Modern History of Israel: The Assassination of Count Bernadotte
(September 17, 1948)
During the fight for Jewish statehood, extremist military groups sometimes resorted to the use of terrorist tactics. One such instance occurred in 1948 when members of the Jewish underground organization LEHI killed UN Peace Mediator Count Folke Bernadotte to protest his diplomatic efforts to modify the Palestine partition plan.
Bernadotte, a Swede with family ties to the Swedish King, gained international recognition through his work as head of the Swedish Red Cross during World War II. Bernadotte used his position to negotiate with Heinrich Himmler and save thousands of Jews from concentration camps, although many argue that he could have done more had he been less cautious in negotiations.
A diplomat fluent in six languages, Bernadotte was appointed mediator of the UN General Assembly on May 20, 1948, and was immediately faced with the volatile situation in the Middle East. Arabs and Jews had been fighting over Palestine for decades, and the conflict 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.
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 to unite the two feuding peoples. Instead of establishing individual states, he suggested that Arabs and Jews form a “union” consisting of a small Jewish entity and an enlarged Transjordan. Haifa and Lydda (Lod) airports would become free zones. Israel would receive Western Galilee and unlimited immigration for two years, after which the UN would take control of the issue. Between 250,000 and 300,000 Arab refugees would be permitted to return to Arab territory with compensation, and Transjordan would control the Negev and, despite Israeli claims, Jerusalem.
The Arab world rejected the Bernadotte plan on the grounds that, as Syrian officer Muhammad Nimr al-Khatib said, “Most of these mediators are spies for the Jews anyway.” The Israeli government, hating the idea of giving up Jerusalem and bent on military victory, quickly followed suit. Fighting resumed on July 8, and the Israeli army gained strength and succeeded in pushing back the Arabs until a second UN cease-fire was declared on July 18, this time with no time limit and a threat of economic sanctions against any country that broke it.
One organization that saw Bernadotte’s efforts as a threat was LEHI, a Jewish underground group that, under the leadership of Yitzhak Shamir, Dr. Israel Scheib, and Nathan Friedman-Yellin, had waged a campaign of “personal terror” to force the British out of Palestine. LEHI called Bernadotte a British agent who had cooperated with the Nazis in World War II. The organization considered his plan to be a threat to its goal of Israeli independence on both banks of the Jordan River. Commander Yehoshua Zeitler of the Jerusalem branch of LEHI started training four men to kill Bernadotte and solicited information from two sympathetic journalists about his schedule. LEHI leaders decided to assassinate Bernadotte while he was on his way to a meeting with Dov Joseph, military governor of Jerusalem’s New City, which was scheduled for either 4:30 p.m. on September 17 or sometime on September 18 (the exact date is disputed).
On September 16, Bernadotte flew to Beirut and spent the day there. At 9:30 a.m. on Friday, September 17, he boarded his UN Dakota plane for the 45-minute flight to Jerusalem. After arriving in Palestine, Bernadotte’s day started with a shot hitting an armored car in his convoy while he was visiting Ramallah. No one was hurt and according to army liaison officer Moshe Hillman, Bernadotte was proud of the bullet hole and showed Hillman the UN flag that had saved him.
Bernadotte’s appointment with Joseph was rescheduled for 6:30 p.m. that day. Bernadotte spent time at the official UN headquarters at the YMCA and at Government House, a potential headquarters for a UN mission. He visited the Jerusalem Agricultural School, where he picked up French UN observer Andre Seraut who took the center seat in the UN car, immediately to Bernadotte’s left. The three-car convoy then headed back to the YMCA to pick up a copy of the truce regulations before the meeting with Joseph.
Meanwhile, LEHI terrorists adapted their plans to the new meeting time, and an Israeli military jeep carrying a driver named Meshulam Makover and four assassins were dispatched to Palmeh Street in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Old Katamon. At 5:03 p.m., the UN convoy drove up and found the jeep blocking its path. The terrorists, wearing khaki shorts and peaked caps, left their jeep, found Bernadotte in the second car of the convoy, and one man, later discovered to be Yehoshua Cohen, fired a Schmeisser automatic pistol into the car, spraying the interior with bullets and killing Seraut and then Bernadotte. The other LEHI members shot the tires of the rest of the convoy, and all the terrorists escaped to the religious community of Sha’arei Pina, where they hid with haredi LEHI sympathizers for a few days before fleeing to Tel Aviv in the back of a furniture truck.
Both Seraut and Bernadotte were transported to Hadassah Hospital but were found to have died instantly. Bernadotte had been hit six times. On September 18, his body was flown to Haifa and then to Sweden, where he was buried on his wife’s birthday. The Israeli government subsequently cracked down on LEHI, arresting many of its members and confiscating their arms. LEHI disbanded, largely due to public condemnation.
While the world mourned for Bernadotte, some in Israel, such as former Tehiya Member of Knesset and former LEHI radio announcer Geula Cohen, saw it as just another death in war, no more immoral than other killings committed during the long Arab-Israeli conflict. Cohen considers the assassination to have been an effective measure “because we prevented the internationalization of Jerusalem.” Others, however, such as Hebrew University professor Joseph Heller, argue that the killing actually provoked support for the Bernadotte plan by making its author into a martyr. The plan was never implemented, but whether its failure was due to the assassination or simply because of Israeli military strength and other outside factors is pure speculation.
Yitzhak Shamir reputedly played a role in planning the assassination; however, he was never tried and years later was elected as Israel's eighth Prime Minister.
Sources: J. Bowyer Bell, Terror Out Of Zion, (NJ: Transaction, 1996).
“A bullet for the count,” Jerusalem Post, (October 10, 1998).
Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, O Jerusalem! (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1972).
Howard Sachar, A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time, (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998).