Who killed the UN official Count Folke Bernadotte?
Count Folke Bernadotte (Count of Wisborg) was a Swedish diplomat, nephew of King Gustavus V, fluent in six languages, who gained international recognition through his work as head of the Swedish Red Cross during World War II. On May 20, 1948 Bernadotte was appointed mediator of the UN General Assembly, and was immediately faced with the volatile situation in the Middle East. The long-standing conflict between Arabs and Jews in Palestine escalated after the adoption of the UN partition resolution on November 29, 1947. When Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948, five Arab armies invaded Israel.
During the summer of 1948, Count Folke Bernadotte was sent by the United Nations to Palestine to mediate a truce and try to negotiate a settlement. On June 11, Bernadotte succeeded in arranging a 30-day cease-fire. After visiting Cairo, Beirut, Amman and Tel Aviv, he came to the conclusion that the UN partition plan was an “unfortunate” resolution and proposed his own plan.
Bernadotte’s plan called for the Jewish State to relinquish the Negev and Jerusalem to Transjordan and to receive the western Galilee. Bernadotte advocated a total demilitarization of Jerusalem and blamed the Jewish forces for “aggressive” behavior in the city. The boundaries proposed were similar to what had been proposed prior to the partition vote, and had been rejected by all sides. Now, the proposal was being offered after the Arabs had gone to war to prevent partition and a Jewish state had been declared. The Jews and Arabs both rejected the plan. Fighting resumed on July 8, 1948 raging until another cease-fire was arranged July 18th.
LEHI was a Jewish extremist group, also called the “Stern Gang”, engaging in a campaign of “personal terror” against the British in Palestine. When the IDF was established on May 31, 1948, LEHI was disbanded and its members enlisted in the IDF. But in Jerusalem LEHI remained an independent organization, arguing that at the time of the proclamation of independence the city’s fate had not yet been determined.
For LEHI, Count Folke Bernadotte, as UN mediator for “Palestine,” came to symbolize the foreign oppression of the Jewish claim to the Land of Israel. LEHI called Bernadotte a British agent and said he had cooperated with the Nazis in World War II. The organization considered his plan to be a threat to its goal of an independent Israel with expanded territory on both sides of the Jordan River. Bernadotte was assassinated by a LEHI team in Jerusalem on September 17, 1948, an act that resulted in the elimination of the LEHI organization by the Jewish leaders of Israel.
Mainstream Jewish leaders were horrified by the assassination.David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, responded to the murder in the strongest terms. Although LEHI thought their act was for the State of Israel, Ben-Gurion immediately denounced it as terrorist murder and declared:
- Arrest all Stern gang leaders. Surround all Stern bases. Confiscate all arms. Kill any who resist.
The regular Israeli army positioned itself in Jerusalem, and the orders were given to disband the LEHI camp through mass arrests. The government outlawed the organization’s branch in Jerusalem and shut down its publication, Hamivrak. Two of the leaders of LEHI, Natan Yellin-Mor and Mattityahu Shmuelevitz, were sentenced to long jail terms by a military court, but were later released in a general amnesty. Yitzhak Shamir, another of the top LEHI leaders, reputedly played a role in planning the assassination; however, he was never tried and went on to become Prime Minister of Israel.
A little recognized result of the tragedy of Count Bernadotte’s assassination was the arrival of the Israeli Army in Jerusalem in response. Because the Army was there, sections of Jerusalem remained in the hands of Israel under the truce agreements that ended the War of Independence, rather than have the whole area fall into the Arab-held zone.