From the time of King David, Jerusalem has been the political and religious focus of the Jewish people. After the Jews were exiled from their land, Jerusalem became a primarily religious symbol, and yearning for the city was expressed in prayers throughout the world. The phrase 'for the law shall go forth from Zion' reflected the importance of Jerusalem as the spiritual heart of the Jewish people. However, the city was also of major national significance, since it was believed that the Messiah would emerge from there. With the rise of Zionism and the return to the homeland, Jerusalem once again became a national and political symbol.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the 19,000 Jews living in the Old City comprised the majority of the population there. This was too large a number to be comfortably housed in the limited area available in the Old City and construction began of dwellings outside the walls. Thus, while the number of Jews in Jerusalem as a whole increased, the Jewish population of the Old City dwindled. The exodus began at the turn of the twentieth century and continued until the 1948 war. In 1880 there were 19,000 Jews in the Old City and only 2,000 outside the walls. Iמ 1931 the number of Jewish residents of the Old City had dropped to 5,500 with 48,500 in the New City. By the outbreak of the War of Independence, the number of Jews in the Old City did not exceed 2,000. Those who were able to do so moved out, leaving behind the poor and those in need of financial support from the residents of the New City (See table).

At the turn of the century, the Jewish Quarter of the Old City covered 120 dunams, but by 1948 it had shrunk to half that size.

The revival of Zionism brought religious immigrants to Jerusalem, while secular immigrants generally preferred the agricultural sector. The Second Aliyah pioneers were ambivalent about Jerusalem: on the one hand, it symbolized the Kingdom of Israel in the days of David and Solomon, an era in which the Jews had been sovereign rulers of their land; on the other, the socialist pioneers despised the 'Old Yishuv' in Jerusalem and wanted to create a new type of Jew, who worked on the land. When, for example, the Jewish National Fund was faced with the choice of buying a large plot of land in Jerusalem or in the Jezreel Valley, it opted for the latter.

Changes in the Jewish population
inside and outside the Old City of Jerusalem

Year 18801900191019311948

Old City 19,000 15,00016,0005,5002,000
New City 2,000 16,00029,00048,50098,000
Total Jews in Jerusalem 17,000 35,00045,00054,000100,000

Berl Katznelson, the leader of the Labor Party, paid his first visit to Jerusalem only nine years after coming to Palestine. Amos Elon, in his book, 'Jerusalem: City Of Mirrors, writes: 2
David Ben-Gurion, the future Prime Minister, who arrived in Palestine in 1906 and during the next decade thoroughly explored the entire country, from Galilee to the south, mostly on foot, seems to have avoided Jerusalem almost deliberately. In his diaries and letters, so rich in impressions of other sites, there is hardly a word about Jerusalem. Like most pioneers of his generation, Ben-Gurion was more interested in building a new socialist society of free men and women than in national icons and religious relics.
The Zionist pioneers, writes Anita Shapira, a leading historian of the period, regarded sentiments for Jerusalem as simply 'reactionary.' The Irgun, on the other hand, was profoundly attached to Jerusalem, and perceived it as the heart of the country and the people, with the Old City as its core. During the 1936-1939 riots, the Irgun established the 'Wall squadrons' which defended the Jewish Quarter against Arab rioters and enabled prayers to proceed at the Western wall. The national poet, Uri Zvi Greenberg, wrote in the squadrons' logbook: "Those who rule the Old City, will rule the entire country."

According to the UN resolution of November 29, 1947, Jerusalem was to be a corpus separatum under a special international regime. As fighting erupted in the first few months of 1948, doubts were raised as to the ability of the UN to enforce the internationalization of Jerusalem and the need arose to reinforce the city's defenses to enable it to withstand Arab onslaughts. A different view was taken of the Old City. The leaders of the Yishuv deluded themselves into thinking that there would be no fighting there on account of the unique religious standing of ancient Jerusalem, containing sites sacred to three world religions. They hoped the UN would succeed in implementing an armistice in Jerusalem if only to prevent harm to the Holy Places. In order to avoid provocation, the defenders of the Jewish Quarter were given strict orders not to open fire except in life-threatening situations. These orders aside, all military moves in the Old City were colored by the belief that there would be no fighting there. This conception proved catastrophic for the Jewish Quarter, but the Zionist leadership adhered to it despite repeated attacks on the inhabitants living there.

On December 3, 1947, a bus en route to the Quarter was attacked at Jaffa Gate. One Jew was killed and eight were injured. The first shots were fired at the Quarter on the same day.

The fighting force in the Jewish Quarter at the time was tiny and in urgent need of reinforcements. In discussions with Raanan, Irgun Commander in Jerusalem, it was decided that one of the units of my company would be sent to the Old City. The choice fell on the unit commanded by Amnon (Yoel Friedler), who had recently arrived in Jerusalem from Givatayim. I had known Amnon in Ramat Gan, where we had both attended an officers' course and been assigned to operations aimed at blowing up bridges and railway lines. When I was wounded, it was Amnon who half-carried me on the long and difficult trek from Ashdod to Bat Yam.

On December 10 Amnon set out with his unit for the Old City, and was appointed Irgun Commander of the Jewish Quarter. At the same time, the Haganah dispatched a two-platoon-size force to the Quarter, commanded by Yisrael Funt.

The day after reinforcements reached the Old City, the fighters underwent their baptism of fire. In the morning hours, the Arabs tried to break into the Quarter under cover of light weapons fire. The defenders took up their positions and repelled the attack. The exchange of fire lasted some 7 hours, and the onslaught ended only after the Arab commander was killed. Two Jews were also killed and one injured.

After the battle between the Arabs and the Jews, the British authorities decided to send a military force into the Old City. Two platoons of British troops were deployed between the Jews and the Arabs, in the process of which some Jewish positions were seized, a search conducted, weapons confiscated and 15 fighters arrested (they were released several days later after the intervention of the Jewish Agency).

The British army warned that it would use force against the side, which opened fire. However, this 'neutrality' proved very one-sided, and action was taken mostly against the Jewish defenders. Searches were conducted in the Jewish Quarter and weapons confiscated, whilst the Arabs were allowed to move around openly armed. It is difficult to say why the Jews were harassed and the Arabs left alone, but a likely reason is the deep resentment the British felt towards the Jews stemming from the activities of the Jewish underground.

Convoys, which initially entered through Jaffa Gate, established contact with the Jewish Quarter of the Old City but as Arab onslaughts increased they began to use Zion Gate instead (a less dangerous route, since it did not traverse Arab neighborhoods). After the British entered the Old City, they undertook to escort the convoys, but prevented the transfer of arms and fighters to the Jewish Quarter. (The Arabs were not stopped from bringing weapons and troops into the City). Whilst it would have been possible to smuggle in young people in the guise of teachers or social workers, the Haganah chose not to exploit this tactic, nor the smuggle in military equipment

The British were anxious to reduce the Jewish force in the Old City. They carried out arrests from time to time, and scrupulously checked the identity of detainees. Those who were identified as permanent residents of the Quarter were released, while those who had come in from the New City were expelled. Eventually the British arrested Amnon, together with Yehuda (Yitzhak Aharonov), who was a resident of the Quarter. Yehuda claimed that he and Amnon were brothers, but the British were not easily persuaded and kept them both under arrest until the matter was clarified. When word of Amnon's arrest got out, a replacement, Gideon (Isser Nathanson), was sent to command the Quarter.

Gideon did not enter the Old City in the usual weekly convoy organized by the Jewish Agency and escorted by the British army. Through the good offices of Romek, a Lehi member with extensive contacts among the British, one of the British officers was bribed twenty Palestinian pounds to smuggle Gideon into the Quarter in a British armored car. A well-wrapped parcel, containing a submachine-gun and several revolvers, was hidden in the same armored car.

Several days after Gideon's arrival, the British were finally persuaded that Amnon and Yehuda were brothers and released them both.

The calm in the Old City was short-lived; in January 1948 Arabs attacked the Warsaw buildings and blew up the Jewish military post located there. The British watched from the sidelines and remained 'neutral'.

Several days later, a Jewish convoy was attacked en route from the Dead Sea to Jerusalem. The defenders of the Jewish Quarter, who were then in the 'Matzot' post saw what was happening and opened fire on the attackers. The British response was to confiscate all the weapons they found there before blowing the post up. This was the first case of the British attacking and destroying a Jewish position, and it indicated to the Arabs that they could attack the Jews with impunity. Not long afterwards they did precisely this during the evacuation of the Old Bikur Holim hospital.

At the time when the Old City had a large Jewish population and covered a large area, the Old Bikur Holim Hospital was located inside the Jewish Quarter. As Jews started to move out, the Quarter shrank and the hospital found itself outside the area encompassed by the Jewish Quarter. Access could be gained only through an area inhabited by Arabs and transportation of hospital workers became increasingly difficult. The Haganah command decided therefore to evacuate the building and to transfer its patients to the Jewish Quarter. The evacuation was planned for January 20, 1948, and the British undertook responsibility for security. A group of fighters, including several from the Irgun, set out to supervise the transfer, but the presence of British soldiers meant that they were unarmed. Suddenly an armed Arab opened fire on the Jews, while the British soldiers looked on passively. Four men were injured, including Amnon. Three of the wounded managed to reach safety, but Amnon was left lying on the ground. By the time the British took him to hospital, he had already lost a great deal of blood and died several hours later. I had lost a cherished friend and comrade.

The day after Amnon's death, I paid a condolence visit to his sister in the Shaarei Hessed Quarter. It was a cold, rainy night and as I was leaving the house by the outside staircase, I slipped and fell onto my right arm. I spent a sleepless night and the next morning went to Dr. Troy (a well-known Jerusalem orthopedic surgeon, who treated wounded underground fighters), who diagnosed a fracture and placed my arm in a cast. I went back to my room and prepared to adjust to my new situation. I found a special way of dressing and undressing, but one task proved too much - tying shoelaces. Chaya, my landlady, saw me come in and offered her assistance without asking questions. Her husband, on the other hand, asked me in which military action I had been wounded. I told him the truth, but he remained unconvinced. I very soon discovered that nobody was ready to believe that an able-bodied young man could slip on stones on a wet Jerusalem night and crack his arm. I had no choice but to "admit" that I had been wounded in action.

No longer able to train my troops in weapon handling, I was assigned to administration and liaison work with our unit in the Old City, where Gideon was now established as Irgun commander. He was a battle veteran and an authoritative personality who inspired confidence and trust.

Malka Greenberg-Nathanson has described Isser's first day in the Old City: 3
On the morning of that day, I was sent by my mother to buy something in the store. As I left the house, I saw a man standing at the end of the alley - blond, blue-eyed, dressed in a suit and with a short, British-army haircut. I was sure he was an Englishman in civilian clothing, who had come to spy on the armed forces in the Quarter. I hastened to carry out my errand and ran to the Irgun headquarters to warn my friends about the 'Englishman' who was wandering around. To my amazement, I saw him sitting in the command room, and before I could say anything, one of the comrades introduced him: 'This is our new commanding officer'.
In the Old City, Gideon met Avraham Halperin, who had been appointed Haganah commander of the Jewish Quarter, having been district commander several years before. Halperin succeeded, by force of his personality, in winning the trust of all those around him. He introduced order and discipline into the Haganah units and even succeeded in organizing the somewhat problematic civilian population. After re-organizing the Haganah units, Halperin recruited a reserve force from the civilian population, and prepared the remainder for the imminent emergency situation. Displeased by his activities, the British expelled him from the Old City on March 3. Before leaving, he handed over command to Moshe Rosnak.

In the first months of 1948, there was friction in Palestine between the Irgun and the Haganah. It will be recalled that on the initiative of the Irgun, the two movements had negotiated possible collaboration. The discussions were drawn out, and only in April did the Zionist Executive ratify the agreement.

Even before ratification of the agreement on the national level, Gideon had done much to improve relations with the Haganah in the Old City. He realized that in order for the Quarter to withstand Arab attack, the full co-operation of all the Jewish forces there was vital. Initiating contact with Avraham Halperin, and afterwards with Moshe Rosnak, Gideon proposed an arrangement based on full collaboration between the two organizations - a collaboration that was put to the test very soon afterwards.

On January 25, five days after the murder of Amnon, the Arabs blew up the home of Yitzhak Orenstein, the rabbi of the Western Wall, who had been appointed by the Haganah to head the civilian sector of the Old City.

The Haganah fighters wanted to retaliate, but had no explosives. The Lehi, on the other hand, which had joined up with the Irgun, had an arsenal of several hunded addition, the Irgun used to nighttime forays into British army positions to dismantle mines, which had been laid in the area, removed the explosives from the mines and replaced them - empty.

On February 16, Haganah and Irgun fighters set out to blow up one of the Arab posts. Although not successful, the event signaled the first instance of co-operation between the Haganah and the Irgun.

The Irgun proposed that they work together to blow up the Arab market at the end of Rehov ha-Yehudim (The Street of the Jews) in the Old City.

Irgun headquarters had discovered a narrow sewage conduit leading from the Street of the Jews to the Arab market. The plan was to send one of the fighters to lay explosives at the end of the conduit under the market.

The scheme was agreed on by the Haganah command, and Irgun fighters began to dig under one of the stores to reach the sewage channel. Yehuda (Yitzhak Aharonov) then climbed down into the conduit and crawled to the spot where it connected with the Arab market. Returning from his reconnaissance tour, he was forcibly stripped and sent to shower, and then happily reported that it was possible to reach the target and to lay the explosive charges. The next day, armed with a bomb, he climbed down again. Unfortunately the sewage level had risen since the previous day, and the excrement filling the conduit prevented him from proceeding. He returned hastily and the scheme was called off.

A short while later, the sewage conduit was mined by sappers to prevent it being utilized by the Arabs.

April, a relatively quiet month, was exploited for training and briefings before the British departure from Jerusalem. That month several convoys entered the Old City, bringing food supplies, clothes and small quantities of light weapons and explosives. At the end of the month a new transmitter was brought in, enabling the Quarter to maintain contact with the New City throughout the fighting. In addition to the weapons smuggled in, the Quarter's residents bought submachine-guns and ammunition from the Arabs via Armenian agents, though insufficient to meet their needs. Weingarten, the local mukhtar, informed Haganah district HQ that additional weapons and fighters could be acquired through bribery. To demonstrate his point, his daughter Yehudit brought in a Lewis machine-gun and a small amount of ammunition, but his suggestion was not taken up.

Throughout April, negotiations were held between the Irgun and the Haganah in the Old City on a formal agreement between the two organisations. The Irgun agreed that its men would accept the authority of the Quarter HQ and serve under a Haganah commanding officer.

After the signing of the agreement, the 44 Irgun and Lehi fighters joined the 70 Haganah fighters to form the joint fighting force of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. The force was augmented during the fighting by both young and adult residents of the Quarter, who contributed significantly to its defence.

Once fighting broke out, the distinctions between the Haganah and Irgun were blurred. Gideon's authority as Irgun commander stemmed from his inspiring personality and courage.

In the second half of April 1948, discussions were held at the United Nations on a ceasefire in Jerusalem.

On April 28, Moshe Sharett (Shertok) sent a cable to Ben-Gurion from the United States, stating that a ceasefire agreement for the Old City had been agreed on at the UN: 4

On May 2, 1948, the Haganah ordered a ceasefire in the Old City, so as to enable the continuation of the negotiations at Lake Success, where the UN session was being held. The ceasefire lasted until the last British soldier had left the city.

In May, the population of the Jewish Quarter was some 1,700, comprising mostly the old, women and children. There were 110 fighters (some 40% of them from the Irgun and the rest from the Haganah) and some 50 service personnel recruited from the residents of the Quarter.

Weapons in the Old City on May 13, 1948 5

Rifles Stenguns Machineguns 2" Morters Total

17422 162

There were 300 bullets for each rifle, and 500 for each machine-gun. In addition, there were 374 hand-grenades, 126 assault grenades, and 200 kilograms of explosives (donated by the Lehi).

There were only enough weapons for about 60% of the fighters. Graver still was the shortage of heavy weapons, such as heavy machine-guns or a 3" mortar. There was also a total absence of anti-tank weapons. Before the British withdrawal, the Haganah commander of the Quarter appealed urgently for the immediate despatch of 50 trained, armed fighters. The request was turned down.

In addition to the shortage of fighters, weapons and ammunition, the presence of the civilian population was also a problem. In normal circumstances, the civilian population was evacuated when fighting became imminent - firstly to prevent non-combatant casualties and secondly to allow the fighters to concentrate solely on the task at hand.

However, whilst for example women and children were evacuated from the Etzion Bloc, no effort was made to evacuate them from the Old City. Indeed, they were actively prevented from leaving on their own initiative. As early as January, when the siege first began, Ben-Gurion instructed David Shaltiel to prevent the exodus of Jews from the Old City at all costs. Each time a convoy reached the Old City, the Haganah imposed a curfew on the Jewish Quarter, thus preventing residents from leaving for the New City. Despite these stringent precautions, several hundred Jews nonetheless succeeded in leaving the Old City by various means.

Operation Viper was planned for the day the Mandate ended in Jerusalem. Its main objective was to extend the area of the Jewish Quarter and to expand its defensive capabilities by seizing positions of strategic importance. It was planned under the stringent constraint of a ban on occupation of Arab-populated areas.

There were three stages to Operation Viper:
1. The seizing of British army positions evacuated when the British left Jerusalem (most of these positions had been in Jewish hands before the army entered the Old City).

2. The capture of key defense positions on the borders of the Quarter.

3. The blowing up of houses around the Quarter to create open terrain, thus hampering enemy efforts to occupy the Quarter.
When the British left the Old City, Shaltiel sent the following cable to the commanding officer of the Jewish Quarter: 6
Occupy the army positions, but do not shoot and do not be the first to open fire. The army positions, which are in the Jewish area, are undoubtedly ours by right. Observe the ceasefire rules since the continuation of convoys under Red Cross protection depends on this. For the time being you cannot have reinforcements of weapons and manpower. In all your actions, take the size of your strength into consideration. (Italics mine. Y.L.)
How could the commander of the Quarter execute the various stages of the operation when his hands were tied? He was not only banned from capturing Arab-populated areas, but also from opening fire. This in effect meant that Shaltiel sanctioned only the occupation of positions evacuated by the British.

On May 13, the British forces left the Old City. Before withdrawing, they handed over the internal key to Zion Gate to Weingarten and the outer key to the Arabs on Mount Zion. That afternoon, after the last British soldier had left the area, Jewish forces rallied for action and Operation Viper commenced. Initially, all the positions, which had been held by the British, were occupied without resistance. Then the Jewish forces took over Zion Gate and the Greek Church, known as the 'Crucifix Post', in the Armenian Quarter. The spire of this Greek Church rises above the buildings of the Armenian Quarter and overlooks most of the Jewish Quarter, Zion Gate and the road between the Quarter and Zion Gate. Whoever controlled the 'Crucifix post' thus also controlled the Jewish Quarter.

The first stage of Operation Viper was executed swiftly and without any clashes with Arab forces. (When the Arabs noticed unusual Jewish activity, they opened fire, but only in limited fashion, since the ceasefire was still in force).

The shooting stopped altogether at nightfall, when two representatives of the Truce Commission - one Jewish and the other Arab - entered the city. They had come to check the Arab complaint that the Jews had violated the ceasefire agreement. The Jewish representative took advantage of his meeting with the Quarter commander to inform him that the Jewish Agency did not think there would be any fighting in the Old City and was hoping to organize a convoy to the Quarter within a day or two.

While the two representatives were in the Old City, lengthy discussions were going on between the Jewish Quarter HQ and the Armenian Patriarch, who was demanding the evacuation of the forces occupying the Crucifix Post. He claimed that it was a holy place, and that he had guaranteed to preserve its neutral status. The Haganah Commander, Moshe Rosnak, objected strongly, since the Post was vital to the defence of the Quarter. The Patriarch then telephoned Shaltiel, who insisted that Rosnak evacuate the Post forthwith. Two days later, Rosnak's fears were confirmed when it was taken over by Arab forces.

Withdrawal from the Crucifix Post in fact sealed the fate of the Jewish Quarter.

On Friday, May 14, 1948, when the last British soldier had left Jerusalem, Operation Kilshon (Pitchfork) began. That same day, in the Tel Aviv Museum, Ben-Gurion proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel, and Arab armies invaded the country.

In the Armenian Quarter of the Old City, the Arabs fortified their positions and then opened fire on Zion Gate. The Jewish fighters were forced to abandon the gate, but managed to recapture it during the night.

Aside from this incident, May 14 was relatively quiet, with both sides occupied in organization and fortification.

The following day started out quietly, but within a few hours the Zion Gate position was attacked again, and abandoned for a second time. That afternoon, district headquarters sent word of the resumption of the ceasefire from 17:00 onwards, but the Arabs ignored the order.

Towards evening there was a change of direction in the fighting in the Old City. The Arabs launched a heavy bombardment on positions in the Quarter and blew up the Warsaw Buildings post. In retaliation, the defenders planned to blow up an Arab post, but district headquarters withheld permission. When the Arab bombardment grew more intense, Rosnak asked headquarters for assistance in the form of 3" mortar fire and received the following cable:7
In reply to the request for auxiliary fire for the Old City, in light of the negotiations now being conducted, your request cannot be granted for political reasons. Take action yourselves with what you have at your disposal.
From the evening of May 15, the ceasefire in the Old City ceased to exist.

On May 16, an all-out attack commenced on the Jewish Quarter. The fighters in the Quarter adopted a defensive stance as Arab forces occupied the entire Armenian Quarter and dug in at the Crucifix post. They were also forced to abandon their positions at Zion Gate and at the northwest Warsaw Post.

The Arabs then broke through the Armenian Quarter to Habad Street and from there tried to attack the Street of the Jews. Amidst an atmosphere of panic, civilians were evacuated to the subterranean Yohannan Ben Zakkai synagogue, where the rabbis, fearing a massacre like the one at the Etzion Bloc a few days earlier, demanded a surrender.

Amidst this commotion, the defenders prepared for action with two principle jails: to check the Arab advance and to stem the general panic among the civilians. The situation was tense for Quarter command, and desperate cables ensued from Rosnak to headquarters. One of them even made reference to the possibility of surrender. In order to reassure the defenders, Shaltiel announced that reinforcements for the Quarter were on their way.

When night fell, the shooting died down. The Arabs were busy looting and setting fire to the positions they had seized. During the night they abandoned the area they had occupied and withdrew to recuperate. The defenders exploited this strange behaviour to recapture most of the positions they had been forced to abandon.

The defenders suffered heavy losses on May 16: 3 dead and 18 wounded. There were also 21 civilian casualties.

The fiercest fighting, however, took place on May 17. In the morning hours, the Arabs warned residents that if they did not surrender by 10 am, the Quarter would be destroyed. At precisely that hour, a heavy bombardment began, followed by automatic weapon fire. The Arabs recaptured Habad Street, and continued to advance, but were checked at the Street of the Jews. They renewed their attack in the afternoon and by night, all the original positions in the western sector had fallen into enemy hands.

There was panic in the Jewish Quarter and within the civilian population there was a growing demand for surrender. More calls for help were despatched to the district headquarters, and assistance was promised.

When night fell, the shooting stopped, and the scenario of the previous day was repeated: after looting and burning positions, the Arabs withdrew from the area they had captured.

The defenders incurred 3 dead and 13 wounded that day. Among the wounded was Gideon, who had been shot in the arm while leading a counter-attack.

The number of defenders dwindled, and those who remained were exhausted and tense. That night they were able to recapture only a few of the positions abandoned by the Arabs.

At 05:30, the Quarter command received word by wireless that the Palmach had seized Mount Zion and that reinforcements would arrive shortly. The news spread like wildfire and the defenders prepared for the coming day.

May 18 was surprisingly quiet, with no attacks on Jewish positions. The Arabs had sustained heavy losses, particuarly from the heavy mortar shelling from the New City. In addition to that, Arab Legion forces, commanded by Abdullah el-Tel, had entered the Old City that day and instead of than entering the fray immediately, were busy undergoing reorganization and discussing tactics. They contented themselves with sporadic bursts of gunfire and sniping, and made no attempt to attack Jewish positions.

The Jewish total number of casualties was very high. More than half the fighters were hit and many of the wounded returned to their posts before recovering. The ammunition situation was equally bad. The 2" mortar shells had been used up on the first day of fighting and light ammunition was scarce - about 10 bullets for each rifle.

The only way of saving the Jewish Quarter was to break into the Old City.

As the supply of grenades dwindled, Gideon had the idea of manufacturing them in the Quarter itself. With the help of Lea Woltz and a group of teachers, under the expert guidance of Yehuda (Yitzhak Aharonov), this they only did. The teachers, 20 men and women, had arrived in the Quarter on the last convoy. A group of boys were dispatched to go from house to house collecting tin cans, which the teachers filled with nails and explosives to be detonated when needed. During the fighting in the Old City, the improvised arms factory produced more than two thousand five hundred grenades, thanks to which the defenders managed to hold out for considerably longer than anticipated.

On May 16, David Shaltiel finally realized that political efforts to achieve a ceasefire in the Old City were not going to work. The unshakeable conviction of the political leadership that there would be no fighting in the Old City had fostered complacency and proven manifestly wrong. Shaltiel's strict orders to the commander of the Quarter on the day of the British withdrawal not to shoot and not to be the first to open fire had prevented the fighters from improving their positions. His adamant refusal to send reinforcements to the Lehi in their attempt to break into the Old City through New Gate on May 14th further hampered the defence effort.

On May 17, Shaltiel asked the Commander of the Palmach Harel Brigade, Yitzhak Rabin, for aid in the assault on the Old City planned for that night. According to the plan, the main effort was to be concentrated in the direction of Jaffa Gate. The sappers would blow up the iron grid at the base of David's Tower, allowing the attackers to enter through that aperture. The task of the Palmach unit was to carry out diversionary action at Mount Zion, ideally leading to its capture.

The Palmach objected to Shaltiel's plan, arguing that a frontal attack on Jaffa Gate was doomed to failure. Instead, the Palmach proposed an outflanking movement from the north (similar to that carried out twenty years later in the Six Day War), but Shaltiel dismissed these suggestions.

After midnight, the main force set out from Tanus House towards Jaffa Gate. Four platoons were taking part - three from the Haganah and one from the Irgun. The three Haganah units were conveyed in three armored cars, and the Irgun unit remained behind as cover and in reserve. Two armored cars approached the Wall and opened fire, while the armored car carrying the sappers tried to approach its target. Arabs started firing at the vehicles and their bullets ripped through the tyres and penetrated the armor. They used mortars and machine-guns and the battlefield was transformed into a slaughterhouse. The attack had failed before it had begun. With the number of casualties at 30 (6 dead and 24 wounded), the operation was abandoned and withdrawal commenced.

Meanwhile, the Palmach carried out its mission to divert attention from the main action. Ironically enough, this action was successful and Mount Zion was captured.

On May 18, it was decided to take advantage of the Palmach's success and to try to break into the Old City through Zion Gate. Word was conveyed by wireless to the Quarter command, and the defenders began to make preparations to direct the Palmach fighters into the Quarter.

One section was concentrated near Zion Gate at Bader House , from which a strip of cloth was flown to indicate to the attackers that this was a Jewish post. A Bren gun was aimed at the Crucifix Post to silence it during the attack.

According to the eyewitness testimony of Palmach fighters, agreement had been reached with Shaltiel that immediately after the onslaught, the district headquarters would bring an infantry company into the Old City, and another unit would replace the Palmach fighters on Mount Zion. Correspondingly, a unit of 80 fighters reached Yemin Moshe that afternoon under the command of Mordechai Gazit. (According to Gazit, the unit was made up almost entirely of inexperience fighters).

Early that night a Palmach force, together with Gazit's unit, went up to Mount Zion loaded with military and medical equipment for the Quarter. After midnight, the Palmachniks launched a heavy Davidka8 bombardment and fired automatic weapons into the Zion Gate area. Sappers then blew up the gate and the Palmach unit moved into the Old City.

After an emotional greeting, the defenders of the Quarter explained to Raanana (Eliyahu Sela), commander of the Palmach attacking force, that it was vital to capture the strategically located Crucifix Post. Raanana sent six fighters on this mission, but they encountered fierce gunfire and retreated. The fact that the Crucifix Post remained in Arab hands meant that it was very difficult to hold on to Zion Gate. Immediately after the assault, Raanana told Gazit to enter the Old City so that the Palmach forces could move out. Gazit objected on two counts: firstly, he had received orders to hold on to Mount Zion: secondly, his men were not trained for the kind of fighting going on in the Jewish Quarter. In the end, Gazit agreed that his men would carry supplies into the Quarter, and would then return to Mount Zion. After successfully completing the mission, Gazit went to Quarter HQ and was ordered by Shaltiel to take over command of the whole force. The following morning he was severely wounded when shots were fired at him as he toured the positions, and command of the Quarter reverted to Moshe Rosnak.

On the morning of May 19, Uzi Narkis (commander of the Palmach force at Mount Zion) informed Shaltiel that the Palmach intended to withdraw from Zion Gate, and that Shaltiel should immediately despatch a unit to replace them. Shaltiel forbade Narkis to leave and the two men broke off all contact.

Narkis ignored Shaltiel's order and the Palmach unit abandoned Zion Gate and withdrew from Mount Zion. The Arabs promptly took over the gate, and lay siege to the Jewish Quarter once again.

The abandonment of Zion Gate can only be understood in light of the troubled relations between the Palmach and Shaltiel. The Palmach command was responsible for security along the road to Tel Aviv, and was not under the direct command of the Jerusalem District HQ. Moreover, the Palmach did not have a high opinion of Shaltiel's military acumen or strategy. Shaltiel, for his part, complained of the lack of discipline in the Palmach and the slapdash way in which it conducted its operation. This mutual lack of respect bordered on outright hostility.

Examination of the events from the assault to the withdrawal from Zion Gate clearly demonstrates that both the Palmach and Shaltiel acted with astounding irresponsibility. Exhausted as the Palmach fighters may have been, the decision of their Commanding Officer to withdraw from the gate, effectively abandoning the Jewish Quarter, was inexcusable. The fact that Shaltiel reneged on his commitment to send a replacement force clearly did not help matters, but in no way does it justify the Palmach response.

Nor did the Palmach's action justify Shaltiel's conduct. As Commander of Jerusalem District, responsible for the welfare of the residents of the Jewish Quarter, it was his duty to ensure that Zion Gate remained in Jewish hands. That he chose to play power games with the Palmach instead of despatching a company of fighters to Mount Zion to maintain contact with the Jewish Quarter is inexcusable. His claim that there was no force available has been widely refuted. First, there was an Irgun platoon at Yemin Moshe, which had been brought in to reinforce the Palmach in the battle for the Old City. Zion Eldad, District Operations Officer, later stated that if Shaltiel had approached him, he would have had no problem in sending a unit of fighters to Mount Zion. Eldad claims he knew nothing of the argument between Narkis and Shaltiel, and had been unaware of the need for a unit to take over from the Palmach at Zion Gate.9

After the Palmach attack, did Leon Cohen (of the Jewish Agency Political Department) send the Chairman of the Truce Commission the following message. 10

Last night our forces entered the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. The objective was to alleviate the situation of the Jews in the Quarter and establish contact with them.
The Jewish forces have no intention of continuing their attack within the Old City and we therefore request the resumption of the ceasefire in the Old City.
The same day Cohen sent the following cable to Ben-Gurion: 11
This morning we met with the Belgian Consul [Chairman of the Truce Commission]...and conveyed to him a proposal in writing originating from the district commander [Shaltiel] saying that once our forces had achieved their military objective in the Old City - to make contact with the Jewish Quarter - we were renewing our offer of a ceasefire there, on condition that the Arabs did not try to disrupt our communications line with the Old City and did not attack us from the Arab neighborhoods. (Emphasis mine. Y.L.) The request for a ceasefire was conveyed to the Arab commander in the Old City, who rejected it outright. His sole offer to the Jews was unconditional surrender on their part.

Shaltiel did everything in his power to prevent the occupation of the Old City. All his efforts were directed at achieving a ceasefire by diplomatic mean - efforts which were doomed to failure from the outset.

Zion Gate was open for three hours: it was smashed open on May 19th at 3:30 am and abandoned at 6:30 am. During those three hours, a unit was brought in, consisting of 80 fighters equipped with 60 Czech rifles and 20 Sten guns.

Before the Palmach smashed through Zion Gate, two Arab Legion companies had entered through Lion's Gate, bringing the Legion force in the Old City up to battalion strength. That day, the situation in the Old City developed from skirmishes against irregular forces into a battle against a well-trained and equipped regular army force.

The reinforcements sent to the Jewish Quarter in no way matched the Arab reinforcements. The number of Arab fighters was fivefold that of defenders of the Jewish Quarter, and their equipment was far superior to that of the Jews. Against the rifles and Sten guns of the Jewish reinforcements, the Arab Legion brought in mortars, cannons and heavy machine-guns, a large quantity of ammunition and even armor. Once Zion Gate was abandoned, the Jewish Quarter was left without a hinterland and without reserves of manpower or military supplies. The Legion troops, on the other hand, maintained continuous contact with Legion camps in Jordan and their emergency stores.

When the Palmach withdrew from Mount Zion, heavy shelling of the Jewish Quarter commenced. The Arab Legion positioned its guns and mortars on the Mount of Olives, from which vantage point they could pinpoint their attack on the Jewish Quarter. At noon that day, the Legion forces recaptured Zion Gate, and the attack on the Quarter commenced immediately thereafter.

On May 19, the defenders used up a considerable part of the ammunition brought into the Quarter by the reserve force, and in the evening an appeal for more ammunition was despatched to the district command. The casualties that day were two killed and eight wounded.

Malka Natanson, an Irgun fighter, described the events of the day: 12
Word of the break-in through Zion Gate passed like wildfire among the posts. When the first Palmachniks entered the Old City, the defenders gazed
at them and did not believe their eyes. The joy and enthusiasm were boundless. At last, the longed-for reinforcements had arrived. Dozens of young men were coming in through Zion Gate with crates of ammunition on their shoulders. We would no longer have to count each bullet fired from a rifle or Sten gun. We could rain down bullets on the enemy and silence their positions. We could evacuate the wounded to proper hospitals in town and operate on them in modern operating theaters. And the civilian population could be evacuated and all efforts would be directed against the enemy. The Palmach instilled renewed hope in the hearts of the defenders and the feeling was that after the reinforcements rallied, massive counter-attacks could be launched, and we would no longer have to confine ourselves to defensive action from our positions.
Only a few hours lapsed and everything was turned upside down. Zion Gate was closed again, and the stifling sense of siege returned to plague us. The terrible shelling, the worst since the fighting had begun enhanced this feeling. The great hopes gradually dispelled, gave way to despair. Who knew if the Palmach would succeed in breaking in again? Was the Jewish Quarter to suffer the same fate as the Etzion Bloc?
When the Arab Legion entered the city, enemy tactics changed. Abdullah el-Tel, Commander of the Arab battalion, which fought in the Old City, refrained from attacking the Jewish positions in the Quarter. He preferred to take advantage of the heavy weapons at his disposal and to shell the Quarter day and night. This greatly hampered the movement of the defenders and had a highly detrimental psychological impact on civilian.. After the shelling by cannon and mortar, the Legion sappers crept up close to Jewish positions, laid explosive charges and detonated them. They then attacked the positions and captured them. Thus they blew up house after house and post after post. Their progress was slow, but the method greatly reduced the number of Legion casualties.

On May 20, the Arabs totally destroyed several positions as well as the Nissan Beck synagogue.

The losses among the defenders that day were 5 dead and 10 injured.

May 21 and 22 were relatively quiet. The Legion was occupied with reorganization after two days of fighting, and Abdullah el Tel decided to bring an armored car equipped with a cannon into the Old City. The narrow alleys and many flights of stairs made this a complicated logistical operation. The Legion managed to overcome all these obstacles, and stationed their armored car in the Armenian Quarter, facing Zion Gate, to forestall any attempt on the defenders' part to break in again.

The heavy shelling, the number of casualties and the gradual advancement of the Legion disheartened both defenders and civilians in the Quarter. As the Legion continued its attack, the Quarter's rabbis, Rabbi Minzberg and Rabbi Hazan, sent despairing cables to Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog and to Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Chairman of the Vaad Leumi (Israeli division of the Jewish Agency):13

The community is about to be massacred. On behalf of the population we send a desperate appeal for aid. Synagogues have been destroyed and Torah scrolls burned... Rouse the authorities and the entire world and save us.

May 23 began, like previous days, with heavy bombardment. The Quarter was shrinking, the number of fighters dwindling and ammunition running out. Four fighters were killed and four injured in the shelling that day.

The Legion attacks intensified the following day. Their sappers blew up building after building, advancing under cover of machine-gun fire, which paralyzed the defensive positions. In reply to calls for help from the Quarter command, the district command planned an assault for that same night. The gate remained closed, however, and the attempted assault ended in failure.

Dawn arrived, heralding further death and destruction. The Legion continued its slow and steady advance, blowing up positions and causing many casualties. There was now a shortage of fighters, and the wounded were leaving hospital prematurely to return to their posts. As the situation grew more desperate, civilian pressure for surrender increased.

On May 26, the Arabs introduced a new strategy: loudspeaker appeals to the residents of the Quarter in which the Jews were given seven hours to surrender, before the entire Jewish Quarter was destroyed. The civilians besieged the Quarter command post demanding that Rosnak accept the Arab offer and surrender at once. Rosnak informed the city command at midnight that if help did not arrive that night, the Quarter would surrender at 5:00 am. He demanded that the Red Cross be brought in to arrange for the evacuation of civilians.

Dawn broke on May 27, but reinforcements still had not arrived. It was clear to all that the end was approaching. The enemy launched an onslaught on the Street of the Jews, and the Hurva synagogue of Rabbi Yehuda Hassid was captured and blown up by the Arabs. This dramatic act symbolized the end of the battle for the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.

On May 28, the two rabbis of the Quarter, Minzberg and Hazan, went out to negotiate with the Arab Legion representatives on surrender conditions. The Legion officers demanded that the rabbis bring a Haganah representative and Weingarten as well. After several hours of discussions, in the presence of UN representative Dr. Azcarate, the surrender agreement was signed. The Jewish signatories were the Quarter Commander Moshe Rosnak and Weingarten; the Arabs were represented by Abdullah el-Tel, with Dr. Azcarate signing on behalf of the UN. The document was written in English and Arabic.

There were 180 wounded fighters in hospital when the Legion captured the Jewish Quarter. Abdullah el-Tel gave orders for the healthy fighters to be concentrated and separated from the civilians. Just thirty-five fighters lined up. The Legion commander could not believe his eyes. "You have deceived me," he said. "If I had known your true size, I would have fought you with sticks."

That evening, the residents of the Jewish Quarter, together with the severely wounded fighters, were taken through Zion Gate to the New City. The prisoners of war were conveyed to the Kishle prison, and the following day transported to Jordan.

This marked the end of the heroic struggle of the defenders of the Jewish Quarter.

1. Based on the book of A. Liron, The battle of the Old City 1948
2. Amos Elon, Jerusalem, City of Mirors, p.208
3. Interview with Malka Nathanson.
4. Political and Diplomatic Documents, Dec.1947-May 1948, p.693
5. A. Liron, The Battle of Old City, p.141
6. Izhak Levi, Jerusalem in the War of 1948, p.42
7. IDF Archive, David Shaltiel archive.
8. A home made mortar, named after the inventor David Leibovitz
9. Izhak Levi, Jerusalem in the War of 1948, p.56
10. Central Zionist Archive, S 25/5176
11 Political and Diplomatic Documents, Volume I, p.34
12. Interview with Malka Nathanson.
13. David Ben-Gurion, Military Dairy, p.451