Remembering the Zionists’ assassination of UN Palestine mediator Count Bernadotte – Middle East Monitor
What: Assassination of Swedish diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte
Where: Jerusalem, Palestine
When: 17 September 1948
In May 1948, as the war raged between the military forces of the budding Zionist state and the various Arab armies, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) appointed as UN mediator in Palestine, a Swedish diplomat named Count Folke Bernadotte.
As a member of Sweden’s royal family, Bernadotte had served as a diplomat during the Second World War Two, helping to free tens of thousands of prisoners held in Nazi Germany and having attempted to negotiate an armistice between the Nazis and the Allies.
He took that diplomatic experience into the conflict over the creation of the state of Israel on the land of Palestine in the late 1940s, conducting mediation efforts and helping to negotiate an initial truce in the conflict before that broke down shortly after.
His most notable contribution, however, was the peace plan he worked on during the summer of 1948, following his appointment as UN mediator, in which he first called for the establishment of a union between Transjordan (currently Jordan) and British Mandatory Palestine, operating with certain areas allocated to Jews or Palestinians.
Examples of that plan included Palestinians controlling territories in the Naqab – or Negev – desert, while the Galilee area would be controlled by the Jews. Some areas were to be freely accessible to both, such as Haifa and its port and the airport at Lod, now called Ben-Gurion Airport. As for Jerusalem, it would be an international city controlled by the UN.
This was rejected by all sides and prompted the conflict to resume once the truce’s validity ceased.
His second proposal was more of a complex and reconciliatory one, however, affirming the existence of the state of Israel while at the same time firmly supporting the Palestinian right of return, advocating that Palestinians expelled from their lands and properties during the Nakba should be allowed to return and reclaim them. Those who did not return, he said, should be repatriated, resettled and financially compensated.
“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,” he is quoted as stating in his proposal.
He submitted the ‘Bernadotte plan’ to the UN General Assembly on 16 September 1948, sparking fears amongst Zionist militants and paramilitary groups that the plan would actually be approved and implemented. The Stern Gang – or ‘Lehi’ – and its leadership, took decisive action to attempt to prevent its approval.
On 17 September, only a day after the proposal’s submission, four Lehi terrorists ambushed Bernadotte’s motorcade in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighbourhood, firing six rounds into the UN mediator and another 18 at Colonel Andre Serot, a French military officer who was sitting next to him. Serot was killed immediately, while Bernadotte was rushed to hospital and died shortly after.
What happened next?
Following the assassination, the new Israeli government finally declared Lehi a terrorist organisation, disarmed what remained of the group, arrested around 200 members and convicted some of the leadership.
Whatever condemnation there was from the Israeli side was short lived, however, as authorities granted a general amnesty to Lehi members prior to the first Israeli elections in January 1949. No members or leaders were charged with involvement in the assassination or convicted either.
In May 1949, the Israeli government even persisted in covering up the Stern Gang’s involvement in the killing, claiming in a report to the UN that no members had been tied to it. Despite that denial, several Lehi members eventually came forward over the years and admitted their involvement, after the statute of limitations for the murder expired in 1968.
Only in 1977, around nine years after that expiration, was the first public admission of the organisation’s assassination of Bernadotte actually made.
Despite that, leaders of Lehi had been allowed to enter and advance in Israeli politics, taking up prominent roles such as Yitzhak Shamir becoming the future Israeli prime minister, Natan Yellin-Mor becoming a future member of the Israeli Knesset, and Yehoshua Cohen – the actual killer of Bernadotte – becoming the bodyguard of Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.
In 1980, Israel further expressed its pride in the terror organisation by instituting a military decoration named the Lehi ribbon, signifying an “award for activity in the struggle for the establishment of Israel”.
The assassination of the UN mediator also had diplomatic repercussions, with Sweden condemning and severely criticising Israel’s investigation into the murder, leading to the two countries suffering a fallout in relations.
Decades after Bernadotte’s assassination, however, his legacy remains one that is hailed as a standard of peace diplomacy during times of conflict. As with other UN efforts in occupied Palestine and the wider region, Bernadotte was instrumental in establishing much of the infrastructure of UN operations on the ground, and is considered to have laid the foundation for the UN Relief Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).