When the PLO sailed out of Beirut and into a second exile in Tunisia, its fighters left most of their weapons behind. Israel managed to capture most of these arms, and reportedly sold them to the Contras death squads in their war against the left-wing Nicaraguan government.
"Everyone knows that the sellers were Israelis and that they had grabbed the arms from the Palestinians in Lebanon," one Contra told a Mexican newspaper in 1988. "I have no doubt – many people told me so – that people involved with the CIA were sent to Israel to deal with the shipments."
Israeli arms dealers found this PLO arms cache quite lucrative; suspiciously lucrative, in fact. It is thought that a lot of the supposedly "Palestinian" weapons were actually sent by the CIA in order to evade Congressional restrictions on supplying the Contras, and were mixed in with the weapons seized from the PLO.
US governments needed to use proxies such as Israel to help arm and train its allies among Latin American dictatorships. An Israeli mercenary from the firm Spearhead summed this up best: "The Americans have the problem of international public opinion, international image… we don't have this problem."
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This quote from Dror Eyal comes from 1988, a time when Israel was under increasing international criticism for its brutal crackdown on the first intifada, the popular Palestinian uprising for freedom from Israeli occupation. It seems unlikely, therefore, that Eyal meant that Israel had no problems with its international image, just that Israel didn't care about what the rest of the world thought.
One former member of the Israeli Knesset (parliament), General Matityahu Peled, put it even more succinctly: "In Central America, Israel is the 'dirty work' contractor for the US administration. Israel is acting as an accomplice and an arm of the United States."
Another regime which was trained and armed by Israel was the dictatorship in Guatemala. One prominent Guatemalan politician contrasted the occasional concern by some liberal US politicians over torture and forced disappearances with that of their other ally: "The Israelis do not let this human rights thing get in the way of business… you pay, they deliver. No questions asked, unlike the gringos."
Israeli military advisors — mercenaries from Spearhead, the firm whose personnel operated with the permission of the Israeli authorities — aided Guatemala's dictator, General Efrain Rios Montt. In 1982, they participated in one of his worst crimes: the "Plan Victoria" scorched earth campaign. The Guatemala Embassy in Washington admitted that "personnel sent by the Israeli government were participating in the repopulation and readjustment programmes for those displaced as entire villages vanished."
"Vanishing" entire villages, of course, is something of an Israeli speciality. During the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine, Zionist militias bulldozed and dynamited their way through as many Palestinian villages as they possibly could, having already driven out or slaughtered their inhabitants. More than 500 Palestinian towns and villages were wiped off the map in this way. The demolition of Palestinian property continues to be an Israeli tactic to clear the occupied territories of the indigenous population.
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Rios Montt himself described "Plan Victoria" in frank terms: "We declared a state of siege so we could kill legally." Many died under torture in the "model villages" which were subsequently imposed. The Roman Catholic Church called the campaign "genocide". Supporters of the regime justified these policies in the usual Cold War terms of being part of the "war against communism".
A report from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in 1985 revealed the extent of Israeli involvement in arming Guatemala: "The Uzi submachine gun is the preferred personal weapon of the liquidation units operating in the early hours against dissidents, Indians and non-Indians, or against the 'Campesinos', the poor farmers, whenever they dare take the initiative to organise agricultural cooperatives or attempt to find out the fate of disappeared relatives. Israelis who visit Guatemala are shocked to see the Special Army units wearing Israeli uniforms and armed with Israeli weapons."
Tadiran, another Israeli company, also supplied the Guatemalan military with a computerised intelligence system which helped the death squads to do their work. One army officer explained that the system indexed "journalists, students, leaders, people of the left, politicians, and so on" – making the job of compiling death lists that much easier.
After learning about this long history of Israeli support for the most abusive regimes in Latin America, it becomes easier to understand why figures such as the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez were so critical of the increasingly right-wing regime in Tel Aviv. After the 2010 Mavi Marmara massacre, for example, Chavez famously damned the State of Israel as a "terrorist and an assassin."
This attitude was not based on "instinctive anti-Americanism" as many journalists in the mainstream media would claim, but had solid roots in the reality of the long history of Israeli involvement in imperialism and oppression in Latin America.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.