The Assassination of Count Folke Bernadotte
By Rita Fairchild
When there's good news about Israel or bad news about an Arab state, it's on page 1. Conversely, bad news about Israelis or good news about Arabs is on page 65. Here's some information you may have missed if your local newspaper doesn't have a page 65.
Forty-two years ago this month, Count Folke Bernadotte was assassinated in Jerusalem, in one of the least remembered incidents of the Israeli-Arab fighting in 1948. Open warfare had begun with the November 1947 U.N. resolution to partition Palestine at the end of the British Mandate. Rather than solving the conflict between Jews and Palestinians, the U.S.-backed partition resolution intensified the chaos in the Holy Land. As unarmed Palestinians fled from their homes before the well-trained and -equipped Haganah, Israel's future army, Jewish terrorist groups that had been waging underground war against the British turned their energies to a common effort to seize the entire country.
A Fateful Meeting
Yitzhak Yazernitzsky, better known today as Yitzhak Shamir, and Israel Sheib met at the Tel Aviv apartment of Nathan Friedman-Yellin in early September of 1948. They compromised the executive committee of the "fighters for the freedom of Israel," known to Israelis by its Hebrew acronym, Lehi, and to the British soldiers it had been killing throughout World War II as the Stern Gang. Over fruit and wine, Sheib opined that if the world listened to the latest proposals of the U.N. mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte, the Jews would lose the foothold they had seized in Jerusalem, which Israel wanted as its capital, and which the U.N. proposed should remain under international control.
The three had previously directed many acts of terrorism against Palestinians and against the British administration, including the 1944 murder in Cairo of Lord Moyne, the British Minister of State in the Middle East.
It was now the turn of Count Bernadotte, head of the Swedish Red Cross and a member of that country's royal family. The three sent their orders to Yehoshua Zetler, the Stern Gang commander in Jerusalem, who, with his deputy, Yehoshua Cohen, and Stanley Goldfoot, his intelligence officer, set out to plan and carry out the Count's murder.
Goldfoot was a recent immigrant to Israel from South Africa, where he was a dedicated proponent of apartheid. He now turned his energies to determining Count Bernadotte's movements and personal habits. As an accredited journalist, he had access to all sources of information and he discovered that the mediator planned to visit the Jewish-held portions of Jerusalem on Sept. 17, 1948.
"We cannot allow ourselves to be frightened out of doing our work."
Count Bernadotte flew from Damascus that morning, landing at Kalandia, north of Jerusalem. From there, he drove to Ramallah to visit Brigadier N.O. Lash, British commander of a brigade of Jordan's Arab Legion. The Legion offered the Count an armored escort to Jerusalem, as sniping in the city had recently intensified. When a member of the U.N. team suggested that the visit to the Holy City should be postponed, however, Count Bernadotte replied, "No, we cannot allow ourselves to be frightened out of doing our work."
The mediator accepted the Legion escort into Jerusalem as far as the Jewish line. Then, after his escort turned back, he drove to the YMCA, where he had lunch with a group of U.N. observers.
After the meal, Count Bernadotte drove in a convoy of three cars to inspect Government House, the former residence of the British High Commissioner in Palestine, which it was proposed should be utilized as U.N. headquarters. From there, now accompanied by an Israeli officer, Count Bernadotte set off for Jerusalem. Seated beside him, in the back seat of the third car, was a French officer, Colonel Serot.
Tensions rose amongst the assassins waiting in the Stern Gang camp. According to the information reaching them, Count Bernadotte was well behind his schedule. Goldfoot went to the Government Press Office. There he learned that the mediator would arrive in the city at 5 pm, following a route that would take him near the Stern Gang camp. Goldfoot rushed back to the camp. At 4 pm four men in Israeli military uniforms left the camp in a jeep and drove a half-mile to the Katamon Quarter.
When the Bernadotte party, flying U.N. flags, suddenly came on the jeep, it was positioned in the middle of the road. As the three-car convoy halted, the driver remained in the jeep and the other uniformed Israelis jumped out and approached the U.N. cars. Two of them proceeded down one side of the parked cars, whose occupants offered their identification papers, while Cohen trotted alone down the other side, scanning the faces of the occupants. As all three men approached the last car, Cohen went to the open window. The occupants were still pulling their passes from their pockets when, wordlessly, Cohen pushed the muzzle of an automatic weapon through the window and fired at the Count and Colonel Serot. At the same moment, the other two "soldiers" fired at the tires and radiators to disable all three cars. The three assassins then returned to their jeep, which disappeared at full speed. Count Bernadotte was hit by six bullets, one of which passed through his heart and killed him instantly. Colonel Serot's body was riddled with 17 bullets. An American officer in the front seat was unscathed, and a Swede and a British officer were slightly wounded.
The following day the Stern Gang sent a letter to the press stating: "Although in our opinion all United Nations observers are members of foreign occupation forces, which have no right to be on our territory, the murder of the French Colonel Serot was due to a fatal mistake; our men thought that the officer sitting beside Count Bernadotte was the British agent and anti-Semite, General Lundstrom." General Lundstrom, Count Bernadotte's chief of staff, was an officer in the Swedish army.
Count Bernadotte, an officer in the Swedish calvary, had passed his life in service to others. He was considered by his colleagues to be impeccably neutral in trying to find a solution to Palestine's sorrows.
Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Sherett pledged to the principle American official in Israel that "we are setting up the most rigid search for the assassins and their accomplices and we shall execute justice at the moment guilt is proved." None of those arrested, however, spent more than a few months in jail.
Yitzhak Yazernitsky went on to become a Mossad director of operations. After a name change, as Yitzhak Shamir, he now serves as prime minister of Israel.
Today, an alert visitor to U.N. headquarters in New York will find, in a quiet corner, a stained glass window dedicated to the memory of Count Bernadotte.
The inscription neglects to mention at whose hands he died. U.N. observers know, however. What no one knows is who among them learned to moderate their reports about Israel, to avoid the same fate as their fallen predecessor.
Rita Fairchild of Decatur, GA is a British-born historian who lived for many years in the Mideast.