Israel, Nicaragua and the Contras
excerpted from the book
Israel Foreign Policy
excerpts from a book by
South End Press, 1987
Nicaragua Under Somoza
With few qualms and minimal outside criticism,
Israel came to the rescue of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza
Debayle and, from September 19 7 8 to July 19 7 9, helped him
stave off history. Later it would be thrown up to Israel that
when Washington and just about every other government in the world
was boycotting Somoza, Israel had been willing to provide him
with weapons. ,
Somoza had been introduced to Israeli
weapons in 1974 at a special showing arranged for him in Managua.
He had bought Dabur class patrol boats and Arava STOI. aircraft;
by the time he fought his final battle he would have 14 Aravas
to rush his troops from place to place.S
Soon after Somoza's U.S. aid was blocked,
insurrection flared against him. In Septcmber 1978, there was
fighting in most of Nicaragua's cities and a massive general strike
in Managua that was supported by virtually the entire business
community. Somoza shot his way out of it. His National Guard used
1,000 Uzi submachine guns and Galil rifles from Israel, and Somoza
was expecting "thousands more" Galils.9 Although most
Latin American leaders were hoping for his downfall, Somoza survived
the September challenge. "Is eli-made weapons helped to save
the Somoza dynasty," read one headline.
That autumn, Israeli rifles and ammunition
arrived in large quantities. Some of the Galil rifles were "sent
directly to a special terror unit commanded by Somoza's son, which
carried out the murder of political opponents, among them women
and children."" The Guard also used the new Israeli
weapons in its "clean-up" operations, which went on
during October 1978 in half a dozen cities. The majority of the
victims-many of them were shot by the Guard at their own front
doors were between 14 and 21 years of age and were marked for
execution simply because they lived in neighborhoods where the
Sandinista National l.iberation Front (FSLN) had been active.
An Israeli adviser "who presented
himself as an Israeli army officer" was also present in Nicaragua
and worked in Somoza's bunker in Managua. The adviser allegedly
represented David Marcus Katz, the Mexico-based Israeli arms dealer
with close ties to the right wing Israeli settlers movement, Gush
Israeli arms shipments continued to arrive.
Several shipments came by air and were delivered at night during
a curfew. Among the weapons delivered this way were surface-to-air
missiles (although the Sandinistas did not have an air force).
Israel had at one point given its word that it would not ship
arms to Somoza. Now it denied doing so, but U.S. officials said
that Israeli arms were still arriving in Nicaragua. "Our
people in Managua tell us that the streets are starting to look
like TerusaLembec.aus.e the National Guard is wearing 1sraeli
berets," said one U.S. official.
By the following spring Israel was sending
Somoza really big stuff: nine combat-armed Cessna aircraft and
two Sikorsky helicopters. The FSLN shot down seven of the Cessnas.
~s Somoza got better use out of the helicopters, which he called
"skyraiders." He had his Guards use them as platforms
for machine gun strafing; and from 3,000 feet above ground, soldiers
rolled bombs out of the helicopter doors.
"The Government is dropping 500-pound
bombs from helicopters on rebel-held shantytowns, reportedly killing
as many as 600 people in one day. Soldiers routinely kill suspected
rebels they capture," wrote the New York Timescorrespondentin
Managua ofthe final weeks ofthewar. After having all but five
cities and a great part of Nicaragua's industrial infrastructure
destroyed, on July 17, 1979, Somoza cleaned out the national treasury
and fled the country.
Israel and the Contras
Some accounts set the commencement of
Israeli aid to the contras as far back as their launching in 1979.
It is even possible that Israel made a seamless transition from
Somoza to the contras through its contacts with some of the figures
in the private network that was exposed when the Iran-contra scandal
broke in November 1986 (see below). A part of this network "began
funneling aid to Somoza via Israel and EATSCO," a shipping
company created by other members of the network to take advantage
of the U.S. weapons Egypt would be receiving as a result of the
Camp David accords, after the Carter Administration cut off aid
to Nicaragua. When the dictator was ousted, network associates
of former CIA agent Edwin Wilson-now serving time in federal prison
for selling explosives to Libya, among other deeds-and former
CIA agent Thomas Clines transferred a "security assistance
program" they had put together for Somoza to the contras.
This would have involved outfitting the dregs of Somoza's secret
police in Honduras, a cynical holding operation that continued
until January 1981, when the Reagan Administration took office.
One of the administration's first moves
was to arrange with Argentina for trainers for the contras. Veterans
of the Argentine "dirty war" were enthusiastic about
exporting their skills and their politics. They trained the contras
until Washington and Buenos Aires came to a parting of the ways,
after the Reagan Administration sided with Britain during the
Malvinas /Falklands War. During the Argentine period, the Israeli
to Costa Rica supplied the contras with
passports and aliases so that they could travel through Central
America. Besides traveling for their own "business,"
at least one contra has been implicated in a Central American
assassination: that of the revered Archbishop of San Salvador,
Oscar Arnulfo Romero.
At the same time, the administration approached
Israel to become involved in the assault on Nicaragua: in a pattern
that was later to become apparent as the raison d'etre of the
Iran-contra scandal, sometime before June 1981 Israel was provided
with satellite pictures of Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirak "within
the framework of an appeal to Israel for help to the contras."
Israel used the pictures to destroy the reactor. It is not known
to what extent, if any, Tel Aviv responded to the administration's
By late 1982, however, Nicaragua was accusing
Israel of arming and aiding the rag-tag bands of National Guardsmen
The best-substantiated knowledge of Israel's
entry into the war against Nicaragua is its agreement with the
CIA in either 1981 or 1982 to supply East bloc weapons to the
then-covert mercenary operation. After having been "restrained"
a bit by Congress during the 1970s, the CIA was experiencing difficulty
procuring "untraceable" weapons for the contras and
was embarrassed when some of the mercenaries appeared on U.S.
television in early 1982 brandishing U.S. weapons. In a display
of caution that would mark all their dealings with the contras,
the Israeli government made a pretense of refusing U.S. requests
for such weapons "through normal diplomatic channels,"
while some former Israeli intelligence officials approached the
CIA with an offer to supply East bloc arms, which Israel has in
abundance. The Agency assumed that the offer had the backing,
awareness or sponsorship of the Israeli government. There is some
question as to whether the CIA accepted this particular offer,
but an arrangement was indeed made in the early 1980s to supply
the contras with East bloc light arms and shoulder-fired missiles,
selling the weapons through the CIA, which in turn passed them
on to the contras and the Afghan rebels. This particular arrangement
apparently continued until 1986, "[w]hen the Israelis presented
their bill for $50 million...[and] the CIA pleaded poverty, paying
$30 million in arms, not cash."
Former FDN Director Edgar Chamorro said
the contras were speaking of Israel as an international supporter
in 1982.'7 In December of that year, the FDN leadership met with
Ariel Sharon, Israel's defense minister, while he was on a visit
to Honduras. An arrangement was made at that time to funnel Israeli-held
East bloc arms to the contras through Honduras.