The Murder of Count Bernadotte

I really loved him. He was the greatest man I ever met.1

- Ralph Bunche, American diplomat and winner of the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize, describing Count Bernadotte

Count Bernadotte

In late May of 1948, the Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte was handed the probably impossible task of arranging peace, with scant help, between the the new provisional state of Israel and the Arab countries confronting it, by the also new United Nations Organization. The Chairman of the Swedish Red Cross, likeable and optimistic, Count Bernadotte had proved himself a skilled negotiator during World War II, when he secured the release of thousands of prisoners from German concentration camps.2 Bernadotte knew he was entering a dangerous, volatile situation, made out his will, and calculated his chance of success at one in a hundred, but it's hard to believe he had any chance at all.3,4 He was killed by Lehi in September - four months after he'd begun.

During the summer of 1948, there were newspaper accounts of his negotiations every day, as he shuttled between Tel Aviv, Cairo, Beirut, Amman, and Haifa in an effort to forge a peace agreement. A religious man, Folke Bernadotte credited what success he had - two laboriously contrived truces - to the prayers of his friends, and the help of a benevolent God,5 and it's symbolic of the terrible gulf between Christian imagery associated with Israel and the reality of modern Israel, that the new provisional Israeli government used the truce periods to carry out further ethnic cleansing operations against Palestinian Arab towns and villages within the Jewish lines.6,7

His early life was far more fortunate. Born in 1895, a nephew of the Swedish King, he grew up as a member of the Swedish elite, in a comfortable, but spartan middle-class home.8 His upbringing was religious to a point. There were morning and evening prayers, and grace before meals, yet it left him with, what his friend and biographer Ralph Hewins writes, was a sense of the sacred that was more benevolent than dogmatic.9,10 After a typical Swedish education in schools where his fellow students were the sons of Stockholm's upper-class, he entered the Royal Swedish Military Academy, and became an ensign in the Royal Lifeguards Dragoons, a cavalry regiment.11

Part of his character is shown by an experience he had when he was in his early twenties. He was riding over a frozen creek on the outskirts of Stockhom, when his horse broke through the ice and was caught in the water. Bernadotte was able to climb onto the ice, but instead of leaving the horse and going ashore, he dived back into the water in an unsucessful effort to save the animal. He managed to survive, but the strain on his body led to serious internal bleeding.12

In 1928, while on leave in the south of France, he met Estelle Manville, the daughter of a wealthy American, and after a short engagement, they married.13 He left the army, worked in banking and business, and moved between the United States, France, and Sweden. He was in charge of the Swedish pavillion at the New York World's Fair when World War II broke out, and it was his experience in negotiation during the war that would lead to his attempt to broker a peace in the Middle East.14

Count Bernadotte returned to his regiment, but Sweden's forced neutrality - Sweden's major cities were defenseless and within easy reach of the Luftwaffe - gave him the opportunity for humanitarian work. He was at first responsible for the well-being of airmen, British and German, who made forced landings in Sweden, as well as Norwegians who went to Sweden to escape the German invasion of Norway. Later, as vice-Chairman of the Swedish Red Cross, he attempted the heroic task of arranging an exchange of prisoners between Germany and the Soviet Union, but this fell through. He traveled extensively, to Moscow, London, Paris, and Berlin, and met with a number of Allied leaders, including Eisenhower. His real coup took place toward the end of the war, when as the Third Reich was falling, he was able to convince Himmler to allow the Swedish Red Cross to bring some 30,000 prisoners out of the concentration camps to safety. At the end of the war, he was thrown briefly into the spotlight, when Himmler asked Bernadotte to convey a conditional surrender proposal to the Allies through the Swedish government. Since Himmler offered to surrender only to to the western Allies, and not to the Soviet Union, the offer was rejected by Truman and Churchill.15

The Nakba Begins

The powers that be had pulled out all of the stops in micromanaging the fate of Palestine, while turning a very blind eye to the fate of its Arab inhabitants: in the early 1920's, the League of Nations had determined the future of the different pieces of the Ottoman Empire lost by Turkey during World War I, and Palestine was placed under the responsibility of Great Britain as a "mandate", with the intent that part of Palestine should become a Jewish homeland, while making it clear that "that nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine";16 Jewish settlers in Palestine and their supporters had ensured a growing Jewish population and a growing Jewish land ownership under the British Mandate, while arming themselves, often with weapons stolen from the British; paramilitary organizations formed by the Jewish settlers had driven out the British by a relentless barrage of terrorist acts; and in 1947, the British, simply worn out by the ordeal of protecting the Arab population, while safeguarding the progress of the Jewish homeland and enduring the violence of the Jewish paramilitary groups, were simply bailing out. On November 29, 1947, the United Nations passed the Partition Resolution, dividing Palestine. The British were about to evacuate and the Palestinian Arabs would be left left alone with the very well armed paramilitary groups that had just driven out the British. Arab armies, although not particularly powerful, were hovering on the horizon, having promised the British not to enter Palestine until after the projected British exit on May 15, 1948, and about three thousand Arab volunteers were on the ground in Palestine, formimg the Arab Liberation Army.

In December of 1947, the Jewish military, numbering some 50,000, and equipped with tanks, armored cars, artillery, and even some planes,17 began the attacks on the Arab civilian population that would become the Nakba - النكبة - a gush of war crimes - as the Hagana, Irgun, Palmach, and Lehi attacked individual, poorly defended Arab villages, cities, and urban neighborhoods.

On December 18, 1947 the Hagana attacked the Arab village of al-Khisas - الخصاص at night, and blew up some houses, as the inhabitants were sleeping. Fifteen were killed, including five children.18

On December 27, members of Hagana attacked a coffee house in the village of Lifta - لفتا , near Jerusalem, and sprayed the customers with machine gun bullets, while nearby, members of Lehi shot into a bus.19

About 10:20 in the morning of December 30, members of Irgun threw two hand grenades into a crowd of Arab workers outside the Haifa oil refinery, killing six and wounding forty-two. The news spread so fast that by 10:30 there was a mob scene as about 1800 Arabs fought 400 Jews, beating them with stones and sticks. Forty-one Jews were killed and forty-eight were wounded.20

The next day, in revenge, Hagana attacked the villages of Balad al-Shaykh - بلد الشيخ' and Hawsha - هوشة , where many of the Arab refinery workers lived. They had orders to encircle the villages and kill as many men as possible. They killed over sixty, including women and children, and destroyed dozens of houses.21

Haifa had become a battle ground, as Irgun and Hagana worked in coordination to terrorize Haifa's Arab population into leaving the city. Haifa is a Mediterranean port city, and in 1948 the Arabs lived near the water, and the later arriving Jewish settlers lived higher up. Since early December, they had been using this topographical advantage to shell and snipe at the Arab civilians below. Another tactic was for troops to roll barrels of explosives toward the lower city, along with oil mixed with fuel. When the Arabs tried to put out the ensuing fires, Jewish troops would spray them with machine gun bullets. Special Hagana units, whose soldiers spoke Arabic, and dressed as Arabs, would take cars filled with explosives to Arab repair shops, and leave them to detonate.22

On the very first day of 1948, Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary: "There is a need now for strong and brutal action. We need to be accurate about timing, place and those we hit. If we accuse a family - we need to harm them without mercy, women and children included."23 At about this time, Ben-Gurion declared to his inner circle that every attack should end with occupation.24

In mid-February, Qisarya - قيسارية , south of Haifa, became the first Arab village to be completely destroyed, and it happened so quickly, that the Jewish troops had time to eradicate four more villages on the same day.25 The ethnic cleansing continued, but wouldn't reach cataclysmic rhythm until the beginning of April, when Plan Dalet could be implemented.

The intention of Plan Dalet was to remove as many Arabs as possible from a contiguous area of Palestine that included all of the existing Jewish settlements - about 80% of the territory of Palestine. As the plan was carried out, in April and May of 1948, the Palestinian Arabs would lose entire cities.

On May 2, after occupying the sattelite villages of the city of Safad - صفد , Jewish forces shelled the city for almost a week.26 On May 10 the population, along with Arab Liberation fighters present in the city began to pull out. The Arabs who left the city and wandered in the outskirts numbered in the thousands, and sheltered in wadis, where they were bombed by Hagana's planes and shelled.27

On May 12, after Hagana had captured a strategically important hill, the city of Baysan - بيسان surrendered.28 As the Arab inhabitants evacuated they passed three check points where Jewish girls in uniforms took their money and valuables.29 Another Baysan resident, Ma'susih 'Abd al-Rahman al-Naqqash, interviewed by Rosemarie Esber, said that some young Baysan Arabs were put into cars, made to take off their clothes, and then killed.30

On May 5, near the city of Acre - عكا , Hagana blew up part of the aqueduct that supplied the city's water. Following this there was an outbreak of typhoid that affected both city residents and British soldiers who were still in the city.31 The Red Cross determined that typhoid virus had been placed in the city's water supply and suspected Hagana.32 Maximilian De Meuren, of the Red Cross, in a series of reports, identified deliberate contamination of Acre's water supply as the only explanation.33 The possiblity that Hagana deliberately contaminated the water with typhoid is corroborated by another incident: Egyptian intelligence caught two Jewish soldiers dressed as Arabs injecting cholera and typhoid virus into artesian wells in Gaza.34 Furthermore, an Irgun radio broadcast, back in March, had warned Arabs in urban areas that they would face outbreaks of cholera and typhoid in April and May.35 Acre would surrender on May 17, after Hagana had captured a strategically important hill, and could shell the city at will.36

After days of skirmishing, a serious Jewish attack on the city of Jaffa - يافا began at the end of April. According to Abd al-Ghani Nasir, who was interviewed by Rosemarie Esber, Jewish forces shelled places where people gathered, the shelling would stop, and then when people came out to find if friends and relations were still alive, and to help the wounded, the shelling would start again, with an even greater intensity.37 After a brief intervention by the British, Jaffa's Arabs began leaving in droves. Most left by sea, and Iris Shammout, then twelve, remembered later how the crowds of Arabs in the port area were shot at by Jewish snipers.38 Practically all of Jaffa's Arab population had left the city by May 3.39

The battle for Haifa - حيفا reached a climax on April 22, when Jewish forces pushed the Arab population toward the port.40 Hagana officers, aware that the populace had been told to gather near the port's gate, stationed three inch mortars on a mountainside overlooking the port and fired into the crowd.41 The mass Arab exodus continued for several days.

By May 14, 1948, more than 400,000 Palestinian Arabs had been driven out of about 225 of the cities and towns of Palestine. And that wasn't the end of it.42

On that Friday, May 14, the Palestinian Arabs had been enduring purgatory for months, the Jewish Agency, headed by David Ben-Gurion, had declared that most of Palestine had become the sovereign state of Israel, the British Mandate was finished, and Arab armies were entering Palestine to confront a well armed and well prepared Jewish military. On that same day, it was announced that the United States would recognize Israel as a sovereign state, and the United Nations General Assembly, still located in building space on the old New York World's Fair grounds in Queens, voted to appoint a mediator to try to find a peaceful solution to the conflict.43 On May 20, 1948, Count Bernadotte was appointed to the position by the UN Security Council, itself located in an abandoned Sperry Gyroscope administration building in Lake Success, a Long Island town about ten minutes east of Queens, .

Exactly what had been happening to the Palestinians was largely unknown to the world at the time, and would remain largely unknown. When stories about large numbers of Palestinian Arab refugees began to appear in the summer, their source would be the Mediator, Count Bernadotte. He would ask that something be done to help them, he would ask the new state of Israel to allow them to return to their homes, and in September, just before he was killed, he would order Israel to rebuild three Palestinian villages and allow their inhabitants to return to them.

Yitzhak Yazernitzky

Yitzhak Yazernitzky, later Yitzhak Shamir, the future Prime Minister of Israel, was military chief of Lehi in 1948, and is widely assumed to have ordered the murder of Count Bernadotte, although in his autobiography, he only admits that he didn't oppose the idea.44 Later in life he wrote about the conspiratorial life of Lehi . He liked its neatness and simplicity - life revolved around one goal. In operations, there were no clues left, no superfluous information, and "no exit". Disguises were simple and cheap. Messages were sent by runners, or in brief terse notes, never by telephone or letter.45 Shamir writes that those in Lehi were sensitive to the charge of "shedding blood wantonly," and reprisals were only undertaken when deemed unavoidable.46

As Count Bernadotte's stategy for peace unfolded, Shamir thought it was a "disaster."47


It was probably a very steep learning curve for Count Bernadotte. He began by simply seeking a cessation in the fighting. He set up his headquarters on the Greek island of Rhodes, northeast of Crete, on the opposite side of the Mediterranean from the conflict, and traveled by plane between Arab capitals, Haifa, and Tel Aviv, trying to find what common ground there might be. The Security Council wanted a cease-fire, and it was up to Bernadotte to arrange it.

In Palestine, the ethnic cleansing continued. As Bernadotte was travelling the circuit of Arab capitals for the second time at the beginning of June, Ben-Gurion authorized the confiscation of Arab properties already taken, in order to prevent looting, and convened a meeting to count the money, land, and other assets now in the possession of Israel. At this point there was a shortage of TNT due to the large number of Arab homes that had been blown up in the first part of the Nakba.48 The disintigration of Arab Palestine went on irreversibly.

Count Bernadotte would negotiate two truces, and as the summer went on, he began to acquire part of the power of the United Nations. The first truce began on June 12 and would last until July 8. On June 19, forty-nine UN "guards", from seven different countries, left New York for Palestine. They were to be under the orders of Bernadotte, and would be stationed along the Tel-Aviv - Jerusalem road and in Jerusalem itself. The United States also detached three destroyers from the Mediterranean fleet to patrol Palestine's coast, which were also under Bernadotte's orders. The French government sent him the corvette Elan.49 On July 5, it was announced that Bernadotte had asked for a thousand more men.50

Planes were available to both Israel and its Arab adversaries. In June, Israel received a shipment of new airplanes. Starting in July, the planes were used to bomb villages that were being occupied, bringing a new form of indiscriminate killing to bear on the Arab civilians.51 According to Bernadotte's biographer, Ralph Hewins, his white United Nations plane was pursued by hostile fighters at some point during the summer, and only evasive actions taken by the plane's Dutch pilot had saved him.52

The Palestinian writer Taha Muhammad Ali witnessed one of Israel's attacks that happened during the first truce. He watched as Israeli troops approached Mi'ar - ميعار on June 20, and started killing people working in the fields, and later as they destroyed Arab houses there.53 The village of Saffuriyya - صفورية , near Nazareth, was also attacked in June. Abul Salim took part in the defense of the village, and later described what he saw. It started with a bombardment, which caused the village women to run and hide in nearby caves with their children. The young men in the village prepared a defense with rifles, while the Arab volunteers from other countries ran away, advising the others to do the same. Abul stayed and watched as the Israeli troops attacked not just the village, but also the caves. His mother was killed by a bomb as she tried to enter the Church of Annunciation.54

On July 11, at the end of the first truce, an Israeli spokesman in New York angrily accused Count Bernadotte of minimizing Arab acts of agression, and impeding appropriate actions by the United Nations.55 Within two days, now back in Lake Success, Bernadotte asked the Security Council to call for a cease-fire, and to use sanctions in case of cease-fire violations. He also asked the Security Council to give consideration to the idea of allowing Arab refugees who had fled the Jewish held portion of Palestine to return to their homes.56 At the beginning of the second truce, on July 18, well over 300 villages had been ethnically cleansed.57

On August 5, Bernadotte again urged the Security Council to affirm the right of the Arab refugees, now estimated at between 250,000 and 300,000, to return to their homes, and asked for the right to enlist appropriate international organizations to help with their resettlement. Israel's view expressed in writing to the Security Council was that it presented an "insoluable problem" to allow the refugees to return, and maintained that the mass flight of Arabs from Palestine was caused by the agression of the surrounding Arab countries.58

On the same day, August 5, Israel made an attempt to bypass Bernadotte by inviting the Arabs to directly negotiate with Israel. On the issue of refugees, Moshe Shertok said that Israel refused to allow their return except in the context of a general peace negociation, but said that individual cases might be considered on a "compassionate basis."59 On August 22, Israel made a renewed attempt at direct negotiations with the Arab countries, although the previous offer had been turned down by both Egypt and the Arab League.60

On September 13, at his headquarters in Rhodes, Count Bernadotte ordered Israel to allow 8,000 Arab refugees to return to three villages near Haifa, and to rebuild their homes.61


On September 17, Count Bernadotte was in Jerusalem with some of his advisors. After meeting Brig. Norman Lash of the Arab Legion, being shown the areas of conflict from the roof of Government House, and visiting the Agricultural School, Bernadotte and his party were heading to the Y.M.C.A. - where dignitaries visiting Jerusalem often stayed. They were stopped, and a soldier in an Israeli uniform put the barrel of a machine gun through the window and shot Count Bernadotte and one other member of the group, Colonel Serot. Both died.62

According to Dan Kurzman, one of David Ben-Gurion's biographers, the murder was planned in a meeting of three top Lehi commanders, Israel Sheib, Yitzhak Yazernitzky (Shamir), and Nathan Friedman-Yellin. They decided to have a non-existent group called "The Fatherland Front" claim responsibility for the crime.63 In his autobiography, Summing Up , Yitzhak Shamir says that the plan for the murder was conceived by Lehi members in Jerusalem operating "more or less independently," and he offered no objection to it.64 The man who pulled the trigger was named Yehoshua Cohen.65

On September 18, the Israeli government announced that it had jailed 200 people in an attempt to find the killer, and invited members of the UN group who had been with Count Bernadotte at the time of the murder, to view a "parade" of suspects. Members of the Jewish community were called on to help find the "criminal gang" who had committed the murders.66

Count Bernadotte's body lay in state in the chapel of the Y.M.C.A. in Jerusalem, then was flown to Stockholm, where his widow and sons waited.67

According to Kurzman, Ben-Gurion was at first enraged by the murder, but after the world's outrage dissipated, he quietly let the perpetrators go.68

Years later, the triggerman, Yehoshua Cohen would live near Ben-Gurion on the Kibbutz Sde Boker, and became his confidant and body-guard.69

1 Ralph Hewins, Count Folke Bernadotte, His Life and Work, (Minneapolis: T.S. Denison and Company, 1950), 209
2 Associated Press, "Bernadotte Freed 15,500,", The New York Times , May 2, 1945, 11, ProQuest Historical Newspapers
3 "Diplomatic Acumen in Palestine,", The Christian Science Monitor , June 2, 1948, 11, ProQuest Historical Newspapers
4 Hewins, 206
5 Hewins, 213
6 Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine , (Oxford: OneWorld, Paperback, 2010), 148
7 Pappe, 174
8 Hewins, 21
9 Hewins, 22
10 Hewins, 13
11 Hewins, 23-26
12 Hewins, 28
13 Hewins, 46-48
14 Hewins, 52-75
15 Hewins, 75-175
16 The Palestine Mandate ,
17 Pappe, 44
18 Pappe, 57
19 Pappe, 67
20 Rosemarie M. Esber, Under the Cover of War , (Alexandria, VA: Arabicus Books & Media, 2008), 230-231
21 Esber, 231
22 Pappe, 58
23 Ben-Gurion's Diary , January 1, 1948, quoted in Pappe, 68
24 Pappe, 62-64
25 Pappe, 75
26 Esber, 333
27 Esber, 334
28 Esber, 338
29 Nazzal, Flight of the Palestinian Arabs , Nadir Shakhshir interview, 357, quoted in Esber, 338
30 Esber, 338-339
31 Esber, 343
32 Red Cross Archives, Geneva, Files G59/1/GC, G3/82, quoted in Pappe, 100
33 Abu Sitta, Traces of Poison , quoted in Esber, 343
34 Sitta, quoted in Esber, 343
35 Childers, Other Exodus , quoted in Esber, 343
36 Esber, 344
37 Esber, 276-277
38 Iris Shammout interview by Thames Television, quoted in Esber, 284
39 Esber, 286
40 Esber, 242
41 Zadok Eshel (ed.), The Carmeli Brigade in the War of Independence , 147, quoted in Pappe, 96
42 Esber, 382
43 Associated Press, "Delegates to UN, Even Americans, Get Surprise," Los Angeles Times , May 15, 1948, ProQuest Historical Newspapers
44 Yitzhak Shamir, Summing Up,, (New York: Little,Brown and Company, 1994), 75
45 Shamir, 48-49
46 Shamir, 22
47 Shamir, 74
48 Pappe, 147
49 A. M. Rosenthal, "49 U.N. Guards Off To Palestine Task,", The New York Times , June 20, 1948, 50, ProQuest Historical Newspapers
50 Thomas J. Hamilton, "3 Countries Asked For Guard Troops,", The New York Times , July 6, 1948, 1, ProQuest Historical Newspapers
51 Pappe, 149
52 Hewins, 219
53 Naji Makhuk, Acre and Its Villages Since Ancient Times , 28, quoted in Pappe, 150
54 Pappe, 152
55 George Barrett, "Israel Denounces Mediator's Stand," The New York Times , July 12, 1948, 7, ProQuest Historical Newspapers
56 Homer Metz, "Bernadotte Urges UN To Act In Palestine: 'Truce or Sanctions'," The Christian Science Monitor , July 13, 1948, 1, ProQuest Historical Newspapers
57 Pappe, 173
58 Thomas J. Hamilton, "Arab Refugee Case Placed Before U.N.,", The New York Times , August 6, 1948, 8, ProQuest Historical Newspapers
59 Gene Currivan, "Israel Asks Arabs To Discuss Peace At Direct Parley," The New York Times , August 6, 1948, 1, ProQuest Historical Newspapers
60 "Israel Again Asks Talks With Arabs," The New York Times , August 23, 1948, 4, ProQuest Historical Newspapers
61 "Israel Told To Let 8,000 Arabs Enter," The New York Times , September 14, 1948, 17, ProQuest Historical Newspapers
62 "Bernadotte's Aide Describes Killing," The New York Times , September 19, 1948, 52, ProQuest Historical Newspapers
63 Dan Kurzman, Ben-Gurion, Prophet of Fire , (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983), 300
64 Shamir, 74
65 Kurzman, 301
66 "Israel Hunts Assassins of Bernadotte; 200 Jailed," Washington Post , September 19, 1948, M1
67 Hewins, 241
68 Kurzman, 301
69 Kurzman, 365-366