Murder of diplomats in Israel went unpunished
The murders of two United Nations diplomats in Jerusalem 70 years ago were denounced as “an outrage against the international community and an unspeakable violation of elementary morality”.
The international community demanded justice for the point-blank shooting of Swedish nobleman and Red Cross hero Folke Bernadotte and French colonel Andre Serot, but Israeli leaders would never make any arrests.
Israeli leader David Ben-Gurion would also later be accused of dismissing the UN, which sent Bernadotte and American Ralph Bunche on the first of countless diplomatic efforts to secure peace in Palestine.
Jewish-Palestinian conflict had festered for decades before civil war erupted after Israel declared independence when the British mandate over Palestine expired in May 1948, when Arab armies moved into Palestine. Six months earlier, the UN voted to partition it into a Jewish and an Arab state, with the towns of Lydda and Ramle in the Arab state.
Palestine’s Jewish community welcomed the proposal, which Arab leaders rejected, leading to civil war between the communities.
“Arab inhabitants were ejected and forced to flee into Arab territory at Ramle, Lydda and other places,” British major Edgar O’ Ballance observed in mid-1948. “Wherever the Israeli troops advanced into Arab country, the Arab population was bulldozed out in front of them.”
Overwhelmed by Jewish militias in the first five months of fighting, up to 350,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled in the 1948 Palestinian exodus, some encouraged by Jewish broadcasts warning of cholera or typhus outbreaks in Palestinian towns and villages.
On July 11, 1948, Jewish paramilitary officer Moshe Dayan led commandos speeding in a column of jeeps into Lydda “with rifles, Stens and sub-machine guns blazing. It coursed through the main streets, blasting at everything that
moved … the corpses of Arab men, women and even children, were strewn about the streets,” a US journalist wrote, with Arabs given 48 hours to leave occupied towns.
Around the globe, British, US and UN statesmen debated strategies to foster peaceful coexistence of Arabs and Jews in Palestine. Australian doctor Raphael Cilento, UN director of refugees and displaced persons, was sent to assess the appalling living conditions of refugees as Bernadotte, assisted by Bunche, negotiated a truce in the civil war. A nephew of Sweden’s King Gustav V and World War II hero, Bernadotte had mediated as head of the Swedish Red Cross to rescue 20,000 people, including thousands of Jews, from Nazi concentration camps. He arranged their transport to Sweden in a mission called the “white buses”, which displayed a red cross.
In July 1948, Bernadotte confidentially disclosed his solution for Palestine, saying there would be a Jewish state, no matter what happened: “Its boundaries will have to be radically altered to prove a more compact and workable state. Its Arab neighbours must be given an iron-clad UN guarantee against any move to expand.”
His proposal limited the Jewish state to 55 per cent of Palestine, and declared Jerusalem as an international city.
Bernadotte was shot during a UN-imposed truce on September 17, 1948, when his three-car convoy was stopped at a small roadblock in Jewish controlled West Jerusalem. Two gunmen shot out the tyres of the vehicles and a third gunman fired a pistol through the open back window of Bernadotte’s car. He was struck by six bullets and died as he was put on a stretcher, along with Serot.
It was more than 20 hours before prime minister Ben-Gurion imposed a curfew over Jewish Jerusalem and began arresting members of Lehi, or Fighters for the Freedom of Israel and also known as the Stern Gang, a Zionist paramilitary organisation believed responsible. No one was ever charged for Bernadotte and Serot’s murders, although researchers later insisted those responsible were well-known.
Stern Gang leaders Natan Yellin-Mor and Matityahu Shmuelevitz were charged and convicted of belonging to a terrorist organisation, but were immediately released and pardoned. Yellin-Mor had also been elected to the Israeli parliament. Bernadotte’s assassin Yehoshua Cohen became a bodyguard for Ben-Gurion.
Future Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, then known as Yitzhak Yezernitsky and a Lehi leader after British authorities killed Stern Gang leader Avraham Stern in 1942, wrote in his memoir that Lehi wanted Bernadotte “removed from the arena”. He added that the group “took no responsibility for the deed”, as “the idea was conceived in Jerusalem by Lehi members operating there more or less independently”. The Stern Gang was afraid Ben-Gurion would accede to the UN and Bernadotte’s plans to give up Jerusalem.
During a UN-imposed truce Shamir, fellow Lehi activist Israel Eldad and Yellin-Mor authorised Bernadotte’s assassination to prevent internationalising Jerusalem and limiting borders of a new Jewish state to 78 per cent of Palestine.
1948 Count Bernadotte (second right) with two unnamed staff members (left), Lebanese politician Riad Bey el Solh and Sir Raphael Cilento, before leaving Beirut on his mission.