Three weeks before the war, I went to visit my brother Nechemiah in Jerusalem. He and I were born there. The city is our home.
Major Eliezer “Cheetah” Cohen is a pilot and commander of Squadron 124, Israel’s first and leading helicopter formation.
Nechemiah was twenty-four years old then, a captain in the Sayeret Matkal, Israel’s special forces. Along with Ehud Barak, the future prime minister, he was the most decorated soldier in the army. Nechemiah has been awarded five medals for valor—one Medal of Distinguished Service and four Chief of Staff Citations.
Nechemiah had been promoted from lieutenant four months earlier, transferred to the elite 35th Paratroop Brigade, and made a company commander.
This was to give him experience commanding formations larger than the twelve-man teams of the special forces.
The date of our visit was May 15, Independence Day. My wife Ela and I had gone with our children to the parade in West Jerusalem. Nechemiah phoned and invited us to come out to his command post for a visit. “It’s safe,” he said. “Bring the kids.”
Nechemiah’s outpost was at Abu Tor, in the middle of no‑man’s‑land. Abu Tor is the highest hill immediately south of the Old City. The site controls access by road from Jordan and dominates the southern approach to Old Jerusalem.
Nechemiah had about fifty paratroopers in posts along the armistice line, four or five in each. He had set up his headquarters in a beautiful old red-stone villa, which had been abandoned for almost twenty years, since the fighting in 1948. All around the house were barbed wire, barricades, machine-gun posts. Signs read, DANGER—MINES. It was a gorgeous spot in the middle of a junkyard.
Down the hill were posts and fortifications of the Arab Legion. These were King Hussein’s elite troops, British trained, wearing their famous red-and-white-checked keffiyehs. My kids were thrilled to see enemy soldiers so close.
Nechemiah and I spent two hours together. We went up on the villa’s high flat roof. The site looked like any other field outpost occupied by young soldiers—sandbags and high-powered binoculars, cases of combat rations, bedrolls tucked into corners, a half circle of rucksacks with weapons and helmets ready for action.
You must understand that Nechemiah and I come from a very humble family. We grew up playing in alleys and side streets and on the stony hillsides of a city we could not claim as our own. Jerusalem was under British rule then. There was no Israel. We Jews had no country.
When the state was founded in 1948, the army of Jordan won the battle for Jerusalem. The Arab Legion drove our forces out of the Old City, burned over fifty synagogues, killed every Jew they could find.
Nechemiah and I understood this and hated it, even as boys. When we grew up we became soldiers and officers. We ceased talking like angry children and began planning like military professionals. Nechemiah is a paratrooper, I am a pilot. It’s up to us. We have to do the job.
Maj. Eliezer "Cheetah" Cohen, commander of helicopter squadron 124
This is how we saw the situation, Nechemiah and I, on the roof of the villa above no‑man’s‑land. We both knew that war was coming. “Does it frustrate you, brother,” I asked, “to be stuck here in Jerusalem when the fighting will surely be in Sinai or Syria?”
Our understanding in that moment was that war would not come to the Holy City. Jordan wouldn’t risk attacking Israel; she might lose. And Israel could not make the first move. The outside world would never let her.
From our rooftop, my brother and I could see the poplar grove above the Western Wall—our people’s most sacred site—so close it seemed we could almost touch it, yet cut off from us by barbed wire and minefields and the combat posts of the Arab Legion.
“Look there, brother,” I said. “I can spit and reach Mount Moriah, where Abraham bound Isaac. There you see David’s Tower and what is left of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. All this is ours. What is stopping us from taking it, ahuyah?” I employed the Arabic word for brother, which we all used in our family. “Are we waiting for the United Nations or the world powers to give us permission? The Jordanians don’t hold the Old City by ancient right. It was never part of their country. They seized it by force in 1948!”
I asked Nechemiah what he thought the Americans would do in our place. Would their army sit still for one minute if a foreign power occupied Pennsylvania Avenue? Would the British stand idly by if another nation held even one lane of London? What would the Russians do?
I can hear my brother’s answer as if he were standing before me now.
“Ahuyah,” he said, “if war comes, it will come to Jerusalem too. We are going to liberate the Old City.”
I didn’t believe him. I thought to myself, This is only a dream. Every combat alert at the time was against the Egyptians, the Syrians, the Iraqis. Never against the Jordanians.
“It will happen,” my brother said. “You will see.”
We embraced then and took our leave. That was the last time I saw Nechemiah alive.
My younger brother—I am older by eight years—was ordered with his company to join the main body of the 35th Paratroop Brigade along the frontier with Egypt. He was killed in Gaza on the first day of the war.
My helicopter squadron was assigned that day to fly medevac missions in northern Sinai and the Gaza Strip. The emergency call came over my own squadron radio net: “Mass casualties near Gaza City.”
I dispatched one of my pilots, Reuven Levy, to handle the evacuation. It never occurred to me that my brother could be among the dead. He was too good, too smart. Nothing could happen to him.
Nechemiah Cohen beside his brother's helicopter preparing for a cross-border operation, December 2 1965.
Levy was ordered by an officer on‑site to say nothing to me about Nechemiah’s death. “Cheetah is a critical squadron commander,” Levy was told. “The nation needs him operating at full capacity.”
So I flew night and day throughout the war, in Gaza and Sinai, in the West Bank and Jerusalem and on the Golan Heights, and knew nothing of what had happened to my brother.
On the last day, when all Israel was flooding into liberated Jerusalem to touch the stones and behold the miracle that many had believed would never come to pass, I was in the office of the base commander at Tel Nof Air Base, being informed at last that my brother had not survived to witness this day. In that hour, my world ended.
“IF I FORGET THEE, O JERUSALEM”
… When we of “A” Company entered the Lion’s Gate on the morning of June 7, our object, despite the ongoing gunfire and the danger from enemy snipers, was only to reach the Western Wall. Moshe Stempel had joined us then, my dear friend and our deputy brigade commander. Together we had swept across the Temple Mount and passed through the Moroccan Gate. We were on the steps above the Wall, but had not yet gone down to take possession of it.
Stempel ordered me to send one of my men down while the rest of us followed him back up to find a place above the Wall where we could hang the flag of Israel that I had carried all night and all day and all night and day again.
I picked a young sergeant named Dov Gruner.
This Dov Gruner was not the first to bear that name. The original Dov Gruner, after whom ours was named, had been a fighter for the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the underground paramilitary organization that fought the British during Mandate days, before Israel had achieved its statehood.
English soldiers captured this first Dov Gruner and put him on trial for participating in an assault on the police station at Ramat Gan. He was sentenced to death by hanging. At the final hour he was offered a reprieve, if he would admit his guilt.
Dov Gruner would not.
He refused to defend himself, standing upon the principle that to do so would be to acknowledge the legitimacy of the British court. On the last day of his life Dov Gruner wrote to his commander, Menachem Begin, and to his comrades in the Irgun:
Of course I want to live: who does not? I too could have said: “Let the future take care of the future” . . . I could even have left the country altogether for a safer life in America, but this would not have satisfied me either as a Jew or as a Zionist.
There are many schools of thought as to how a Jew should choose his way of life. One way is that of the assimilationists who have renounced their Jewishness. There is also another way, the way of those who call themselves “Zionists”—the way of negotiation and compromise . . .
The only way that seems, to my mind, to be right is the way of the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the way of courage and daring without renouncing a single inch of our homeland . . .
I am writing this while awaiting the hangman. This is not a moment at which I can lie, and I swear that if I had to begin my life anew I would have chosen the exact same path, regardless of the consequences for myself.
Dov Gruner was hanged at Acre prison on April 16, 1947. As it chanced, his brother’s wife had recently given birth to a son, whom they had named Dov.
This boy grew to be our Dov.
Moshe Stempel was asked once by a journalist, “Why did you pick Dov Gruner to be first to the Wall?”
“I did not pick him,” Stempel replied. “History did.”
Moshe Stempel was killed one year later, in the Jordan Valley, pursuing
Palestinian terrorists who had penetrated the border. Stempel was hit in the first exchange of fire, but continued to lead the pursuit, under fire, until he was killed. Years earlier, in 1955, he had been awarded the Itur HaOz for valor on an operation near Khan Younis in which, as happened later when he was killed, he had been wounded but continued to fight until the mission had been completed.
Stempel built our brigade. He put it together, no one else. He had a chest like a bull and wrists as big around as most men’s arms.
When we had pinned the flag of Israel to the grillwork above the Western Wall, our little group stood and sang the national anthem. A photographer, Eli Landau, was recording the historic moment with his camera. Stempel tugged my body between himself and the lens. He hid his face so that no film could be made of his tears.
Stempel held my arm in a grip of iron. Twice he tried to speak and twice his voice failed. He pulled me so close that the brows of our helmets were touching.
“Zamosh!” Stempel said, with such emotion that I can hear the words still, though he spoke them almost fifty years ago. “Zamosh, if my grandfather, if my great-grandfather, if any of my family who have been murdered in pogroms and in the death camps . . . if they could know, somehow, even for one second, that I, their grandson, would be standing here at this hour, in this place, wearing the red boots of an Israeli paratrooper . . . if they could know this, Zamosh, for just one instant, they would suffer death a thousand times and count it as nothing.”
Stempel gripped my arm as if he would never let go.
“We shall never, never leave this place,” he said. “Never will we give this up. Never.”