In 1967, three IDF soldiers were among the first Israelis in a generation to see the Western Wall firsthand.
The holy site, the most important in all of Judaism, had been cut off from the Jewish state since 1948, when the War of Independence proved Israel a free nation, but left her without East Jerusalem.
During the Six Days War, Israel battled forces in Egypt, Jordan and Syria, fighting off decades of oppression and attacks at the hands of its closest neighbors. The period of fighting saw nearly 1,000 casualties, with 4,500 wounded. Those sacrifices ended with a lasting treasure for Israel, which could finally call a united Jerusalem its eternal capital.
That moment of unification is iconically marked by a lone image, a simple black and white photograph of three Israeli troops. Tired, overwhelmed and battle-weary, the three men gaze up at the Kotel as if watching a mirage rise from the desert.
Not much was known about the image until 2007, when Guardian reporter Conal Urquhart reunited the original trio as well as the photographer: Zion Karasenti, Yitzak Yifat, Haim Oshri, and David Rubinger.
The veterans, now in their 60’s, described the Battle at Ammunition Hill, the four-hour ground operation that led to Jerusalem’s ultimate return to the Jewish state.
“I was the first paratrooper to get to the Wailing Wall,” said Karasenti. “I didn’t know where I was, but I saw a female Israeli soldier, so I asked ‘Where am I?’ and she said: ‘The Wailing Wall.’”
“As an Orthodox Jew it was special for me to be involved in the fight for Jerusalem,” said Oshri. “It doesn’t matter if you’re from Poland or Yemen, Jerusalem is our common bond. Every day we pray three times to Jerusalem, and I could never have imagined the magic of seeing the Kotel for the first time.”
“It was face-to-face fighting. I fought like a tiger…It was brutal, and a sad victory,” added Yifat.
Rubinger, a Life Magazine photographer who had made aliyah from Vienna, was taking pictures of the Sinai battles when he heard an operation in Jerusalem might take place. He hired a hitchhiker to drive him to the city as he slept, arriving just in time to snap the now famous image of Karasent, Yifat and Oshri.
“I had dinner in Tel Aviv with a colleague, Paul Schutzer from Life Magazine,” Rubinger said. “We bet a bottle of champagne on who would get the first cover photograph. The war broke out on the Monday and Paul was killed the same day.”
“I think there was such euphoria because in the weeks before the war there was a sense of doom. The national stadium was prepared for 40,000 graves and even if we thought we might win, it would be a costly victory. The humor before the war was very dark. ‘Would the last person to leave please turn out the lights.'”
“We went from being doomed to having an empire. It was like a condemned man with the noose around his neck suddenly being told that not only was he going to live he was going to be the king. The nation went a little nuts. For the religious, the victory had to be God-given and that is how the whole Jewish messianic and settler movement was born.
“I lay down to take the picture of the paratroopers because there were barely three meters between the Wailing Wall and the houses next to it. When I developed the film, I didn’t think much of the picture. I gave it to the army. They passed it on to the government press office, which then distributed it to everyone for virtually nothing. I still don’t think it’s a great picture, but often iconic pictures are created by the media and what people read into them.”
The photo has indeed become a piece of photographic history, as has the 2007 photo recreating the original shot. The images represent one of the Jewish state’s most hard-fought days, when men and women took the fate of Israel into their own hands.
“When I think of all the soldiers that died to take Jerusalem, I wonder if they would have thought it was worth it,” said Karasenti. “I think they would.”