Fifty Years Since Six Days of War: An Interview with Gildas Hamel
Written by Avery Weinman
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day War: a war whose events transformed Israel, Palestine, the Middle East, and the Jewish world forever. In just six short days – June 5th, 1967 through June 10, 1967 – Israel defeated the full military force of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, tripled its landmass, and brought the entire city of Jerusalem – including the Temple Mount and the Western Wall – under Jewish sovereignty for first time in nearly two thousand years. Israel’s victory also triggered the Palestinian Naksa, as an estimated three hundred thousand Palestinians fled the West Bank, and marked the beginning of a military occupation with no seeming end in sight. Israel’s swift and definitive military victory solidified the country as a new geographical titan, and all but diminished some Arab’s hopes that Israel could simply be wiped off the map and out of existence. The Six Day War is undoubtedly one of the most seismic events in the Middle East in the last century, and when the opportunity came for us to interview someone who was in the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967 in what was then the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan we seized it.
Gildas Hamel is a Senior lecturer, emeritus in the UCSC History department who teaches the histories of ancient Israel, Hellenistic and Roman Judea, and Early Christianity. He was born in France and French is his first language. Hamel lived in the Old City of Jerusalem from 1966 to 1968 while working at the Collège des Frères while studying to become a Catholic Priest. He witnessed the Six Day War, including the fighting in the Old City, firsthand from what was then the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. He wishes to communicate that because these events took place fifty years ago, his memories have almost certainly been distorted by the passage of time and may not be objectively accurate.
AW: Let’s just start by laying the groundwork… what brought you to East Jerusalem?
GH: I came to was called at the time the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan [with] Jerusalem being part of it [at the time] because I was in a grand seminary to be a Catholic Priest in France – in Brittany. In the curriculum that you followed [there were] six years of studies. The first two years had been done by [the time] I was 20, and you were supposed then to do your military service in France… but instead of doing that you could do what they called coopératcion… [which] from the point of view of the Ministry of the Army and the Ministry of Education was a – what’s the word – Peace Corps. It’s essentially something like that. So you could go anywhere in the world. A friend of mine, he had connections, he wrote to people in Lebanon – a Catholic order, so this is a Catholic story at the time [laughs] – and they answered and said no, we have no room for you as assistant teachers for kids in Lebanon which was very peaceful at the time, this was way before the events [in Lebanon], but they said we have two places in Jerusalem, in the Old City of Jerusalem. At a place called Frère’s College, which educates people all over the world… it [Collège des Frères] was in the Christian Quarter of the Old City, and it’s by the New Gate. When you come from the Israeli side, to what is now all Israeli, you get through either David’s Gate on the Western Side or the New Gate… And I lived there, I had a room there… And there I taught… It happened to be right near the No Man’s Land (the stretch of land that divided Israeli controlled West Jerusalem and Jordanian controlled East Jerusalem). You could hear the Arabic Jewish families speaking in Arabic from the other side of the No Man’s Land daily.
AW: So… you weren’t actually living in Israel then at the time before the war?
GH: No. That’s an interesting question too. It had different names. So we called it the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan because it was part of this unit created by the British mandate in the twenties… To your left [of the Frere’s College] there was a wall, a cement wall about – I would say – 50 meters, 20 to 30 feet high. Badly made cement, but it was cement nonetheless, and you knew Israel was the other side. The No Man’s Land kind of serpented all around the Old City.
AW: Did you arrive in Hashemite Jordan in 1967? Or had you already been there?
GH: ‘66 I was there.
AW: So you had already been there for a year…
GH: …So I was there, I would have to check the exact date, but it was the end of August… I still remember arriving at night in this very old city, all made of stones, and it was eerie. And you knew that Israel was there, but it was never discussed. We did not, for two years, I never mentioned the name Israel in a conversation. I myself accepted that. At the time I did not know Jews [from Israel] at all. In my own educational make-up I was not anti-semitic of course, well I don’t think so, but I came from a Catholic-Christian background, very interested in changing the world, but still completely ignorant of either Israel or the Jordanian side, and certainly the Palestinians. But we never pronounced the name Israel. We actually had code in our conversations because we were warned never to draw attention to that.
AW: So you would say you had almost no contact with Israelis when you were living in the Old City even though they were right over this wall?
GH: They are fifty meters away on the other side.
AW: You could literally hear them talking, but you didn’t know them.
GH: The Jordanian soldiers… the squad of soldiers was right near, not far from my room and you could sometimes see them, but we never talked to them. They spoke, not perhaps daily, but they actually communicated with Arabic speaking Jews on the other side [of No Man’s Land]. It was the strangest thing.
AW: I had a lot of questions prepared about Israeli society, but now I’m gathering you weren’t actually there…
GH: No, but I got to know it later. I can answer questions like that too.
AW: […] What I gathered from all of my reading is that the general feeling in Israel right before the Six Day War was that Israelis really thought this was the end of the road.
GH: […] I think, many Israelis – and not all, but many, and certainly many Jews… they felt that it was as if the whole Arab world was turned against them and there was an apocalyptic dimension that could be stitched to it. Of course, on the other side, 50 meters from there [Israel], I myself had a completely different reading of this thing. We actually expected Israel to come any time, any hour, any day. We were absolutely sure – this is Europeans – we were absolutely sure Israel was coming and was the most powerful military in the area. And there was no doubt that it was happening, we just wondered what day, what hour.
AW: […] My understanding is that [Israelis] essentially viewed Nasser’s (then Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser) extreme mass mobilization machinations as an almost sure guarantee that there would be a war in the future.
AW: And that the decision to strike the Egyptian air fields first, and to essentially win the war before it had even started by destroying the Egyptian Air Force was their safeguard against the potential for total annihilation.
GH: Right, so then you can see that immediately and think well how much of that was a calculation? You can take advantage of the tensions and actually resolve things that you did not resolve in 1948 (the First Arab-Israeli War) […] but my view at the time is that Israel had an interest in pursuing the war. But I don’t know how to put it precisely. I don’t know, I don’t say – because Israel also had good cause to feel threatened, and threatened in its being. Yet at the same time, when you realize that their army, their organization, their capacity of projections for what could be measured at the time – and they certainly measured it and compared – the decisions they made, it’s really more about logistics than you think. The political decisions really following the logistics, and then their political calculations that are not just about surviving. That’s a key question because it leads to the question about Palestine. Were Palestinians in some way victims of calculations made that were much bigger in terms of USSR-US? And in terms of Israel locally mapping things and defending itself, and then having victims who really, that the King of Jordan could not protect? And that’s still my view, and it’s a catastrophe in my view.
On the start of the Six Day War:
GH: […] I was studying at the Biblical school (École Biblique et Archéologique Française de Jérusalem), but the weekend before we were waiting because our kids were not in school anymore. I’m not sure why. I think perhaps the end of the year already, very early because the heat comes in June and it gets hard to teach kids… and then for the first time according to the people I was with, they saw the incursion of these small airplanes – from Israel – flying over the Old City… Just a couple airplanes, but it was unheard of, we had never seen anything like that. We were very surprised. And then for the first time from the college where I was, over the wall, the old Ottoman wall, over No Man’s Land… we could see soldiers for the first time, probably even officers, on the top clearly looking at maps. And we thought oh my G-d. We assumed there were soldiers in that building before but we never saw them. We thought, that’s part of intelligence gathering, you don’t show yourself and things like that, and we had no idea. Our interpretation at the time was that this was another provocation, we read it as just another provocation.
AW: So you had no idea that this was the start of the war?
GH: No idea… The way it happened, that Monday morning (June 5, 1967 – the first day of the Six Day War) I went, because I didn’t have to teach anymore, I decided to go and study… And so I went to study, and the director of the school, a Dominican Father – a very well known, very famous intellectual, an amazing figure – came to the library where I may have been alone or with two or three people. He said you better go back to your college where you reside if you have a bedroom there because the attack has been done in Egypt and it’s presumably going to start here at any time. So we rushed back to the Old City. It’s not very far, it’s like 400 meters or 500 meters to a half a kilometer away, and the gates were already closed. We had to take a taxi, go super fast, to the southern side, around towards where you go now to see the Temple and the Mosque. We took a taxi through there and the gate was still open there, but the doors were closing already. We would have been outside. We would have had to stay at the Biblical school I guess. Anyway, we made it. And then we waited. I decided to go and type my notes from a course I had taken over the year with this intellectual exegete and I began typing… And I had no idea [that the war had started]. I began typing and writing, and after a couple hours a little around ten I thought wow nobody’s around, even on Saturday. I was alone. And then I looked, and I thought, there had been sporadic fire like small arms, and I had heard that before and I didn’t pay much attention. I was completely unconscious of the danger, completely. But then I got scared. It was like a psychological state, right? And I remember thinking, one minute you are absolutely unconscious of things, the next minute you’re in overdrive. They could see me, they could shoot at me from the other side there, I’m a perfect target! They could think I’m a soldier. I began to imagine all these things. So I just walked, and I knew how to go, and discovered that everybody was downstairs in a large underground vault-like thing with huge stones just like you have everywhere in all of Jerusalem, everything has an under-basement. So that’s how it started, and the fire started to get very heavy, very loud [… ] I still remember I saw just two bodies [of Jordanian soldiers], but I didn’t go near them. I could not do anything anyway.
We were under military government immediately and under complete curfew from Monday ten AM. By noon, Israeli troops must have entered the outside, the perimeter, very quickly. There were victims on both sides, but the people who resisted like this squad I mentioned may have had some effect. The ground outside the college, when we were authorized to leave for three hours on Thursday afternoon, was littered with bullets like that [held up hands to indicate roughly three inch bullet casings]. I mean, littered. I was struck by that. I still remember that image. I didn’t look to see how far it went or anything. And there you realize that wars are actually fought with maximum power, and it’s actually technical, it’s like a machine. And that just spills out metal, that’s how it looked to me. If you’re on the passage of this thing, you’ll get killed. And if you’re not, you’re lucky. Inside our college we were not directly attacked, but we went upstairs on Thursday, or perhaps Wednesday even, and we could see weapons that were completely military stuff like grenades that are shot by, I’ve forgotten what they are called, but they have a parabolic curve and they fly and they drill themselves through walls and then they explode. And you don’t want to be in the hall when that happens. And all this weaponry, and then we saw Napalm. That’s not said, but the Israeli Army, like any army, used phosphor or a version of it because you could see the yellow color. I didn’t see it, but then you could imagine how they could use a flamethrower so you could not enter a building like a hotel you could essentially fire the building.
On the Aftermath of the Six Day War:
GH: […] On Thursday, we were entitled to go out for three hours as residents. Under military governorship you certainly had to be very careful where you went, so I decided to walk as quick as I could around the Old City because I wanted to see what had happened. Nothing seemed destroyed. There were little corners here and there where you can see there had been use of flamethrowers, but the Christian side had obviously been protected and the Islamic side too. There was no heavy bombing. It was small. There were some machine guns, but very limited […] Anyway, I went out, and I went to St. Stephen’s Gate, which is on the eastern side over the Kidron Valley in a kind of cemetery like quarter… and here you have a street wide enough for tanks and vehicles going into what is really north of the Temple esplanade and then going into the Muslim Quarter. And there are Israeli tanks, that are huge. Old tanks are big and their engines are like 600 horsepower or 1000 horsepower and they are rumbling, monstrous things to see in operation. And they’re going there – a few of them, I don’t remember how many – fully armed, into the Old City. Thursday afternoon, there’s no need of course (because the fighting in the Old City had largely ended). And, on the side, are all television channels from all over the world, dozens of them, and I remember thinking, that’s what people are going to see of the Six Day War. They’re going to picture reconstruct, cut footage because the day it happened on Monday there were no journalists there except those authorized by the army. Which is true of Vietnam, which is true of the French in Algeria. It was a realization, that actually an enormous number of things like Okinawa, the flag being raised, is made up. I mean not made up, it also reflects something historical, but it is also ideological. The image is actually composed, and the army doesn’t leave that to chance. So that was interesting to see […] It was very different then to go have initial contact with Israelis. But then I went to films in Israel! It was a very short walk. I would walk directly to the cinema, and I would see films because they had a much better choice of films than in the Arab area [laughs]. And I love film. Ans I would walk back. No contact [with Israelis]. The reason for that was that – we didn’t talk about it but there was some message coming from [these] brothers and from superiors and others – telling that oh you went to the New City. They never mentioned Israel again – still. It took a while. That’s an interesting, very negative aspect of things.
AW: That it took a while – even after – for the people above you at your school…
GH: History is not over. That was a lesson to learn too. I learned it very slowly, it did not penetrate very quickly. So I realized, oh, I have to be careful now because all the kids, anybody can see me, and I represent the Christian Institution. No matter what I wanted or what I thought. I had to think – no contact with Israelis because it’s fraught.
AW: So even after the war, even after the land has technically changed hands…
GH: At the beginning we did it [talked to Israelis]. I still remember one of the people who worked for the college – I mean the high school, it was Collège des Frères but we all just called it the college. One of the people who worked for them, I remember him coming back one day and saying oh I went to the other side. And he loved it. It was exciting. Of course its full of lights, full of life, cafes, very different from the Old City which was still very highly religious…
For the first few weeks there was a distinct feeling of excitement because Israelis from pre ‘48 – what I took to be older men at the time, in their fifties – came. And you could see them seeing – in the Christian Quarter more likely – embracing or sitting in the cafe… Anyway, I was at that cafe and I still remember Israelis talking, in Arabic, with Palestinian guys, sometimes Armenians, at the beginning. It did not last very long. That’s an interesting topic. I would like to know more actually, about exactly what happened, the memories of people were there, who did that…
AW: So these are families who before the Independence War, the First Arab-Israeli War, had been living in the Old City. And then after the war there’s a whole big exodus…
GH: Twenty years. Twenty year hiatus [for Jews being able to go to the Old City]. They went to the same schools sometimes!
AW: People who had been neighbors.
GH: And they liked each other! That was very moving to see…
On Reverberations of the Six Day War:
AW: Obviously [the Six Day War] leads to the Palestinian Naksa – not the Nakba but the second one.
GH: Right. And that took time. We did not call – at the time I didn’t hear that.
AW: That word didn’t exist back immediately after.
GH: And it’s an imitation of the Shoah. Well imitation is not the right word, I shouldn’t say that. But it’s a response. It’s saying we’re victims too. The victimization aspect – terrible things that were done by most European countries in the 40s to Jews – essentially the whole eradication of the whole Jewish people if they could have. If the Third Reich had really conquered the world, it was really clear that it would have meant eradication. There’s not doubt about that. But the Palestinians felt, and I heard many, many stories afterwards particularly in the ‘90s when I was [in Israel] again, by [Palestinians] who would show me [by pointing] with their arms – that’s where my village was, and now my whole family [lives] in Germany. And you could tell, you got the same impression talking to Israeli Jews who told you yeah I was in Hungary at the end of the war and I lost everything – family, language, culture, children, brothers, sisters – and now I’m here. So it’s a story of survival, but of losing everything. And I thought wow – same destiny, same outcome. How come we cannot start from there?
AW: […] Did people have any idea – either in Israel or in Jordan – just how many things the Six Day War would cause? Did they have any idea that this would be the start of a fifty year occupation? Or was it just a moment of thinking, wow this was a huge war, but really at that moment just another war, just the Third Arab-Israeli War? As opposed to what we know now about this war having insane reverberations throughout the years?
GH: I can answer for myself, I think that it was another war… but it was not the same war as in ‘56 (The Suez Crisis or the War of Tripartite Aggression). The other aspect of it is that it was not simply the war… but as a student of archaeology and of the history of ancient Israel and Judah and so forth, and the gospels and the New Testament, I was very aware of the occupied territories… the West Bank as we call it, and Cisjordan and so forth – was actually full of sights in their Arabic names that went back to the Biblical sites. And so to me it was immediately a very complicated psychological, religious situation. I was very aware of that. So it was not the same war as any other war… And so you had the sense that the war, in some ways, completed a cycle, but at the same time did not complete anything because it opened up history… And yet at the same time I shouldn’t say that because my view is that fulfilling is of course going on the Israeli side. On the Palestinian side, it was destroying who they were and any chance of their being a people. And that’s a difficult question that I still struggle with. And so when I make an interview like [this]… I am very aware at the same time that I am not representing the Palestinian side. But it’s there, massively. For me, a life is a life. Meaning, a life is actually an extraordinary mystery – and the Palestinian lives are indistinguishable from the Israeli lives or the Jewish lives or the non-Jewish lives whether one believes in G-d or not. I don’t believe in gods, but I believe in things that may look like it.