Israeli Assistance to Dictator Regimes

Israel has a long history of assisting to different regimes. Arms, intelligence and trainings are core if its strategy for many years. In most of cases there were violation of human rights and destructive impacts on local communities and system of governance itself.
Ian Almond, who is professor of Transnational Literatures in the English Department at Georgia State University noted that "The breadth and depth of Israeli military assistance to regimes in South America is striking: Galil assault rifles and Uzi submachine guns to murder villagers in Guatemala, Israeli-made napalm to  drop  on top  of them in  El Salvador, torture workshops in Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala to train interrogators in the most efficient methods, computer technology to help compile ‘death-lists’ of subversives, and training in Israel itself for the creme-de-la-creme of the military elites. This military exchange even dates back to the very beginning of modern Israel’s history, when the Nicaraguan Somoza dictatorship agreed to ship arms to Jewish militias such  as the Haganah in their fight against the British for control over historical Palestine".
Although the Nicaraguan dictator, Somoza, visited Jerusalem in 1961 (Klich, 1990, p. 44), the first real military exchanges between Israel and central America begin in 1964 when training courses are offered in Israel to the Guatemalan military. In the years between 1964 and 1971, over 160 visits to Israeli military bases are made by Guatemalan, Brazilian, and Bolivian military personnel, all subsidised by the U.S. (Cockburn, 1991, p. 218). What develops over the next thirty years is an extraordinary panoply of influences – military, technical, political, and even agricultural. These influences emerge against a changing  background  of  U.S.  administrations,  and  spanning  a  truly enormous geographical range – from  Guatemalan regimes and the training of the Nicaraguan contras, through to the counterinsurgency operations in Colombia and Peru, to lending direct military assistance to regimes in Santiago and Buenos Aires.
The purpose of this brief section is neither to examine the reasons for Israel’s presence in Latin American affairs (‘special credit’ with the U.S., the Carter Ban, reciprocal agreements, ideological commonalities or simple economic motivation), nor to give an exhaustive account of it, but rather to highlight six characteristics which relate to some of the ‘complexities’ mentioned at the outset of the article.
First, the extent to which Israel’s intervention in Latin American situations developed in harmony with the U.S. needs to be stressed. It contrasts with the sometimes- tense relations Britain and France experienced with the U.S. when trying to sell arms to Latin American countries (which U.S. administrations tend to view as their ‘backyard’). The CIA, for example, used former  Israeli army officers such as Emil Saada to help train death squads in Honduras: by 1984, over 250 people in the country had been murdered. American-Israeli arms firms such as Sherwood  International helped supply counterrevolutionary forces with arms (Cockburn, 1991, p. 225). U.S. National security advisors such as Robert McFarlane discussed with the director of Mossad how best to use Israel as a third party to arm and train the Contras (ibid., p. 230). Israel’s role as a ‘dirty- work’ contractor increased in the moments Congress cut off aid to such terrorist groups, particularly during the Carter ban. One consequence of the generally harmonious U.S.- Israeli interaction in Latin America was that it made Israel doubly attractive to Latin American regimes as a supplier of arms – purchasing weapons and training from Israel or Israeli companies bought, for countries such  as Guatemala or Colombia, “special relationship credits” with the U.S. (Jamail and Gutierrez, 1986, pp. 16, 18; Bahbah, 1986, p. 98).
Second, the statistical extent to which Israel features in Latin American counterinsurgency – and to  which Latin American  regimes such  as Colombia and Guatemala have featured in Israel’s arms exports – seems to suggest an unusual amount of reciprocal attention between these governments, rather than merely being ‘business as usual’. In 1980, a third  of Israel’s arms sales went to Argentina and El Salvador alone (Bahbah, 1986, p. 61). For Argentina, this meant 17% of its arms imports. Latin America in general, by 1986, accounted for half of all Israeli arms sales (Jamail and Gutierrez, 1986, p. 15). Victor Perera estimates over half of the 45,000 Mayan Indians killed in Guatemala between 1978 and 1985 died at the hands of Israeli Galil and Uzi machine guns (quoted in Hunter, 1987, p. 36). Israel’s significant interaction with U.S. strategies to protect economic interests in Central and Latin American countries, far from being the stuff of conspiracy theories or the artful selection of arbitrary data, is significantly reflected in arms sales statistics.
A third interesting feature is the extent to which Israeli intervention in central America involved other countries, including both the militaries of other rightwing countries (such as Argentina), as well as more distant countries such as the U.K., Taiwan and even Saudi Arabia (which gave an estimated $32 million  in aid to the U.S. Contra program [Klich, 1990, p. 51]). We have already mentioned how, in Israel itself, extensive training was  provided in all kinds of techniques for Latin American militaries. The Colombian paramilitant, Castano, describes one such school, four hours drive outside Tel Aviv, where in 1983 he met Chileans, Argentinians, Spaniards and Mexicans (Castano, 2001, p. 109). In countries such  as Guatemala, in particular, Israelis seem to have worked in close co-operation with counter-insurgents from other Latin American countries such  as Argentina, Chile and El Salvador. The infamous Guatemalan army intelligence agency G-2 (called ‘La Dos’) was equipped and trained not only by Israelis, but also in conjunction with Argentina, Colombian, Chilean and Taiwanese expertise (Schirmer, 1998, p. 152). The Israeli embassy in Guatemalan City was used as a regular point of contact between Israelis, the U.S. and counterrevolutionary  Nicaraguan Contras (Jamail and Gutierrez, 1990, p. 130). Torture workshops, it appears, were  a frequent point of international collaboration (Landau, 1993, pp. 182-183). The scholar Israel Shahak describes, in a 1981 report, how:
An especially important item of Israeli export  are the so-called ‘anti-terror’ Israeli specialists. Those are really  experts in torture, especially in the more sophisticated methods of torture, such  as inflict maximum amount of pain without killing. The Israeli ‘specialists’ who return home, blame very much the ‘local torturers’ for ‘being emotional’ and so ‘killing too early’, and in their opinion, ‘unnecessarily’. Guatemala has  become the centre for  training of torturers by Israeli ‘experts’ in this trade, and for other states as well. The case of El Salvador where the Orden people are trained by Israelis in Guatemala has been known for some time. (Shahak, cited in Rubenberg, 1990, pp. 114-5)
Israelis were helping Argentines to train Cuban and Nicaraguan Contras at U.S. Army bases in Honduras and counter-revolutionary  El Salvadorans in Guatemala, while Argentinian planes transporting Israeli arms to Guatemala (see Aviel, 1990, p. 33; and Bahbah, 1986, p. 186)[7]. What emerges here is not a single-country initiative, or simple case of Israel offering to do a one-time favour to strengthen the U.S. relationship, but rather a consistent network of anti-revolutionary alliances, overcoming local divides to fight against a groundswell of indigenous mobilisation, organized labour and armed leftist resistance. The close relationship between the Israeli state and the ‘independent’ arms dealers and mercenaries it tried, in response to human rights concerns, to distance itself from, is another interesting factor in these activities. The intimacy that existed between the Israeli government, arms firms and the ex-military  personnel that supplied and trained death squads and drug cartels, further complicates the notion of state sovereignty as being based on the exclusion of non-state actors. It shows how political decisions in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were taken in collusion with allegedly independent actors. Of course, state figures such as Peres and Sharon openly visited and contributed to regimes such as those in Nicaragua and Honduras (Shimon Peres in 1957, Ariel Sharon in 1984 [Aviel,1990, pp. 31, 15]). However in many other ways, the Israeli state supported the whole spectrum of legal and illegal activities in Latin America, from the use of El Al planes to deliver shipments of arms to the regime in Managua (Jamail and Gutierrez, 1990, p. 128), to the Israeli industry minister who told Argentina there might be “difficulties” in meat imports from Buenos Aires if the Argentinian government didn’t  go ahead with  the purchase of six Arava transporters (Bahbah, 1986, p. 95).
Israeli arms firms enjoyed a special relationship with their government. Even today, Israel has one of the most nationalised arms industries in the world, with three of its four largest defence companies (IMI, Rafael, IAI) completely owned by the state (Lifshitz, 2010, p. 271). Arms firms from the 1970s and 1980s such as GeoMilTech and Sherwood International enjoyed a privileged status. They had well-located offices in Tel Aviv and Washington, and special access to captured Soviet weaponry in the Israeli- Lebanon conflict (Cockburn, 1991, pp. 227, 234). However, the most striking aspect of this intimacy is the extent to which some of the most notorious gunrunners and mercenaries involved – such  as Mike Harari, Pesakh Ben Or, and Yair Klein – were directly connected with the highest echelons of the Israeli establishment. The trainer of paramilitaries in Colombia and South Africa, Yair Klein, operated under an official Israeli government license; Colonel  Leo Gleser, a former Israeli commando, sold arms to Honduras through an Israeli firm (ISDS) publicised by the Israeli Ministry of Defence (ibid., p. 225); and former Mossad operator Mike Harari, who sold guns to the Panama regime in the 1980s, was the brother-in-law of Israel’s attorney general, Dorith Beinish (ibid., p. 259). Israeli mercenaries, in other words, were not rogue outlaws, but rather semi-autonomous agents who could not have operated as efficiently as they did without the backing and the endorsement of the Israeli state.
A fifth point concerns the way Israeli influence in Central America was not merely limited to weapons supply, training activities, military expertise, or assisting the establishment of computer systems designed to detect and organise information on subversives. It was also manifested more subtly in the post-massacre re-organisation of the landscape and permanent fragmentation of communities. In Guatemala, hundreds of thousands of refugees, mostly indigenous, had fled their homes during the worst periods of massacres. The ‘poles of development’ were forced re-settlements of displaced indigenous in highly controlled and tightly regulated units. Their inspiration was taken from, to a significant degree, the principles of Jewish kibbutzes and moshav agricultural collectivities in an attempt to regain control, both physical as well as ideological, of the rural population (one observer called them “a distorted replica of rural Israel” [Perera, quoted in Hunter, 1987, p. 42]). One of the architects of the scheme, a Guatemalan Air Force Colonel called Eduardo Wohlers, was trained in Israel.
These schemes – new village plans where forcibly resettled refugees bought all their food from military stores and were constantly supervised by resident soldiers and the police – created local patrols of villagers who were encouraged to take up arms and police their own communities. Jennifer Schirmer, in her classic study of the Guatemalan military project, shows in some detail how “nowhere else in Latin America has an army managed to mobilize and divide an indigenous population against itself” (1998, p. 81). Ideas  of  private ownership  were  systematically  developed in  the peasants  of these resettlement camps as ‘insurance’ against future subversion. Conscription in these village militias was sometimes violent: when Mayan Indians refused to join such civilian patrols, entire villages were massacred to “teach them a lesson” (ibid., p. 83). In a policy which, according to one counterinsurgency expert, was 60% Guatemalan, 20% inspired by U.S. experience in Vietnam and 20% by Israeli and Taiwanese operations, a confusing impression of civil war – of peasants fighting revolutionaries – was deliberately cultivated by the military in order to confuse human rights organisations and foreign observers (ibid., p. 59). Indeed, by extending the use of civil patrols throughout the male peasant population, forced indigenous complicity in violent killings resulted in  a convenient dispersion of responsibility. In  other words, the involvement of locals in individual killings was so  successful that even indigenous communities felt  threatened by the presence of human rights investigators.
One final point to emerge from any study of Israel’s involvement in Central and Latin America is the degree of internal dissent within Israel regarding, in this case, Shimon Pere’s support for Nicaragua’s autocratic dictatorship and, once it was overthrown, the U.S. backed contras who were trying to restore it. Israeli leftists and trade unionists – mostly from the Mapam party – displayed a show of solidarity with the left- wing Sandinistas, attempting to pass a 1982 bill that would  have vetoed Israel’s arm sales to El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala. As Ignacio Klich (1990, p. 68) points out, party-to-party ties between Israel’s Mapam and the Nicaraguan FSLN developed, with the Knesset leader Haika Grossman even visiting Nicaragua at the invitation of the Sandinistas in 1984. Internal dissent also came about, for somewhat different reasons, when it was revealed how, between 1976 and 1979, over a thousand Argentinian Jews (mostly leftists) had been abducted and tortured by the very same Argentinian military the Israeli government was arming and training. Although this degree of dissent was never significant enough to change policy, it certainly deserves mention.
Cultural and Political factors: Positive Latin American Images of Israel
Even a small range of texts – the memoirs of a Guatemalan diplomat, interviews with a Colombian paramilitant, articles from a Guatemalan military journal – show how non- material factors facilitated what otherwise might have seemed an unlikely alliance: namely, the collusion of the Jewish state with right-wing and neo-fascist Latin American regimes. The categories of Latin American admiration for Israel are fourfold:  anti- colonial, biblical, Enlightenment, and what may be termed ‘Nietzschean’.
Anti-colonial  sympathy  for Israel  from countries  such  as  Guatemala  and Nicaragua emerged in the very early days of the Israeli state (although it is resurrected in Somoza’s 1980  memoirs [see Somoza and Cox, 1980, p. 156]). It stems from Latin Americans’ sense of solidarity with  a young, fledgling nation, newly-emergent from an independence struggle against the British – a situation some observers saw as historically analogous to the nineteenth-century independence struggles of Latin American nations against their Spanish overlords. One of the members of the 1947 UN Special Committee on Palestine was a Guatemalan liberal, Jorge Garcia Granados, and immediately after the experience of visiting the British Mandate of Palestine he wrote a book about it, The Birth of Israel (1948). Anti-colonial sympathy for the Jewish settlers in Palestine is a sentiment that pervades the book from beginning to end. In Granados’ various disputes with the European delegates over the activity of Jewish resistance groups, the Guatemalan tells his colleagues: “For us Latin Americans … you English have forgotten what it is to be stirred by revolutionary feelings” (ibid, p. 54). At the very start of the book, Granados states even more explicitly:
I was to find many parallels, both political and sociological, between Palestine and Guatemala … Palestine had emerged from  the yoke of the Ottoman Empire to find itself the victim of tremendous political and social pressures. Guatemala had been forged on a like anvil. For centuries Guatemala, from the time of the conquistadors in 1524, had suffered under Spanish absolutism.
Some of Palestine’s problems appeared not dissimilar to those of Guatemala. Both  are essentially  agricultural  countries with large masses of  backward, ignorant peasantry. In Guatemala this peasantry, exploited  by a small, rich, landed upperclass, represents fully two-thirds of the population. Vast areas of the country  lie waste, and there  is a  desperate need for utilizing  modern technology to raise the standard of living. (Granados, 1948, p. 17).
There are some curious manoeuvres here. In his empathy for the anti-colonial struggle of the Haganah and admiration for the Hatikvah (Jewish national anthem), Granados airbrushes out the Palestinians from the picture. (In the same way, it is tempting to suggest, certain Latin American histories airbrushed the indigenous out from their own independence struggles). Granados is not cruelly indifferent to the Palestinians – in the book, he does acknowledge Palestinian losses of land and the difficulties they are encountering – but this never quite  displaces the Jewish/Bolivarian struggle against British-Ottoman/Spanish rule that underlies the ultimate framing of the book.
A second factor in Latin American sympathies towards Israel lies in a biblical series of connotations which, however strange it may sound, do appear to have operated as a facilitating factor in certain Catholic right-wing nationalisms (not to mention the evangelical Protestantism of Rios Montt). It clearly features in Granados’ visit to Palestine. As soon as he arrived, he writes, “I was all eyes for Biblical landscapes” (ibid., p.31). Repeated references to “the Jews [who] had never forgotten their ancient homeland” (ibid., p. 63), “the land which is sacred to millions of human beings” (ibid., p. 30), show how the Guatemalan diplomat’s Christian background  played a role in his privileging of the needs of Jewish settlers over Palestinian inhabitants. This bias also manifests itself in the most unlikely of places. Take, for instance, the words of Carlos Castano, a Colombian paramilitary leader and narcotrafficker responsible for countless atrocities, including the murder of journalist Jaime Garzon. He speaks of his yearlong stay in Israel for military training at the age of eighteen as a life-changing experience. The religious aspect of this visit was by no means incidental:
The history of Israel is delightful and illuminating. You should start by taking a shekel in the hand, just like receiving Christ… I admire the Jews for their courage in the face of anti-Semitism, for their strategy in the Diaspora, for the resolve of their Zionism, their mysticism, religion and, above all, their nationalism.
While living in Israel, I won a few friends, including an old man whom I loved to go and listen to whilst he sang or recited poetry in Hebrew, his native tongue, the language of the Bible itself. It was so moving. (Castano, 2001, pp. 108, 110 – translation is my own)
Castano’s violent life as leader of the AUC  finds an uncanny co-existence alongside his homage to the profound spirituality of the Holy Land, with the surreal image of the future paramilitary, listening to Hebrew recitations of the Psalms. There is no time here to dwell on the relationship between mysticism and violence, although it is difficult not to see an element of Charles Maurras in the mystical inspiration of so violent  a paramilitary.
What is clear, however, is the extent to which Castano’s Christian background assisted his Israeli military training. Given the Guatemalan General Rios Montt’s own fervent religiosity and interaction with  American evangelicals during the worst years of  the massacres, it is difficult not to see this Christian recognition of the biblical identity of Israel as playing some part, however small, in the extensive collaboration between Israel and Guatemala during this period.
Apart from biblical and anti-colonial sympathies, a third  factor would  be an admiration of Israel as a civilising, colonising, first-world power: an outpost of progress forever threatened by a deluge of indigenous fanaticism and backwardness. Analogous to Israel’s own relationship with South Africa (Sharon seeing the ANC as an African version of the PLO, for example [see Polakow-Suransky, 2010, p. 8]), a definite Enlightenment sympathy for a fellow outpost of modernity  can be detected in some of the ways the Guatemalan military wrote about Israel. “Israel is a small country who is doing a massive job”, said one Guatemalan general to the newspaper Ma’ariv in 1981. “We see the Israeli as the best soldier in the world today, and we look to him as a model and an example for us” (quoted in Shahak, 1982, p. 48). In the 1977 issue of the military journal, Revista Militar, we find an outline of events in the Israeli-Palestine conflicts of 1948-1977. The picture presented is one of a developed nation, surrounded by envious Arab foes. The timeline begins not with the displacement of thousands of Palestinians by Jewish militias in 1947, but with the “Arab countries invading Palestine” in 1948 (Asturias, 1977, pp. 51-58). 
The Palestinians are repeatedly referred to as “terroristas” (p. 51), and emerge along with  their  Arab neighbours as  consistently aggressive and “subversive”, with Israel’s actions largely being seen as retaliatory. In another 1984 issue of the same journal, the position of Israel as an island of modernity in a sea of barbarism is underlined by the reproduction  of a series of conservative Argentinian newspaper articles on the Middle East, with severe portraits of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and Ayatollah Khomeini (“un fanatico medieval” [Ronen, 1984, p. 109]), alongside several photographs of explosions and mushroom clouds, generally presenting a Middle Eastern landscape of feudalism, violence and volatility.
The final factor in sympathetic Latin American responses to Israel I have decided to term ‘Nietzschean’, as it involves – as Nietzsche endorsed in Genealogy of Morals – an admiration for those who are not ashamed of exercising their power and, indeed, who embrace and affirm their aggression. This admiration is best expressed in Castano:
There I became convinced  that it was  possible to defeat the guerrillas in Colombia. I began to see how  a people could  defend themselves against the whole world … In fact, the concept of armed self-defense I copied from the Israelis, every citizen of this nation is a potential soldier.
In Israel managed to open my mind … I learned from other wars and already possessed  a panoramic vision of the country. I tried to absorb as much knowledge  as possible of the Jews, a wonderful  people of God, who have always lived in war and for thousands of years have been in the mode of defending themselves, invading and winning territory. The trip to the Holy Land was a momentous occasion in my life. (Castano, pp. 108, 111 – my own translation)
Israel’s performance in the Lebanon War impressed many Latin American observers in the military, and was a central factor in the successful arms sales of the period. The four factors we have cited here do not necessarily sit easily next to one another. Indeed, a liberal such as Granados has little in common  with a murderer like Castano. The extent to which such factors caused, facilitated, or merely resulted from the concrete assistance Israel gave to such regimes and paramilitaries in the 1970s and 1980s remains disputable and probably incalculable. What the above array of quotations does show, however, is that Israeli assistance to the (para)militaries of Guatemala and Colombia was no straightforward series of ideologically-neutral transactions, but rather an ongoing intervention coloured by a variety of different affinities – religious, political and colonial.
Israel in South-East Asia
According to an investigation from Rania Khalek, associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, a site that advocates for Palestinian freedom, Israel has a history of supporting repressive regimes from apartheid South Africa to Serbia, and Myanmar is no exception.

“For four days in September, Israel literally rolled out the red carpet for a delegation of senior officers from Myanmar’s ground, air and naval forces,” Khalek wrote. The delegation was given a guided tour of Israel’s leading aerospace and weapons companies.

The collaboration between the two nations did not begin with recent reforms, however:

“While most of the world imposed sanctions on Myanmar in the years following a bloody 1988 military coup and the annulment of democratic elections in 1990, Israel expanded investments in the country and helped modernize its arsenal.

According to a 2000 report in the London-based publication Jane’s Intelligence Review, throughout the 1990s Israel sold 9mm Uzi submachine guns and 155mm Soltam towed howitzers to Myanmar.

Meanwhile, Israel’s Mossad espionage and assassination agency provided training to its Myanmar counterparts and former Israeli army officers ‘provided training to Myanmar’s elite counter-terrorist squad.’ Elbit Systems upgraded Myanmar’s F-7 fighter jets.”