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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 1986, Page 4

Page 65

Portrait of a Mideast Terrorist

By Richard H. Curtiss

Whether or not it's a media conspiracy, when there's good news about Israel or bad news about an Arab state, it's on Page 1. Conversely, bad news about Israelis or good news about Arabs is on Page 65. Editors who break the rule may lose advertisers or even their jobs. Here's some information you may have missed if your local newspaper doesn't have a Page 65.

"A man who goes forth to kill another must believe one thing only—that by his act he will change the course of history." —Yitzhak Yizernitzky

By nightfall on September 16, 1948, the hardened terrorist who spoke those words had driven the leaders of newly-created Israel to the brink of international disgrace. At 5:45 p.m. an aide had rushed into the office of the four-month-old state's founder-prime minister, David Ben Gurion, with a telegram that seemed to jeopardize the very foundations of his life's work. A convoy bearing Count Folke Bernadotte, the United Nations mediator who was seeking to settle the dispute between Jews and Arabs that had engulfed the whole former British mandate of Palestine in warfare, had been halted at a Jerusalem roadblock by four uniformed Israelis. As the mediators, traveling under United Nations flags and accompanied by an Israeli liaison officer, offered identification papers, one of the armed Israelis trotted along the row of three cars, scanning faces of the occupants. When he reached the last car he paused to peer at the Swedish diplomat in the rear seat. Then, wordlessly, the uniformed terrorist poked his Sten gun through the car window and fired a long burst. Count Bernadotte and a French officer seated beside him died on the spot. Another Swede and a British officer were slightly injured. Only an American officer in the front seat was unscathed.

At 11 p.m. an ashen-faced Israeli Foreign Minister, Moshe Sharett, received in his office a US Government official, James G. McDonald. McDonald, a former American employe of the World Zionist Organization, had been sent to Tel Aviv by President Truman with the title of "Special Representive" rather than Ambassador to circumvent General George Marshall, the World War II Chief of Staff, who was then Truman's Secretary of State. Marshall had strongly opposed recognition of the Jewish State before it defined its borders, an action it has not taken to this day, and Truman knew Marshall would resign before he would agree to sending a former employee of what had become the state of Israel to be the first US Ambassador to that state. Truman had warned McDonald that State Department professionals believed the Israeli government to be little more than a junta incapable of enforcing and unwilling to abide by its own laws.

McDonald was relieved, therefore, when Sharett assured him:

"We are setting up the most rigid search for the assassins and their accomplices and we shall execute justice at the moment guilt is proved."

Everyone in Israel knew the men behind the cold-blooded assassination were Israel Sheib, Nathan Friedman-Yellin and Yitzhak Yizernitzky. They comprised the executive committee of the "Fighters for the Freedom of Israel," a Jewish extremist group known to Israelis by its Hebrew acronym, Lehi, and as the Stern Gang to the British soldiers it had been killing throughout World War II. Knowing that Britain's Eighth Army was hard pressed to defend North Africa against the repeated attacks of German General Erwin Rommel's Afrika Corps, the Stern Gang maintained a "second front" by assassinating British soldiers to force the British out of Palestine. When asked by other Jews how they could justify supporting the Nazi war effort, Yizernitzky and other Stern Gang leaders maintained that because Britain had suspended Jewish immigration into Palestine at the beginning of World War II, Churchill's Britain and Hitler's Germany both were enemies of a Jewish state.

In early 1944 the same three-man Stern Gang executive committee had plotted the successful assassination in Cairo of Lord Moyne, the British Minister of State in the Middle East, and an unsuccessful assassination attempt against Sir Harold MacMichael, British High Commissioner in Palestine.

Now, in 1948, after giving the order to kill Count Bernadotte as he crossed from Arab to Jewish territory in Jerusalem, Sheib and Yizernitzky went into hiding in a Stern Gang safe house. Friedman-Yellin, who had already suggested shifting the group's focus from terrorism to political action, may not have known the date of the action to which he had agreed. He was arrested and put on trial as were some of the Stern Gang rank and file who had been rounded up in their camps in accordance with Sharett's pledge to the US representative. When strong US negative reaction to the murders did not materialize, however, all of the militia members, who had already been allowed to leave their jail cells to visit their families at home, were released within a few months, as was Friedman-Yellin.

As Nathan Yellin-Mor he later became the editor of a left-wing newspaper advocating peace with the Arabs. Joshua Cohen, who trained the assassins of Lord Moyne and was widely believed to be the triggerman who killed Count Bernadotte, subsequently became David Ben Gurion's personal bodyguard. Even more astonishing was the evolution of Yitzhak Yernitzky, under a new name, from Stern Gang chief of "operations" to official of the Mossad, Israel's equivalent of the CIA. The campaign of letter bombs mailed from Europe to German rocket scientists working for the Egyptian Government was attributed to him. Later he left Mossad to pursue a highly successful third career in politics. In October of this year he began his second term as Prime Minister of Israel under his new name: Yitzhak Shamir.

(Facts in this article are drawn from Genesis 1948: The First Arab-Israeli War, published in 1970 by Dan Kurzman, former Washington Post foreign correspondent.)