Count Folke Bernadotte was a Swedish noble and diplomat, nephew of the Swedish king, fluent in six languages; he was an outstanding humanitarian and very well respected for his integrity. He gained international recognition through his work as head of the Swedish Red Cross during World War Two, organizing exchanges of disabled prisoners. Bernadotte also used his position to negotiate with Heinrich Himmler and save the lives of about 30,000 Jews, Allied prisoners of war and other people from the concentration camps, just before the end of the war. David Hirst wrote that Bernadotte 'appalled by the wholesale Nazi massacres of Jews…had on his own personal initiative, succeeded in rescuing a surviving remnant of them…' (The Gun and the Olive Branch). In this effort Folke Bernadotte had risked his life and his actions were certainly courageous.
During the 19th Century some Jews banded together to form a political ideology called Zionism, based on the idea of a “Jewish homeland.” In the USA the Zionist movement developed a powerful political lobby to promote its aims, while its military groups pursued a violent terrorist campaign in Palestine against the Arabs and Britain to force acceptance of its demands.
On 29 November 1947 the United Nations adopted a partition resolution dividing the land of Palestine into two independent states - one Arab and one Jewish, while Jerusalem was put under international protection. This was accepted by most of the Jewish settlers, who comprised 13% of the population and rejected by the majority Arab population, the original inhabitants who demanded self–determination. The British said the UN decision would be a failure and refused to apply it. When British forces withdrew in May 1948 though Israel declared independence and fighting broke out between Arabs and Jews.
On May 14, 1948, Bernadotte was appointed UN Mediator for Palestine by the UN General Assembly and sent to Palestine to mediate a truce and try to negotiate a settlement. On June 11, Bernadotte succeeded in arranging a 30-day ceasefire. Bernadotte began his assignment with a strong sympathy for the Zionists, no doubt largely to do with his wartime experiences. But he eventually came to the conclusion that the UN partition plan was unworkable and an “unfortunate resolution.” As entries in his diary show, he progressively became discontented by what he saw as the “arrogance and hostility” of the Zionists and most particularly their “hardness and obduracy” towards the Arab refugees. He proposed to the UN his own recommendations that Arabs and Jews should form a “union” and to change the partition boundaries to try to bring peace between the feuding parties.
Bernadotte suggested several proposals. That the Jewish state gives up the Negev (in southern Palestine) to the Arab state and receive western Galilee, that the port of Haifa and airport of Lydda become free areas and that Jerusalem become totally demilitarized (he blamed the Jewish forces for “aggressive behaviour” in the sacred city) and be under the protection of the Arabs, with Jews given autonomy in its municipal affairs. He also felt that Jewish immigration to Palestine was against the prospects of peace (as the Arab population feared the influx of settlers) and needed to be under international control, suggesting that the UN take charge of this issue in two years.
As part of Count Bernadotte’s efforts for an overall solution he also expressed concerned about the situation of the 300,000 Arab refugees and advocated their right of return and compensation. He stated that:
No settlement can be just and complete if recognition is not accorded to the right 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. The majority of these refugees have come from territory which, under the Assembly resolution of 29 November 1947, was to be included in the Jewish State … It would be an offence against the principles of elementary 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.When the Zionist leaders heard of Bernadotte’s peace plan they became furious, considering it to favour the Arabs and against their goals, especially in respect to Jerusalem, Jewish immigration and the return of refugees and now considered Bernadotte to be an enemy. The Israeli government hated the idea of giving up Jerusalem and bent on military victory rejected the Bernadotte plan. Fighting resumed on July 8, and the Israeli army made more military gains until a new ceasefire was declared on July 18.
One of the far-right Zionist extremist groups that saw Bernadotte’s efforts as a threat was LEHI (Freedom Fighters for Israel) also better known as the Stern Gang, led by Yitzhak Shamir (later to become an Israeli Prime Minister), Dr. Israel Scheib and Nathan Friedman-Yellin. LEHI was founded in 1940 and had waged a brutal campaign of terror to against the Arab inhabitants of Palestine and to force the British out. Among their most well known acts were the assassination of the British Government Cabinet Minister for the East, Lord Moyne, in Cairo, in 1944 and the massacre in the Arab village of Deir Yassin on April 9, 1948.
The combined forces of LEHI and the Irgun group (the military arm of the Revisionist party, commanded by Menachem Begin, later Israeli Prime Minister) decided to destroy Deir Yassin. The Irgun too were responsible for many terrorist horrors and as a senior Irgun officer said later, 'The clear aim was to break Arab morale and raise the morale of the Jewish community.' The villagers resisted, but were overwhelmed by the well-armed attackers. The Zionist forces entered the village and executed 23 men in a quarry; another 230 unarmed people were shot in the village. Begin stated after, 'Accept my congratulations on this splendid act of conquest…' (from A History of the Jews by Paul Johnson.)
When the Israeli Defence Force was established in May 1948, Lehi was supposed to be disbanded and its members join the IDF, but it continued to act independently, especially in Jerusalem. LEHI called Bernadotte a British agent and said he cooperated with the Nazis in the Second World War. Some of its military commanders, such as Israel Aldad, Yehoshua Zeitler and Mashaloum Macover, talked to the gang leaders Nathan More and Yitzhak Shamir about assassinating the Count. This was accepted and was planned by Shamir himself. This was later documented by Charles Anderline in his book, War or Peace - the Secrets of the Arab-Israeli Negotiations in 1917-1997.
Commander Yehoshua Zeitler of the Jerusalem branch of LEHI started to train four men to kill Bernadotte and solicited information from two sympathetic journalists about his schedule. LEHI decided to assassinate Bernadotte while he was on his way to meet the Israeli military governor of Jerusalem’s New City on September 17. An Israeli jeep carrying the four assassins blocked the path of the UN convoy and one man (later discovered to be Yehoshua Cohen) fired an automatic pistol into the car, killing French Colonel Serot and Bernadotte. The other LEHI members shot the tires of the rest of the convoy and all the terrorists escaped into a Zionist ultra religious community of LEHI sympathizers for some days before fleeing to Tel Aviv.
A group calling itself, The Fatherland Front claimed credit for the assassinations; in fact it was a cover name LEHI used in hopes of avoiding being exposed and to stop action being taken against the group. But LEHI was suspected and under intense international pressure and condemnation the Israeli government arrested many of its members and disbanded LEHI. Two of the leaders of LEHI, Nathan Yellin-More and Mattityahu Shmuelevitz, were sentenced to prison terms of eight years and five years by a military court, but were released immediately in a ‘general’ amnesty.
Another top leader Yitzhak Shamir, was not only implicated, but actually instigated planning the murders, but he was never tried and went on to become Prime Minister. Israel’s first Prime Minister, Ben Gurion, was at least an accessory after the fact and knew who the assassins were and made a behind the scenes deal with LEHI, freedom from prosecution if they would cease their activities. Ben Gurion was motivated by the determination to assert the supremacy of the IDF and his own authority and prevent the strengthening of the independent Zionist militias. Shamir, in his autobiography, Summing Up, does not deny that LEHI members assassinated Bernadotte, but he claims that he nor any other members of the LEHI high command were involved. He did extol terror stating, 'Neither Jewish ethics nor Jewish tradition can disqualify terrorism as a means of combat.'
While the world mourned Bernadotte, who gave his life to the cause of peace, in Israel, former LEHI radio announcer and M.P. Geula Cohen, considered the assassination had been an effective measure, 'because we prevented the internationalization of Jerusalem.' A little recognized result of the tragic murder of the Count was the arrival of the Israeli Army in Jerusalem. Fortunately for Israeli aims, the presence of the IDF meant those sections of Jerusalem remained in Israeli hands after the truce agreements, rather than the whole area being in the Arab zone.
And for forty years this crime was forgotten until in September 1988, two of the old members of the LEHI, Mashaloum Macover and Yehoshua Zeitler broke their silence and appeared on Israeli television. Macover admitted he led the assassination squad and Zeitler said, as LEHI chief in Jerusalem he had directed the operation. Zietler also stated that the decision to kill Bernadotte was made by himself and the three joint leaders of LEHI, Israel Aldad, Nathan Yellin-More and Yitzhak Shamir, the then Prime Minister of Israel. Yossi Ahimeir, (Shamir’s cabinet director) said that Shamir believed that the affair belongs to history and should be left to historians, that: 'there is no reason that Israel or Mr Shamir as premier can be held to account for an act of individuals forty years ago.'
Kati Marton, writing in the New Yorker, summed up well the reasons for the assassination:
Shamir’s underground hated what the United Nations mediator stood for: compromise, conciliation, the abandonment of maximilist demands in the service of turning enemies into neighbours.Having successfully completed their task of killing a man dedicated to peace, justice and human rights, the assassins as well killed the possibility of peace. The murder of Bernadotte and Israeli military strength both contributed to the sabotaging of the peace efforts. Bernadotte’s proposals were never implemented and over fifty years later the Palestinian refugees still live in exile and the killings go on. The killers of Count Bernadotte were never brought to justice and the most powerful sections of the international community did not want to pursue the case, even when new details came to light. The political assassination of the man that the UN sent to seek peace is a crime of great dimension and we should remember him and his efforts. When it comes to Israel, war crimes are merely forgotten and war criminals forgiven.
It was Count Bernadotte’s suggestions that to a great extent influenced the UN General Assembly to adopt Resolution 194 of 11 December 1948, of which paragraph 11, is regarded as the most important basis on which Palestinian refugees from 1948 are entitled to the right to return to their homes. It also constitutes the acceptance of responsibility for a solution to the plight of the Palestinian refugees by the international community.