It’s the iconic photo taken in the immediate aftermath of brutal fighting in Jerusalem at the end of the Six-Day War in 1967: three Israeli soldiers first looking upon the Western Wall.
For Izack Ifat, the 24-year old paratrooper in the middle, it was a moment he may never have had, having only an hour earlier survived a bayonet charge from a Jordanian adversary in the battle of Ammunition Hill in East Jerusalem.
Now a retired gynaecologist living in Rishon Lezion, Dr Ifat has ever since answered questions about that photo, and his troop’s fight for the city almost 50 years ago, having become instantly famous as the centre of a trio snapped by photographer David Rubinger.
The photo itself was never really valued by Rubinger, who died earlier this year. At the time he thought little of it and gave it to the Israeli Government’s press office, whose officers disseminated it far and wide. The rest, as they say, is history.
In March, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said the photo “eternalised history as it will be forever etched in our memories,” and for Ifat, in London this month, those memories are still crystal clear.
“We were planning an operation in Egypt, but as we were about to go in, we were told that the Jordanians had launched an attack on Jerusalem, so we had to get in the bus and go, to everyone’s disappointment,” he recalled this month.
“We arrived with no plan. We were welcomed by women offering coffee, then Jordanian bombing. We approached the west-side of Ammunition Hill under heavy fire, then face-to-face fighting with Jordanian soldiers. It was like hell. I had many friends killed.”
Through a series of narrow tunnels and trenches, the Israeli soldiers progressed “metre-by-metre,” he said, over barbed wire and under heavy fire from an enemy who “fought to the last man,” despite being trapped by the advancing Israelis.
“One guy in front of me was hit in the buttocks, he was going to be shot again but I shot the Jordanian soldier first before he could do so. Then all the bullets of my rifle were finished. I wanted to refill it but a Jordanian soldier came at me with a bayonet. Somehow I grabbed it, kicked him between the legs, overcame him and shot him.”
More than 100 soldiers from both sides were killed during the battle, but the Israeli paratroopers who survived continued on through Lion’s Gate, into the Old Town, said Ifat, not knowing where they were going.
“We were in narrow lanes, with Arab house, we didn’t know where, and suddenly we came through a small iron gate and saw it – the Kotel. It wasn’t open as it is now, it was surrounded by houses on all sides.”
The moment was “very exciting, very emotional,” he said, recalling events. “We didn’t realise we were going that way. My friends had tears in their eyes when they realised what was happening, that we came to the place we’ve been waiting for for 2,000 years.”
An hour later, photographer David Rubinger arrived and took a photo of three soldiers, Ifat and his two fellow paratroopers – Yemen-born Chaim Oshri and Zion Karasenti. Ifat, helmet removed, looks deep in thought. What was he thinking of?
“I was thinking of my grandfather, of Jewish history, of all the stories I was told, all this history was coming to my head. Then I thought of my friends who had just died, including my best friend, Yair Goldberg. We were all so close, like a big family.
“We made a small monument of stones to those who died, then we crossed over to the other side and built another for the Jordanians, because they fought bravely. People forget we did that, because it was taken down, I don’t know by who, but we did. It was important. But it was important also that Jerusalem was now in Jewish hands. For me, it must always be.”