Remembering the Nakba via Folke Bernadotte’s 'To Jerusalem'

May 8, 2023
To Jerusalem
Folke Bernadotte was assassinated by Jewish extremists in September 1948, after just four month’s work as mediator.

To Jerusalem
By Folke Bernadotte
Translated by Joan Bulman
London. Hodder and Stoughton, 1951

As we prepare to join the global Palestinian diaspora in remembering the ethnic cleansing of 1948 (and 1867) a personal story illuminates Zionism in action.

Zionist forces launched the Nakba (Catastrophe) on Palestinians in mid-May 1948, and reports alarmed the world.

Then president of the International Red Cross, Folke Bernadotte, a Swedish aristocrat and Count of Wisborg, was asked by the United Nations to lead an on-the-ground mediation effort there, as the British left the UN mandate territory.

Bernadotte’s work for the Red Cross in Europe, as World War II ended, had been outstanding.

Many will know about the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin in Tel Aviv in November 1995, by a right-wing Jewish extremist and may also know of the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in July 1946, during the British mandate, by (Jewish) Irgun terrorists.

You may not know about Bernadotte’s assassination in September 1948, after just four months’ work as a mediator.

On finding Bernadotte’s book, To Jerusalem, I was curious, having vaguely recalled hearing his unusual name on the radio back then.

He knew the risks: both sides were wary and suspicious. Snipers from Arab and Jewish armies and militia were active in many towns and cities. But Bernadotte took on the mediator job, aided by a limited number of international observers. He spent weeks shuttling — mainly by slow UN aircraft — between Palestine, regional capitals and the capitals of several UN “powers”.

He achieved two “ceasefire” truce periods, across mid-1948, and was working for peace when he was killed.

To Jerusalem is based on Bernadotte’s diary during those four months of dialogue with kings, presidents and prime ministers. It contains lessons for those who seek justice for Palestinians today.

He notes how the Jews felt especially discriminated against, with their journalists very ready to suspect discrimination unless their interests were given primacy. He writes of the Jewish Provisional Government’s response to his suggestions for discussion as very bolshie and assertive of Jewish rights — or passively resistant — to refugees' right of return, or anything less than Jewish control of Jerusalem.

He underlines the increasing Jewish opposition to the UN (as well as to the Palestinians and their Arab allies).

“The Arabs had given us every possible help ... The Jews, on the other hand ... constantly did everything in their power to make our work more difficult.”

He could not understand “why the Jewish government should adopt an attitude of such arrogance and hostility towards the UN representatives”, or since “the Jewish people ... had suffered so much” why it showed “hardness and obduracy” towards the refugees.

He notes the gradual, if grudging, Arab acceptance of the Jewish state and of possible de-militarisation of Jerusalem.

Finally, Bernadotte records confirmed evidence of Jewish tunnelling (under the Jerusalem ceasefire lines, for future attack) during the truce.

What has all this got to do with today?

Bernadotte, a European Christian (the Church of the Holy Sepulchre fronts his book) frequently noted a Jewish (meaning Zionist, a term he doesn’t use) propensity to see only their own interests and objectives as deserving satisfaction.

He wrote of saying to companions after being acclaimed on his first visit to Tel Aviv “that the friendliness that flowed towards me then would unquestionably turn to suspicion and ill-will if, in my later activities as Mediator, I failed to study primarily the interests of the Jewish party but sought to find an impartial and just solution of the problem”.

This disposition is still there, across the Australian Jewish News, in the envelope-pushing from local to international and woven through many of those apologias for Israeli crimes, penned by acolytes of the Australia Israel Jewish Affairs Council.

In comparison with all the liberation movements and civil war histories I can recall (India:1900–1940s, Vietnam:1950s–1970s, South Africa:1960s–1990s, Algeria:1960s, and Bangladesh:1970s) and of course there’s plenty to regret — this distinctive quality in Zionism remains unique in the behaviour of contenders for state power.

That’s bad enough. But remember Bernadotte was shot at close range in a pre-planned ambush as his white-flagged UN convoy was stopped at a checkpoint in the Jewish zone of divided Jerusalem. The (Lehi) terrorists’ informers knew which car and which seat he was in.

Bernadotte’s diary records the arrival of cargo ship the Altalena from France, in Tel Aviv on June 20, 1948 (when truce rules forbade immigration of military-aged men and war materiel). Irgun terrorists — some of the thousands then out of government control — had to be disarmed by the Haganah (the Jewish regular army) to stop the landing.

Bernadotte noted the extremist Irgun-influenced media sought to blacken his reputation with slurs about his “Himmler links” (he had negotiated with Nazi leaders during the war as a Red Cross envoy from neutral Sweden).

It is sobering to read today that Netanyahu’s new Likud-led government includes as ministers proud right-wing extremists such as Itamar Ben Gvir (Minister for National Security from the Jewish National Front) and Bezalel Smotrich (Minister for Finance from National Union–Tkuma). They follow a fine tradition: two earlier Israeli Likud PMs — Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir — who were each in power for six years were both leading terrorists, in the Irgun or Lehi outfits, during the Nakba.

Those who seek justice in Palestine should remember that this dark side of the Israeli colonial state is not just history.

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