Dr. Yitzhak Yifat hardly noticed the photographer ahead who suddenly dropped down in the narrow alley and aimed his camera at the tired and battle-fatigued Israeli paratroopers.
That iconic black-and-white image, taken by photographer David Rubinger at the Western Wall, would become a stirring symbol of Israel's victory in the 1967 Six-Day War— a war that changed lives throughout the Mideast.
“It was a complete surprise when it became so well known,” Yifat, now 73 and a retired gynecologic surgeon, said in a recent interview from Israel. The photo hit the wires and ran throughout Israel. A neighbor approached Yifat and said he was now famous.
Yifat, who lives in Rishon Le’Zion, had removed his helmet and was flanked by Haim Oshri and Zion Karasenti at the site, among the holiest in Judaism.
Rubinger, who worked for the Israeli government as a military photographer, snapped away.
Yifat had completed his mandatory Israeli Defense Forces service in 1964, as a member of the elite IDF Paratroopers Division, only to be called back three years later to defend his country in the Six-Day War.
“David told me years later that he did not intend to publish the photo,” said Yifat, who responded to emailed questions and in a phone interview. “He had piles of photos from that day, but when he consulted his wife about the picture to choose, she immediately pointed to the one of us.”
This year is the 50th anniversary of the war, which lasted from June 5-10 and pitted Israel against Egypt, Jordan and Syria.
The three men, who remain friends, will be in Atlanta for a remembrance of the war at 6 p.m. June 12 at The Temple.
The event is hosted by Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF).
Rubinger died earlier this year.
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They see each other regularly, along with two others in the photograph.
“The Israeli army is like a family,” Yifat said. “It binds forever the people who serve together.”
The war, which ended with a U.N.-brokered deal, changed the landscape of the Middle East.
Tensions had been building to an explosive level. Israel claimed it had to make a pre-emptive strike and virtually destroyed the Egyptian air force and severely crippled Syria’s. At the end of the war, Israel had gained control of the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem’s Old City.
For Palestinians, the aftermath of the war brought occupation, checkpoints, land seizures and other issues, said Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights.
“The photograph is important, not just for what it shows but also for what it doesn’t show,” Munayyer said. “The photo, which has become iconic, particularly for Israelis, shows these paratroopers looking up at the Western Wall. Israelis look at this and they see the fulfillment of a vision and hope for the establishment of that vision in the territory they occupy. What you don’t see in the picture is at that time, right next to the Western Wall, there were well over 100 homes. The (Mughrabi Quarter) neighborhood had been in existence for well over 800 years, and within a couple of days of the war, during the ceasefire period, the Israelis evicted everyone from the neighborhood and bulldozed the homes.”
The neighborhood was home to mostly Muslims from North Africa, and many fled during the war, according to reports.
The victory for Yifat was bittersweet.
“Today people remember the euphory of the reunification of Jerusalem, but forget the cost of victory,” he said. “(There were) many lives of soldiers, friends and relatives that were lost. It was difficult to celebrate with the pain of loss at the time.”
He and other Israeli soldiers later went back to honor the soldiers on both sides who died.
“We, the paratroopers, do not love war,” he said. “Still, when called to battle, we fight with honor to fulfill our mission. The Jordanian Legionaries that we faced in the battle fought with honor as well, like real soldiers. That’s the reason that after we honored our friends who fell in the battle, we also erected a small monument to the memory of the Jordanian soldiers as well.”
Still, he said, Israel’s win was uplifting. “For the people of Israel, it was a great leap of faith in the future of the state, and for the world, it was … proof that Israel is here to stay. … It united Jerusalem — the capital of the Jewish people. And it also made the Israeli people believe in their strengths and abilities. After the war, the Israeli future looked brighter and people were hoping for a peaceful life. As we know, that reality turned out to be more complicated.”
Today, the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall, is one of the most visited sites in the area.
“As an old man, I can see that peace is inevitable, but the path to peace is obscure. If you believe in it, it will happen.”
Commemoration of 50th Anniversary of the Six-Day War
6 p.m. June 12. The Temple, 1589 Peachtree St. NE., Atlanta. The event is open to the public and general admission starts at $36. Registration is required. Walk-ins are not permitted. http://fidfse.wixsite.com/sixdaywar.