Israel, Nicaragua and the Contras
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 Emunim.
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.
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 ambassador
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 in Honduras.
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.