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The Assassination of Count Bernadotte

By David Hirst

Excerpts from his book: The Gun and the Olive Branch, 1977, Futura Publications

Israel was the child of the UN. So, on 14 May 1948, the day before the British Mandate expired, the UN appointed a Mediator to watch over Israel's birth, 'to use his good offices with the local community and authorities in Palestine ... to promote a peaceful adjustment of the future situation in Palestine'.1 The Zionists could hardly complain of this initiative by a body which, in its partition resolution, had already demonstrated such a bias in their favour; nor could they complain about the person chosen to carry it out.

Count Folke Bernadotte was a member of the Swedish royal family, cousin to the King. He was an aristocrat in whom wealth and high station had bred the need to serve his fellow men. So had his deep Protestant convictions. And his sense of mission was allied with great practical experience. He had made his name as a representative of the International Red Cross in World War II. It was he who had organized the first exchange of disabled prisoners. Both sides had respected him for his integrity and impartiality; they always granted him free access.

Although he came to Palestine with a rigorous conception of his Mediator's role, determined to show neither fear nor favour, he was in reality predisposed towards the Zionists. This was only natural, for, appalled by the whole-scale Nazi massacres of Jews, he had, on his own personal initiative, succeeded in rescuing a surviving remnant of them-some 30,000-from the concentration camps.2 Moreover, like most Europeans, he had an instinctive affinity with the Zionists, who were mainly Europeans themselves. A cultural gulf lay between him and the Arabs, whom he had never encountered before and who, he wrote, expressed themselves in the 'elaborate and somewhat ceremonial style characteristic of the east'.3 Like many Europeans, too, he was steeped in that Old Testament sentimentality which saw there turn of the Jews to the Land of Their Ancestors as a prophetic fulfillment. His knowledge of the Palestine problem came largely from Zionist sources. He was deeply impressed by the Zionist claim to be making the desert bloom; in his diary he remarked upon the 'amazing work the Jews had done in cultivating this desert- like countryside ... and the very sharp lines of demarcation between the desert on the one hand and the fertile gardens and orange groves on the other.'4 The entry was made during his first visit to Palestine; apparently he was unaware, as he drove along the coastal plain from Haifa to Tel Aviv, that this was the most fertile part of the country, and that more than half of it was still owned and cultivated by Arabs. Only too familiar with the plight of European Jewry, Bernadotte seemed to know little about the suffering which the Jews-as-Zionists were inflicting on others. He was briefed by advisers who were apt to dismiss the Palestinians as of little consequence. One such report, his diary records, informed him that:

The Palestinian Arabs had at present no will of their own. Neither have they ever developed any specifically Palestinian nationalism. The demand for a separate Arab state in Palestine is consequently relatively weak. It would seem as though in existing circumstances most of the Palestinian Arabs would be quite content to be incorporated in Transjordn.5

Not surprisingly, Bernadotte was at first inclined to see not only the problem, but its solution, through Zionist eyes. He imagined that his new mission, like the one he had performed during the war, would be more humanitarian than political, involving the exchange of prisoners, the repatriation of refugees, helping the sick, the needy and the homeless. Peace, he thought, would eventually follow.

His arrival in Jerusalem must have come as a bewildering shock to this representative of the organization to which Israel owed its existence. jeeps flying the banners of the 'Fighters for the Freedom of Israel' (Stern Gang) careered around the city, warning him that 'Stockholm is yours. Jerusalem is ours. You work in vain. We are here ... so long as there is a single enemy of our cause, we shall have a bullet in a magazine for him.'6 On 17 September the Stern Gang killed him. But in the intervening four months, it had been the whole Zionist community, the official representatives of the infant State of Israel, who, blow by blow, shattered his vision of a Palestine at peace with itself.

The Mediator's first task was to arrange a month's truce during which he could formulate proposals for a peaceful settlement. On 1 June, after a week of grueling effort, Bernadotte persuaded Jews and Arabs to accept an unconditional ceasefire.

On 28 June, after intensive consultations with both sides, he put forward what he called a 'possible basis for discussion'. This included specific ,territorial recommendations,' most of them favourable to the Arabs, revising the boundaries envisaged by the UN Partition Plan. But Bernadotte's main concern was the hundreds of thousands of Arab refugees whose misery, in their makeshift camps, he had seen with his own eyes. Their plight, he later told the UN, was the greatest obstacle to peace.

It is, however, undeniable that no settlement can be just and complete if recognition is not accorded to the rights of the Arab refugee to return to the home from which he has been dislodged by the hazards and strategy of the armed conflict between Arabs and Jews in Palestine.... It would be an offence against the principles of elemental justice if these innocent victims of the conflict were denied the right to return to their homes while Jewish immigrants flow into Palestine, and, indeed, at least offer the threat of permanent replacement of the Arab refugees who have been rooted in the land for centuries.7

On 1 July, he got word of the Israeli response from his representative in Tel Aviv, who reported that the Foreign Minister, Moshe Sharett, was ready to go to Rhodes to continue negotiations provided that the Arabs also accepted the Mediator's invitation.

A breakthrough? Bernadotte believed so, and wrote enthusiastically in his diary. 'It is perhaps not difficult to imagine my joy when I read Reedman's communication. . . . This was a wonderful piece of news. It meant that the Jews accepted my proposals in principle'.8

At first, the Arabs' response -collectively made through the Arab League- was less encouraging. From his sources in Cairo Bernadotte had learned that 'the Arab attitude was negative in the extreme'.9 But on 3 July he flew to Cairo himself and came away somewhat reassured from meetings with Arab representatives. The Arabs, he realized, were not ready for direct negotiations with the Israelis in Rhodes; nevertheless, he 'did not feel in the least disappointed': he 'had a feeling that the door to further discussions was still open', that 'the confidence the Arab representatives had in me was in no way impaired' and that they 'were still willing to accept me as Mediator'.10

An unpleasant surprise awaited him when, on 5 July, here turned to Tel Aviv to get the official reply of the Israeli Provisional Government. Not only did this reject his specific recommendations, it challenged his authority to 'adjust' the term of the UN Partition Plan. He was 'bluntly told by Jewish circles that they were surprised that anyone who came from a Christian country could put forward such a proposal'.11 At the same time, even as they were condemning his 'adjustments' of the UN Partition Plan, they officially proclaimed that the Jewish State would not be bound by certain of its provisions.

On 9 July the first truce collapsed. Hostilities were resumed, during which the Zionists carried out further 'adjustments' of their own; whole new areas of central Palestine were 'cleansed' of their native population.

In Amman, on 1 August, Bernadotte visited some of the uprooted victims. 'A preliminary examination which we carried out... in Amman showed that the refugee problem was vaster and more baffling than we had imagined. . . .'12 The same day, the Israeli Provisional Government officially informed him that there could be no return of these, or any other, refugees. It argued that 'if we find ourselves unable to agree on their readmission to the Israeli- controlled area, it is because of overriding considerations bearing on our immediate security, the outcome of the present war and the stability of the future peace settlement'. It went onto describe 'the Palestine Arab exodus of x948' as 'one of those cataclysmic phenomena which, according to the experience of other countries, change the course of history'.13

Bernadotte tried again. Afterwards, he confided to his diary this bitter reflection on his meeting with Moshe Sharett, the man who was considered a dove to Bengurion's hawk.

Nothing that I could propose aroused any response; I got nowhere. It was significant to read later in the Jewish newspaper Palestine Post: 'Count Bernadotte has had a fruitless meeting with the Foreign Minister of Israel.' That was evidently regarded as a great triumph.... For my part I regarded the Jewish reaction as confirmation of what I had said before, namely that their military success during the ten days' war had gone to their heads.14

Another encounter with the refugees, this time at Ramallah, a few miles east of Jerusalem, deepened his indignation:

I have made the acquaintance of a great many refugee camps; but never have I seen a more ghastly sight than that which met my eye here, at Ramallah. The car was literally stormed by excited masses shouting with Oriental fervour that they wanted food and wanted to return to their homes. There were plenty of frightening faces in the sea of suffering humanity. I remember not least a group of scabby and helpless old men with tangled beards who thrust their emaciated faces into the car and held outscraps of bread that would certainly have been considered un-eatable by ordinary people, but was their only food.15

Back in Tel Aviv, in another meeting with Sharett, he appealed yet again for a change of heart over the refugees-only to incur an 'adamant refusal'. His diary entry for the day shows the radical change that was being wrought in his view of the Jewish State. At lunch with Sharett:

I began the conversation by saying that in. my opinion the international position of the government of Israel was worse than it had been only a week before. It no longer enjoyed the good will it had previously. The reason was ... that the government had expressed itself on various occasions in such a way that people could only draw the conclusion that it was well on the way towards losing its head. It seemed as though Jewish demands would never cease.16

It was his impression, he went on, that the Israelis behaved as if they had 'two enemies': the Arabs were still 'enemy number one', but the UN Observers now 'ran them a close second'. He told the Foreign Minister that 'the Arabs had given the Observers every possible help, particularly during the second truce, while the Israelis had tried to put spokes in the wheel and did everything in their power to make the observers 'work more difficult'.17 Bernadotte informed Sharett that his Observers' Corps was to be strengthened by 3oo new officers; he added: 'I knew from my own experience that these officers, when they first arrived, would be very sympathetic to the Jewish cause; but I also knew that they would soon find themselves compelled by force of circumstances to revise their attitude. I could not understand ... why the Jewish Government should adopt an attitude of such arrogance and hostility towards the United Nations representative.'

The Mediator thought he had 'made a certain impression' on Sharett, but while they were discussing certain alternatives for the future of Palestine, the Foreign Minister gave a display of that very arrogance of which he complained. One alternative, Sharett hinted, might be that 'the whole of Palestine should belong to Israel'.18

By 12 August, Bernadotte, had a feeling that the negotiations had reached a deadlock. The Jews had shown a blatant unwillingness for real cooperation . . .' This came as no surprise; for he had already come to the conclusion that 'with respect to the people of Palestine, the Provisional Government had had a very great opportunity. . . . It had missed that opportunity. It had shown nothing but hardness and obduracy towards the refugees. . .' Because morals, not politics, were his guide, he had at first been baffled by this attitude of 'the Jewish people, which itself had suffered so much'.19 But before long he grasped that what he had attributed to 'arrogance' and the exultation of military victory actually flowed from deliberate policy, and he told the Israeli leaders of his surprise that

... the representatives of the Jewish people in particular should took at this problem from such a narrow point of view, that they should regard it purely as a political question without taking into account the humanitarian side of the matter.20

In the Arab governments, by contrast, he discerned a certain flexibility. As he talked to Azzam Pasha, the Secretary-General of the Arab League, he could not help saying to himself: 'This man realizes deep down that the Arab world cannot any longer hope for a Palestine in which there will not be any independent Jewish State.'21

What the Arab states did insist upon was that there could be no direct negotiations with Israel until the refugees were allowed home. And to this plea Bernadotte was very sympathetic. There turn of the refugees, he urged the Security Council, should take place 'at the earliest practicable date' -a date which, in his view, should not be contingent upon the conclusion of a formal peace nor even upon the initiation of negotiations to that end.211 By now Bernadotte had replaced the Arabs as 'enemy number one'.

On 17 September, the day after he submitted his report to the UN, the Mediator flew to Jerusalem to inspect the building to which he was thinking of transferring his headquarters. It seemed foolish to risk his life on a mere administrative chore. That there was indeed such a risk he was well aware. The Jerusalem front line was the scene of constant cease fire violations; it was infested with snipers and assorted gunmen who subjected the UN Observers to hold-ups. Only the previous day Rhodes radio station had picked up a report about a policeman coming across Bernadotte's dead body in a Haifa street. As his aircraft approached Jerusalem, the radio operator received a message, purporting to come from Haifa, warning that all aircraft landing at the city's Katendia airport would be fired upon.

They landed without incident, but when General Aage Landstrom, the Mediator's Personal Representative and Chief of Staff of the UN Observer Corps, suggested that they take a round-about route into the city so as to avoid the 'hot' area of the Mandelbaum Gate, Bernadotte demurred. 'I would not do that,' he said, 'I have to take the same risks as my Observers and, moreover, I think no one has the right to refuse me permission to pass through the line.'23

They were on their way back when the assassins struck. 'We drove rapidly through the Jewish lines without incident,' Lundstrom wrote.

The barrier was up, but when the guard saw us, he let it down halfway, then drew it right up, and finally let it down completely. This forced us to stop. The Jewish liaison officer shouted something to the guard in Hebrew, after which he drew up the barrier completely and we were able to pass. It was suspected after the murder that this mysterious manipulation of the barrier must have been a signal to the murderers that we were on our way, possibly even indicating which car Folke Bernadotte was traveling in. That pre-supposes, however, that the Jewish Soldiers at the road barrier were accomplices in the plot.... In the Qatamon Quarter we were held up by a Jewish army-type jeep, placed in a roadblock, and filled with men in Jewish army uniforms. At the same time I saw a man running from the jeep. I took little notice of this because I merely thought that it was another check-point. However, he put a tommy gun through the open window on my side of the car and fired point-blank at Count Bernadotte and Colonel Serot. I also heard shots fired from other points and there was considerable confusion.... Colonel Serot fell in the seat at the back of it and I saw at once that he was dead. Count Bernadotte fell forward and I thought at the time he was trying to get cover. I asked him: 'Are you wounded?' He nodded and fell back. I helped him to lie down in the car. I now realized that he was severely wounded; there was a considerable amount of blood on his clothes mainly around the heart.... On reflection after the incident, I am convinced that this was a deliberate and carefully planned assassination. The spot where the cars were halted was carefully chosen, and the people who approached the cars quite obviously not only knew which car Count Bernadotte was in but also the exact position in the car which he occupied.24

Count Bernadotte died a few minutes after the shooting, and three days later the assassins identified themselves as Hazit Hamoledeth (Fatherland Front), a subgroup of the Stern Gang. In a letter to Agence France Nesse in Tel Aviv, they declared that 'in our opinion all United Nations Observers in Palestine are members of foreign occupation forces which have no right to he in our territory'. They conceded, however, that the killing of Colonel S6rot was 'a fatal mistake.... Our men thought that the officer sitting beside Count Bernadotte was the British agent and anti-Semite General Lundstrom'.25

In a letter of protest, General Lundstr6m described the assassinations as 'a breach of the truce of utmost gravity, and a black page in Palestine's history for which the United Nations will demand a full accounting'.26

There was to be no accounting, however, either to the UN or to any other authority. To the UN demand that the assassins be brought to justice, the Israelis at first replied that they could not find them. Then, after two months of international pressure, they arrested Nathan Yellin-Mor, the head of the Stern Gang, and Matitiahu Schmulevitz, both Polish Jews who had emigrated to Palestine a few years before.

The two were tried by military court in Acre. They claimed that there was no case against them. Their organization was not a terrorist one, nor had they themselves been party to terrorist acts, since the prosecution furnished no proof. Yellin-Mor further objected to the trial of civilians by a military court." As for Bernadotte, he denounced him, in a lengthy tirade, as an enemy of Israel. Among other things 'he stood in the way of Jewish absorption of the Kingdom of Transjordan as well as the whole of Patestine'.29 The two men were sentenced to eight and five years. They Were, however, to receive special treatment as political prisoners. Then, growing even more lenient, the court ordered that they and their witness be released altogether, since they had protested their sincere desire to be law- abiding citizens . . . 29

Twenty-seven years later, in July 1975, the perpetrators of the other famous Stern Gang assassination -that of Lord Moyne, the British Resident Minister in the Middle East- were accorded full military honours in Israel. Eliahu Hakim and Eliahu Bet-Zuri had been executed in Cairo in 1945. After lying in state in the Hall of Heroism, their bodies were buried in a section of Israel's military cemetery reserved for heroes and martyrs with the President, the Prime Minister and the Minister for Religious Affairs in attendance. They had been exhumed from their Cairo graves. As their flag-draped biers were conveyed from Egyptian to Israeli lines, Swedish troops of the UN forces in Sinai, unaware of their contents, furnished the honour guard.


1. Resolution 186 (S2), 14 May 1948.
2. Menuhin, Moshe, The Decadence of Judaism in Our Time, Institute for Palestine Studies, Beirut, 1968, p. 512.
3. Bernadotte, Folke, To Jerusalem, Hodder and Stoughton, London 1951, p. 42.
4. Ibid., p. 37.
5. Ibid., p. 113-
6. Menuhin, op. cit., p. 513
7. Progress Report of the UN Mediator on Palestine, General Assembly, Official Record Third Session, Supplement No. it (A/648) Paris, 1948, p. 14.
8. Bernadotte, op. cit., p. 137.
9. Ibid., p. 143.
10. Ibid., p. 145.
11. Ibid., p. 145.
12. Ibid., pp. 196-7.
13. Progress Report of the UN Mediator on Palestine, op. cit., p. 28.
14. Bernadotte, op. cit., p. 199.
15. Ibid., p. 200.
16. Ibid., p. 208.
17. Ibid., p. 208.
18. Ibid., p. 210.
19. Ibid., p. 209.
20. Ibid., p. 190.
21. Ibid., p. 186.
22. Progress Report of the UN Mediator on Palestitie, op. cit., p. 13.
23. Death of a Mediator, 'Me Institute for Palestine Studies, Beirut,1968, p. 25.
24. Ibid., pp. 19-26.
25. Ibid., P. 22.
26. Ibid., p. 33.
27. Palestine Post, 14 December 1948.
28. Menuhin, op. cit., p. 516.
29, Palestine Post, 23 January 1948.

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