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Killed 65 years ago, Bernadotte was committed to Palestinian refugees’ right to return

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Last week marked the 65th anniversary of the killing of UN mediator Folke Bernadotte, by the rightwing Zionist militia the Stern Gang, at a checkpoint in Jerusalem. No one has ever been charged with the crimes, which included the murder of Bernadotte’s French aide. On the anniversary, Sept. 17, Chris Gunness, spokesperson for the UN Relief and Works Agency, gave a speech titled, “Bernadotte: his legacy to Palestine Refugees,” in Jerusalem, on behalf of UNRWA’s Commissioner General. He allowed us to publish it. –Ed.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Distinguished Guests,

Allow me to begin with some words of apology and some of thanks. The Commissioner General of UNRWA, Filippo Grandi, sends his regrets at not being able to attend this commemoration of a life that was and is so central to UNRWA’s contemporary mandate; the commemoration of a man whose prescience and courage bequeathed to the refugees and the Agency which serves them a rich diplomatic and political framework; a framework that remains relevant today in more ways than many of us are allowed to annunciate. Indeed, despite the vagaries, injustices and cruelties of geopolitics, many of the concepts bequeathed to us by Count Bernadotte remain the touchstone of those who approach the question of Palestine today and those who forge any attempt to deal with both the political and humanitarian aspects of resolving the plight of the Palestinian refugees; more of all that in a moment.

Allow me to extend the Commissioner General’s thanks to the Folke Bernadotte Academy and the Swedish Government for making this 65th anniversary event possible; in particular Axel Wernhoff, the Swedish Consul General and Sven-Eric Söder the Director General of the Folke Bernadotte Academy. Gentlemen, thank you.

From the perspective of the United Nations, the Folke Bernadotte Academy remains a source of inspiration and principle; a rich repository, both in terms of its intellectual value to the international system and its vast contribution in terms of human resources, sending into the world of diplomacy and peace-making officials of the highest caliber. As for the Swedish Government, particularly our friends here in the Consulate, they remain generous, creative, resourceful and imaginative supporters of UNRWA, allowing many of the ideas of Count Bernadotte, to find practical expression, through our work today, in the lives of millions of refugees, who make up some of the most marginalized and disadvantaged communities in our world. Truly, they are the dispossessed of the earth; people who are more dependent than at any time in their history on the structures and processes that were established and nurtured through the visionary work of Count Bernadotte.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It has been both heartening and revelatory to trawl back into the UN’s archive and to shine a torch through the fog of more than six decades of Middle Eastern politics and look behind the layers of historical interpretation and misinterpretation that have come to colour, some might say “distort” the understanding of Count Bernadotte, particularly in this region. It is interesting for example to see the letter dated May the third 1949 to the President of the Security Council from the Representative of Israel, Aubrey or Abba Eban, who was later to become Foreign Minister, surely one of the most intellectually able  and dignified Israel has ever produced. Allow me to quote that letter, a covering note in which he transmits to the Council the Israeli report on the “assassination” of Count Bernadotte. Eban says: “I feel compelled to renew the expression of my Government’s profound sense of abhorrence of this brutal crime, which cost the life of a servant of the United Nations, who initiated the beneficent process of mediation and conciliation which is now showing such impressive results.”

Despite some of the ambiguities and deliberate political historicizing around the assassination by some, at the very pinnacle of the Israeli hierarchy, there was determination and resolve. Word of Count Bernadotte’s death reached David Ben Gurion while he was holding discussions with his military general staff at six in the evening, about an hour or so after the incident. Ben Gurion’s reaction was typically decisive; some would say “self serving”. According to his diary, orders were sent to the Military Police to arrest all the (quotes) “Lehi people”.  And he dispatched a battalion of the Palmach to Jerusalem with the express orders to act, and I quote “firmly and mercilessly”.

Nonetheless, to this day, no one has ever been brought to justice for those brutal murders, in which the Count was shot six times and his French assistant no less than seventeen.  Indeed, some of those suspected of masterminding the killing of the UN’s first mediator enjoyed immunity and went on to be venerated in the most senior echelons of Israeli public life; little wonder that their values and rejectionist attitudes towards the UN sadly are reinforced by repetitious nationalistic mythologizing. So one is hardly surprised that Ben Gurion’s famous put down, “Um Shmum” or to give it a rough translation, “the UN is nothing”, reverberates with such callous ease among some. If only those who use the phrase appreciated its tragic historical antecedents and its selective ignorance.

Ladies and Gentlemen, If Count’s Bernadotte’s assassination sent warning signals through the nascent Israeli administration, the unprecedented killing of a serving UN mediator left the world body in shock and mourning. There was anger also amid the determination to continue with the Bernadotte legacy. The legendary UN statesman Ralph Bunche, who became the Chief UN Mediator after Count Bernadotte’s death, issued a statement on 27th September 1948, just ten days after the assassination, which contained an honesty and clarity that one can hardly imagine today. Allow me to quote him:
”The threats and ruthless violence of criminal terrorist bands in Palestine will not be permitted to frustrate the determination of the United Nations to achieve a peaceful adjustment of the Palestine situation.”

Ralph Bunche continues with his own views on the killing of Count Bernadotte and his assistant, Colonel Serot:
”There was irony as well as tragedy in Jerusalem on that fateful day on September 17 when Jewish terrorists struck down those two gallant servants of peace. Just twenty-four hours before, Count Bernadotte had signed his report to the United Nations, which had accepted without question the existence of the State of Israel and which had strongly urged that the truce in Palestine must be promptly superseded by a permanent settlement. After the assault, the bodies of the two victims laid in state during the night in the very room of the Y.M.C.A. in Jerusalem in which the UN Special Commission on Palestine, which first put the endorsement of the United Nations on a Jewish state in Palestine, had held its opening meeting.”

Ladies and Gentlemen,  If the early reports of the assassination of Count Bernadotte are redolent with an honesty and integrity that are almost unimaginable today, so too are Count Bernadotte’s own pronouncements on the political prospects of the UN peace process and on the plight of Palestinian refugees. These pronouncements would later set the parameters for the creation of UNRWA.

With respect to the refugee issue, Bernadotte was bold and principled. Here I quote his first general report to the Secretary General. Sadly, the count would not live to see his words inform the international discourse; he was killed they day before it was published on the 18th of  September. Tellingly, this is what he had to say:  

“It is … undeniable that no settlement can be just and complete if recognition is not accorded to the right of the Arab refugee to return to the home from which he has been dislodged by the hazards and strategy of the armed conflict between Arabs and Jews in Palestine. The majority of these refugees have come from territory which … was to be included in the Jewish State. The exodus of Palestinian Arabs resulted from panic created by fighting in their communities, by rumours concerning real or alleged acts of terrorism, or expulsion. It would be an offence against the principles of elemental justice if these innocent victims of the conflict were denied the right to return to their homes, while Jewish immigrants flow into Palestine, and, indeed, at least offer the threat of permanent replacement of the Arab refugees, who have been rooted in the land for centuries.”

It speaks volumes about Count Bernadotte’s humanity, that for him, the right of return was no panacea in and of itself. Justice for this dispossessed population would need remedies beyond that one mere right.  He continues in that posthumously published 1948 report and I quote:

“It must NOT be supposed, however, that the establishment of the right of refugees to return to their former homes provides a solution of the problem. The vast majority of the refugees may no longer have homes to return to and their resettlement in the State of Israel presents an economic and social problem of special complexity. Whether the refugees are resettled in the State of Israel or in one or other of the Arab States, a major question to be faced is that of placing them in an environment in which they can find employment and the means of livelihood. But in any case their unconditional right to make a free choice should be fully respected.”

In those words, you can already hear the mandate of UNRWA beginning to take shape as well as one of the key messages underlying our protection work: that the refugees’ unconditional right to make a free choice about their future must be fully respected. The report outlines with heart-breaking detail the situation of the refugees, nearly a quarter of which Bernadotte says “are simply camped out and living under trees. In most places there was absolutely no sanitary accommodation, and since water was drawn from surface collections, and typhoid was endemic, grave possibilities in this regard at this season of the year were likely”.

In that first report to the Secretary General, the short and long term needs of the refugees are summed up with urgency, compassion and authority. The manner in which Bernadotte drew together the resources of the fledgling UN agencies is magisterial. It is an object lesson in humanitarian coordination. The breadth and depth of that report and Count Bernadotte’s grasp of the issues that would soon inform the creation of UNRWA reveal a man of extraordinary humanity; a man of compassionate intelligence and vision.

He concludes that section of the report on refugees with words that have echoed through the decades and rightly should haunt us today. I quote:

“The situation of the majority of these hapless refugees is already tragic, and to prevent them from being overwhelmed by further disaster and to make possible their ultimate rehabilitation, it is my earnest hope that the international community will give all necessary support to make the measures I have outlined fully effective. I believe that for the international community to accept its share of responsibility for the refugees of Palestine is one of the minimum conditions for the success of its efforts to bring peace to that land.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, I fervently hope that the peace makers of today are listening, because sixty-five years after his death, Count Bernadotte’s vision and his prophetic warnings remain as tragically relevant today as they did before his untimely departure.  Many of the underlying assumptions of specific UNRWA interventions – particularly our rights based protection work — find their first expression in Count Bernadotte’s early reporting to UN headquarters. The links we make today between satisfying humanitarian need and creating an environment in which peace can take hold, were first given voice by him. And in UNRWA’s repeated calls for a just and durable solution for the refugees — a voice sadly crying in the wilderness — we hearken back to Count Bernadotte who enunciated this truth that dares not speak its name with such boldness; a boldness that may ultimately, have cost him his life.

But the legacy of those arguments live on; indeed allow me to take Count Bernadotte’s rationale to its contemporary conclusion: the Middle East will remain inherently unstable while millions of refugees are allowed to languish, many in inhuman conditions in decaying camps, with little prospect of a political resolution of their plight; indeed there can be no peace in this region unless and until some five million Palestinian refugees are brought out of their statelessness, dispossession and exile. Without that, this region is doomed to a future of insecurity and instability. Moreover, the dignity and humanity of all of us is diminished, while the Palestinian refugees are deprived of theirs.  For those conclusions, for that legacy, we all owe Count Bernadotte a profound debt of gratitude.

And so Ladies and Gentlemen, Allow me to conclude where I began; with thanks to Sweden. And as a quick aside let me say that this thanks is solidly grounded. Since the year two thousand, Swedish contributions to UNRWA have totaled a staggering four hundred and ninety five million US dollars, that’s nearly half a billion dollars in just thirteen years.

But this relationship between Sweden and UNRWA, is about far more than money. It is also about shared values, a common humanity that has its roots in the life and work of Count Bernadotte. He may be a national treasure in Sweden, but believe me ladies and gentlemen, in UNWA also, his memory is likewise treasured. The values he brought, as a Swedish statesman of high humanitarian principle, defined — and continue to define — our partnership with the government of Sweden and Swedish institutions. Count Bernadotte placed humanitarian compassion and the plight of the refugees at the centre of all we do.  As a military man with finely tuned diplomatic instincts, he was keenly aware of the contribution that human development could make in situations of instability and desperation.  And he never lost sight of the primacy of fundamental rights, including political and economic rights, in the search for a just and durable peace.

And so I end with the words of Ralph Bunche, from that statement of 27th September 1948 which I quoted earlier, in which he paid tribute to the lasting legacy of the inspirational leader he had just lost. Bunch concluded, as do I:

“I am certain that I express the views of all when I say that our continuing tribute to Count Bernadotte is to do our utmost to carry on the work for which he laid down his life. We have lost an irreplaceable leader, a man of greatest good will, but his inspiration remains with us.”
Thank you.

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26 Responses

  1. pabelmont
    September 24, 2013, 2:36 pm

    Always been accusations (and facts) of terrorism in Palestine. The Jewish terrorist leaders became prime ministers. Sigh.

    • ymedad
      September 24, 2013, 4:10 pm

      didn’t the Arab leaders of the Arabs of Palestine so too become?

      • yrn
        September 25, 2013, 5:23 am

        MW aims to people who are not obsessed with Israel and have a little knowledge.
        The point is to push out facts and if not rejected or remarked, they think they gained something.
        pabelmont represent MW, he will accuse Israel as Usual, but will not have the honesty to continue and say, well Arafat the terrorist, became the head of the PA.

    • jon s
      jon s
      September 25, 2013, 4:22 am

      Chris Gunness is Philip Weiss?

  2. ToivoS
    September 24, 2013, 3:12 pm

    Abba Eban and Ben-Gurian’s words of condemnation of the assassination are such a good reminder of the incredible double speak of the Israelis. Those crafty words were very successful in convincing the world that Israel was not responsible for this horrible crime. The Zionists, either Labor or the Likud, were always in agreement on the need to purge Palestine of its native people. Skillful propaganda managed to present different faces to the rest of the world. It worked almost perfectly with only one small problem — the lies have been exposed and anyone interested in historical truth should now know.

    Today the Labor/Likud dichotomy is clearly seen as pure smoke and mirrors and the single essence of zionism is the face of Israel.

    • ymedad
      September 24, 2013, 4:11 pm

      unlike the Arabs who are quite clear in their animosity of Jews and denial of any Jewish national ethos and links to the Jewish homeland?

      • ToivoS
        September 24, 2013, 10:17 pm

        unlike the Arabs

        We are talking about the assassination of Bernodette. Are you suggesting that the “Arabs” were involved???

        If not, what is your point?

      • ymedad
        September 25, 2013, 1:02 am

        You wrote: “the incredible double speak of the Israelis” and my point was not Bernadotte but I questioned if you presume Arabs never “double-speak”.

      • Woody Tanaka
        Woody Tanaka
        September 25, 2013, 12:24 pm

        “but I questioned if you presume Arabs never ‘double-speak’.”

        You never pass up a chance to break out your racism and give it a spin, do you?

      • eljay
        September 24, 2013, 10:25 pm

        >> unlike the Arabs who are quite clear in their animosity of Jews and denial of any Jewish national ethos and links to the Jewish homeland?

        Jews were not and are not entitled to a supremacist “Jewish State” in Palestine. Jews who were not and are not from Palestine have no tangible “homeland” link to Palestine. There’s no just or moral reason for “the Arabs” to accept what Jews want simply because Jews want it.

      • jon s
        jon s
        September 25, 2013, 4:28 am

        Eljay, Israel is the historic homeland of the Jews, it’s part of the “Jewish DNA”, so to speak. No denial on your part can cut that link.

      • MHughes976
        September 25, 2013, 5:18 am

        To me a homeland is a place of upbringing where something of your character was formed. Perhaps we can speak of an adopted homeland – a place where you did not belong at first but where you have now made your home and acquired some new characteristics – but not of an inherited homeland. If parent and child spend their early years in different places their homelands are different.
        And of course it’s true that nothing is mine just because I want it or want it very badly.

      • eljay
        September 25, 2013, 8:25 am

        >> Eljay, Israel is the historic homeland of the Jews, it’s part of the “Jewish DNA”, so to speak. No denial on your part can cut that link.

        No insistence on your part can create a tangible link where only an intangible, religiously-based yearning exists.

      • Woody Tanaka
        Woody Tanaka
        September 25, 2013, 12:16 pm

        “Israel is the historic homeland of the Jews, it’s part of the ‘Jewish DNA’, so to speak.”

        Blut und Boden ideology was crap when it was espoused in Germany in the first part of the 20th Century, just as it is crap when espoused by you, oh man of the “left”

      • Bumblebye
        September 24, 2013, 11:20 pm

        Is that the indistinguishable mass of Arabs in and surrounding poor ickle Israel, or just the Palestinians whose country is being annihilated around them due to the mendacity and duplicity of the entity foisted on part of their land, which then stole half as much again as had been ‘allotted’ and then determined to steal the rest with zero reparations? It is you denying “national ethos and links” to the Palestinian homeland in your policy of ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Palestine.

      • Marco
        September 25, 2013, 12:07 am

        Ymedad’s comment is useful.

        It illustrates how for committed Zionists, the individual doesn’t matter.

        The individual is only a ephemeral manifestation of an racial-ethnic-religious collective.

        In this case, all that matters are that Bernadotte was a non-Jew who was opposing what ymedad and his comrades view as the interests of the Jewish collective. Hence, it was entirely reasonable to murder him out of the interest of defending that collective.

        Now, anyone who has a universalist or humanist bone in their body can recognize what a barbaric mentality this is. But it’s beneficial for this discourse for the mindset of people like ymedad to be exposed.

      • Eurosabra
        September 25, 2013, 2:44 am

        And unless you understand the plurality and multipolarity of influence in Israeli society, you will continue to consolidate the stance of people like me–secular, Mizrahi assimilated to Ashkenazi norms, educated, Leftist-ish–behind people like ymedad. It is simple: you want to drive him from his home in the Jewish homeland Eretz Israel, or leave his shattered corpse in its ruins. You want to drive me from my home in the Jewish homeland Eretz Israel, or leave my shattered corpse in its ruins. Taxi already has a plan and the rockets. So there is a commonality based on defensive reflex, and defensive reason. Now, will I underwrite everything he wants politically? Probably not indefinitely, and I can see more common ground with someone like Menachem Froman or Ron Nachman. But I am not going to inflict the fate you intend for him upon him with my own hands preparatory to undergoing it myself, strengthening you with my own actions, to the detriment of much I hold dear.

        You cannot drive a wedge in Israeli society when all you present to everyone is “the suitcase or the coffin.” Would I not be contemptible if I did not resist to the utmost, as the Palestinians do?

      • ymedad
        September 25, 2013, 2:57 am

        Marco, this – “all that matters are that Bernadotte was a non-Jew” – is stupid. Since Jews were also killed by fellow Jews, for example, the Hagana killed one Jacob De Haan for doing basically what Bernadotte was doing, i.e., subverting Jewish national rights, (see: – your logic is off, or your knowledge of Zionist history.

      • Citizen
        September 25, 2013, 4:55 am

        I agree, the Zionists have a history of killing anyone in their way, including Jews; that’s both their morality and ethic.

      • ymedad
        September 25, 2013, 4:59 am

        unlike Arabs.
        or Americans.
        or, well, there really isn’t enough room for a lost of peoples who engaged in civil war, etc.

      • Talkback
        September 25, 2013, 8:58 am

        ymedad says: “Jewish national rights”

        What “Jewish national rights”? Did Jews as such have a right to create a nation within any nation of the world? If so, are the inhabitants of this nation all going to be “Jewish”? Is “Jewish” a nationality?

        I’m just asking because the right to self determination is a civic right. Only the citizens of a country (neither refugees, nor immigrants who have not acquired citizenship yet) have the national right do decide the future of their goverment. Guess what, by majority ruling.

      • Woody Tanaka
        Woody Tanaka
        September 25, 2013, 12:23 pm

        “doing basically what Bernadotte was doing, i.e., subverting Jewish national rights”

        What racist garbage. You should be banned for this. It’s the moral equivalent of Holocaust denial.

    • tree
      September 24, 2013, 6:35 pm

      And according to Israeli historian Michael Bar-Zohar, Yehoshua Cohen, who fired the fatal shots at Bernadotte and his aide, confessed his role to Ben Gurion when he became Ben Gurion’s bodyguard and close friend after 1956.

  3. American
    September 24, 2013, 6:35 pm

    You will never see Hollywood make a Lincoln movie about Bernadotte.–and-the-death-of-peace-934094.html

    ”Sitting in the back seat, the blue-blooded Swedish aristocrat and the decorated French hero of two world wars had begun to relax from the tension of the journey as the big Chrysler, the last of a three-car convoy, started its final ascent up the narrow road through the now Jewish-occupied district of Katamon, towards Rehavia and the house of the Jerusalem military governor. No one in the first car, a DeSoto, least of all the Israeli captain assigned to escort the VIPs, showed much concern when a new-looking Israeli army jeep slewed across the road to bring the convoy to a halt: just another temporary checkpoint. As three soldiers in standard Israel Defence Forces khaki shorts, fingers on triggers, approached the DeSoto; the three young Swedes and a Belgian in the passenger seats, groped for their papers. “It’s OK boys,” the Israeli officer explained. “Let us pass. It’s the UN mediator.”

    At that moment, one of the three men ran to the Chrysler, pushed the barrel of his German-made Schmeisser MP40 sub-machine gun through the open rear window, and pumped six bullets into the chest, throat and left arm of the aristocrat and another 18 into the body of the French colonel sitting on his left. Rushing out of the first car, the Israeli captain, Moshe Hillman, ran back to the Chrysler. Aghast at the sight of the copiously bleeding bodies he kept repeating: “My God, oh my God,” before jumping in beside the driver, a UN security man recruited from the FBI, and telling him to head straight for the Hadassah hospital.

    But Count Folke Bernadotte, the UN mediator officially charged with bringing peace to a Holy Land at war, and his chief UN observer Colonel Andre Serot, who had only swapped places with Hillman at the last minute so that he could personally thank the count for saving his wife from a Nazi concentration camp three years earlier, were dead on arrival.

    The assassination of Bernadotte by Jewish militants disguised as regular soldiers on 17 September 1948, was commemorated in a series of Swedish and UN ceremonies in Jerusalem, Stockholm and New York yesterday. But no blue Israeli plaque marks the spot, as it does for so many military and Jewish underground exploits of the period. It is still the same September sunshine as it was that day, and the contours of the land do not change, of course. You can see how the ambush took place, just where the road starts to level out before climbing more steeply to the north west and what is now the Islamic Museum and Rehavia beyond. But the road, now Palmach Street, is wider and what was then a semi-rural suburb is now a busy middle-class West Jerusalem neighbourhood built up with its five-storey apartment blocks, and a row of little shops opposite the junction with Ha’gdud Ha’ivri Street where Bernadotte was shot. Today, only those Israelis with long memories, such as passing local resident Abraham Yinnon, who was a 16-year-old soldier at the time, even know what happened here. “It was madness,” he says now. “A political murder. Madness. Maybe it stopped something happening, but….”

    Although it would be 30 years before any of its personnel admitted it, the “madness” was perpetrated by the most extreme of the Jewish nationalist underground groups, Lehi, more commonly known to the British as the Stern Gang, ordered by a three-man leadership which included the future Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir. What cost the life of the count who ran the Swedish Red Cross during the Second World War and was the nephew of King Gustav V, was not the two Arab-Jewish truces he had managed to negotiate – the second of which was close to collapse when he was killed. It was the longer-term peace plan which sought, however vainly and perhaps naively, to tackle the very issues which still lie at the heart of the world’s most intractable conflict today: borders, Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem. It was on the last point that Bernadotte had most incensed Israeli opinion, by recommending first that the city should be in Arab territory, and then, in a report heavily influenced by Britain and the US and submitted to the UN Security Council the very day before his death, that it should be under international supervision.

    Geula Cohen, a former Knesset member on the nationalist far right who in 1948 was a 17-year-old broadcaster on Lehi’s clandestine radio, recalls the chilling threats she personally directed at Bernadotte over the airwaves in the weeks before the assassination. “I told him if you are not going to leave Jerusalem and go to your Stockholm, you won’t be any more.” Did she still think, 60 years later, it was right to kill him? “There is no question about it. We would not have Jerusalem any more.”

  4. thetumta
    September 24, 2013, 8:17 pm

    Perhaps, Steven Spielberg could make a movie about it?

    P.S. Perhaps they would let us watch it?

  5. Citizen
    September 25, 2013, 5:00 am

    Interesting that the Zionists had no respect for the UN from the start of Israel, even though the UN authorized Israel as “a nation among nations” at the UN. Now, I’ve heard lots of GOP leaders diss the UN. Another example of the Zionization of the American mind.

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