pasha in 1956, a strategic mistake that later proved fatal. On the tactical level, the overall performance of the army generalship was dismal with the exception of the 40th Armored Brigade under the command of Lt. Colonel al Jazi.

Al Jazi was a rare breed of Jordanian Bedouin officers whose performance was exceptional and unparalleled in the Jordanian army tactical performance during the war. Al Jazi was a graduate of the Sandhurst British Military Academy class of 1949, the first class Jordanian army officers to be sent to Sandhurst by Glubb Pasha.

Al Jazi who graduated first in his class, registered his skills during the armor battle in the Dotan valley leading up to the northern city of Jenin and at the battle at Qabatya crossroads where he attacked, countered attacked, maneuvered his forces and split them when it needed to encircle Israeli units.

Although he retired in 1974 as a brigadier general he did not write his memoirs on the war, and died on the twenty-fourth anniversary of the war in June of 1991.

His son Mohammad Rakan al Jazi told me that the reasons for his late father’s refusal to write his memoirs on those fateful events were that “too many people would be upset by it.” As stated by his late father.

Sami al Qadi, a Captain serving as Tank Battalion commander under al Jazi, recalled these battles with vivid and saddened memory. During one of their planned withdrawals from their positions, in the Jenin area, Qadi told me how he ordered his tanks on the move in a planned withdrawal. One of his tank gunners however, refused his order to move his tank. He was a Bedouin from the Nuaimat tribe in the northern city of Mafraq. Qadi then radioed in and ordered his gunner to step out of the tank and come forward.

Corporal Hussein Saad al Nuaimi stepped out of his tank and approached his commander. The following exchange took place between the two men.

“Why did you refuse my order to move your tank?”

“But you sir, who lead us in prayers every day, reading to us from the Quran always told us to never turn your back [on the enemy].”

“Only when ordered by your commander and for military reasons the Quran says.”

Nuaimi then answered with his thick Bedouin accent: “and Jerusalem?”

Corporal Hussein al Nuaimi was later killed in battle on the same day. His story represents the feelings and the heavy emotional and religious burden of the Jordanian soldiers who fought, lived and died in defense of Jerusalem. Although they were failed by reasons beyond their control, those soldiers did not hesitate for one minute to give up their lives for their mission, their faith, and their Jerusalem.

The writer can be reached at: [email protected] and @clearali.