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Israel in Latin America

By Mazin B. Qumsiyeh

In writing this introduction to the Spanish edition, I briefly explore a subject little covered in recent discussions: the relationship with Latin America and why this issue of Palestine is relevant to people in all parts of our shared planet.  The rest of this book explores other issues about Zionism (of which Israel is a major but not the only project) and its impact on native Palestinians and on others, including its long term negative impact on Judaism.  It is beyond the scope of this brief introduction to attempt the much needed analysis along the same lines as one by Bahbah published more than 20 years ago and titled "Israel and Latin America: The Military Connection"1. Until someone takes on that project, I make a few observations of relevance. Let us start with selected quotes from Bahbah’s book:

- "(Israeli) arms sales are most concentrated in this region (Latin America). Not only has Latin America been Israel's primary market, but at least eighteen of the Latin American states have purchased Israeli arms." 2

- "During the last decade (1975-1985), Latin America was undisputedly Israel's largest market for arms, accounting for approximately 50 to 60 percent of its total military exports.' According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), one-third of Israel's total arms sales of $1.2 billion in 1980 went to Argentina and El Salvador alone." 3

- While territorial disputes have unquestionably fueled the arms buildup in the region ... most of the weapons procured in Latin America have been used in suppressing internal dissent. Uruguay, Peru, Paraguay, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador have all had to deal with guerrilla movements, and the instability and economic duress of other countries make the threat of insurgency real. 4

- "The Carter administration's human rights policy inaugurate in 1977 had the greatest impact on Israel's sales to Central America, particularly to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Somoza's Nicaragua, all of which had been accused of gross and systematic violations of human rights. ...Israeli arms sales to the Somoza regime likewise received an important boost from the Carter administration's policy. Even before the United States cut off economic and military aid to Nicaragua in November 1978,32 Israeli weapons had become critical to the regime's survival" 5

- The US Monroe hegemonic Doctrine "found expression in the role played by the heads of Latin American delegations during the diplomatic maneuvering at the United Nations that led to the creation of Israel in May 1948. Guatemala and Uruguay, especially, made significant contributions to advancing the Zionist cause at the United Nations Session on Palestine and as members of the UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) which was set up in the spring of 1947. Latin America was instrumental in the passage of the partition plan, without which Israel would not have been created, because at that time Jews were only 35. 1 percent of the population of Palestine and owned only 7 percent of the land. In addition to mobilizing other countries to vote for the resolution, the Latin American delegates provided thirteen of the thirty-three votes in favor of partition. Cuba was the only Latin American country to vote against the resolution." 6

Professor Israel Shahak, then chair of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights, stated in a lecture in New York October 1985: "All weapons or practically all weapons of the Guatemalan Army are made in Israel. So are its uniforms, even kitchens, even field kitchens. There are also ex-officers, I regret to say, I am not really surprised, some of them from kibbutzim in the guise of agricultural experts who are helping the peasants into exactly the same sort of concentration camps which were used against Vietnamese peasants.  In addition, there is the matter of training the Guatemalan secret police and helping it, the so-called death squads, really.  Perhaps I should remind you that in several reports of Amnesty International it was openly stated that there are no political prisoners in Guatemala because all of them are killed immediately." 7

But it is not just the arm industry that is at stake. According to Klieman: "Israeli diplomats are not above suggesting the purchase of its military goods as an acceptable and fair quid pro quo for using the near legendary strength of the pro-Israeli lobby in the Congress and its influence with the American Jewish community on behalf of the arms client."8 Bahbah adds that "according to Israel Shahak (Global Role: Weapons for Repression, Belmont, Mass.: Arab-American University Graduates Inc., 1982, p. 20), the Chilean regime hoped that published photos of General Pinochet with high-ranking Israelis such as former Chief of Staff Mordechai Gur, along with Gur's statements that press reports of Pinochet's excesses were 'not commensurate with reality,' would help its standing with the United States." 9 More has been written recently on the power of the Israel lobby in shaping US policy sometimes to the detriment of even  other US elite interests (see 10). The United States and Israel "Memorandum of Understanding Concerning Strategic Cooperation" (November 30, 1981, upgraded and expanded in 1983) is unique and exists with no other country.  It led to a number of cases where the US Executive branch violated US domestic law and its obligations under International law. The best example of this is that when Congress restricted ability to sell weapons to the Nicaraguan Contras and the strong lobby convinced the Reagan administration to use Israel and bypass the prohibition (in April 1984).  This Iran-Contra scandal is a typical example of how this relationship worked to skirt the law.  Thanks to the pro-Israel lobby in Congress, Israel was merely referred to as "third country" in the mild investigations that followed in Congress.  The key architects of that debacle were resurrected as the neo-cons who took advantage of the events of September 11, 2001 to push for the war on Iraq (and now an expanded war on Islam) thinking that they are serving Israel’s interests.   It was thus not a surprise when President Bush chose John Negroponte to a key role in the occupation of Iraq. Negroponte’s earlier stint at the UN was focused on protecting Israel from International law and as "Ambassador to Honduras" he had a key role in training death squads for Nicaragua and in other atrocities in South America that many still recall with horror.  It was not a surprise when the phenomenon of death squads surfaced in Iraq a few weeks after he took his position there.

The sinister impact of Zionism on Latin America was widespread even when the victims were Jews.  Israeli paper Haolam Haze reported that "the Israeli foreign minister last week extended a warm handshake to the Generals in Buenos Aires who had murdered about 1000 Jews in Argentina" and in responding to the mild criticism within Israel of the murderous support for dictatorial regimes in Latin America, General Chaim Herzog who became a president of Israel, remarked "we must be guided in our relationships by the one criterion that has guided governments of Israel since the establishment of the state, namely: 'is it good for the Jews'"11. Those Jews were considered dispensable because they did not support the Zionist project.  Jacobo Timerman states that "I saw with my own eyes how Argentine jailers tortured Jews in prison while the Israeli government requested the Jewish Community there to remain silent" and continued supplying the military junta with weapons.12  Similarly Professor Israel Shahak also cited this in his lecture in New York October 1985: "Amnesty International accused, rightly so, the former Argentinean regime not only of torture, murder and so on, but it compelled many thousands of Jewish prisoners to kneel before pictures of Adolf Hitler.  Against this there was no Israeli protest in the time of greatest friendship, and supply of weapons and so on.  Anyone who believes that the State of Israel as presently constituted helps...Jewish interests, should think about this one single fact.  When in the most Nazi-like enduring regime, ... such a situation could happen and there was no Israeli protest and no protest from a major American Jewish organization, that should give people material for thought." 13

But the relationship between Israel and US supported dictators in Latin America was far deeper than a military relationship with political ramifications.  At its heart was the same colonial ideologies of "manifest destiny" that informed the establishment of European colonial regimes with flavors ranging from Zionism to US expansionism. In a seminal critical book comparing literature of native Americans and of Palestinians, author Steven Salaita concluded that "Native America and Palestine are often interchangeable, for much of the colonial process in North America and South America summoned Holy Land themes that would repeat themselves in Palestine in the twentieth Century" and that the "covenantal relationship" that Israel and the US share "tacitly pervade the American consciousness because of the United States' own grounding in Holy Land Pathos."14 Native American author Warrior put it this way: "Many Puritan preachers were fond of referring to Native Americans as Amelkites and Canaanites - in other words people who, if they would not be converted, were worthy of annihilation.  By examining such instances in theological and political writings, in sermons and elsewhere, we can understand how America's self image as a 'chosen people' has provided a rhetoric to mystify dominartion".15 Salaita also points that the shared challenges of indigenous Palestinians and native Americans face provided and will provide excellent opportunities for intercommunal dialogue and collaboration.

The repercussions for Israel's direct support to violent and repressive regimes are still felt today (primarily by the victims of these regimes) and will be felt for years to come.  There were warnings even in Israel that such things might come.  The Israeli paper Davar had an article in the 1980s stating that "if more and more Nicaraguans are hating Israel more and more, it is not because they have become anti-Semitic suddenly. The reason is different: Because more and more of their children are being killed or wounded by weapons 'made in Israel'." 16  As families of the victims of the brutal regimes investigate the links to Israel of those years, they will find much more than what the few works cited here find. Activists and leaders should also investigate the close linkage of Israel and the US and its role in oppression today.  While some chose to believe that Israel merely served as a servant to US imperial interests, strong evidence suggests that Zionists in America actually shape and manage significant aspects of the empire and thus sit at the table of power  including the portion of the table allocated to the "military industrial complex".  Fox Broadcasting Company (FBC) focused on attacking any democratic social movements in Latin America.  FBC is owned by News Corp. controlled by Rupert Murdoch, an Australian born Zionist multibillionaire who is on a buying binge for media outlets in Europe and Latin America).  Murdoch is especially targeting popular Spanish media outlets for acquisitions. Being aware of these connections is a matter of importance for any who advocate for human rights, peace, and justice.

Israel's (and US's) power and influence in Latin America has declined and civil society and people in Latin America are by vast majority supportive of Palestinian rights.  As a Palestinian, I am always heartened to see the thousands of people from Latin America and all around the world join with the International Solidarity Movement in Palestine and engaging in non-violent resistance to the occupation.  But much work remains to be done in all corners of the world.  Few Latin American governments responded to the will of their people on such issues of direct relevance. Venezuela recalled its ambassador to Israel when Israel illegally invaded Lebanon in 2006.  It would be logical for all countries to cut relations with Israel until it complies with International law and human rights (Israel is in violation of over 65 UN Security Council Resolutions and hundreds of UN General Assembly Resolutions).  But positive social change in the world occurs when enough people pushing their governments and their media to do the right thing.  That is why it is important that people in Latin America and around the world translate their feelings of sympathy and indignation into direct action.

Israel's relationships with the racist and violent elements in the US fostered destruction in many corners of the world. The primary victims of this sinister relationship today are people in Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq (and perhaps Iran is next). But the victims extend far beyond Western Asia.  Latin America was no exception (primarily in the 1970s and 1980s but still a potent force today).  It is for these reasons that I think people whose mother tongue is Spanish, like all people, need to join the international and growing movement for divestment, boycotts, and sanctions against Israel and its enablers in Washington, DC. Our struggle is modeled after our earlier struggle against South African Apartheid.  It will not be easy but it is critical. It is not easy because a) the US has emerged as a preeminent imperial power after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and b) there is a strong Zionist movement that has great influence on US foreign policy and in world affairs to the detriment of people around the world (including Jews).  Thus, our now globalized struggle is becoming a focal point for challenging US/Israeli hegemonic and destructive policies. It was not surprising that the most discussed political cartoon by Brazilian Cartoonist Carlos Latuff is one that depicts oppressed people around the world in different panels stating  "we are all Palestinians".  T-shirts with that slogan and lots of signs and discussion of Palestine also dominated the World Social For a held in places from Mumbai to Porto Allegro. More and more social movements and civil society institutions around the world realize that US/Israeli policies in Western Asia are essentially the Achille’s heel for the largest remaining bastion of imperialism.  By contrast, peace in Palestine (which can only be based on human rights and justice) is critical to peace in Western Asia and that in turn is critical to world peace. I would consider it a great accomplishment if the Spanish version of this book starts a discussion of these issues in addition to its main focus on exploring the centrality of human rights in arriving at a just peace.


I am sincerely indebted to Prof. Saad Chedid for translating my book and this introduction to Spanish.  

Foot Notes

1. Bishara Bahbah (1986) Israel and Latin America: The Military Connection, Palgrave Macmillan and St Martin, 210 pp.
2. Bahbah, idem, p. 16.
3. Bahbah, idem, p. 61.
4. Bahbah, idem, p. 87.
5. Bahbah, idem, p. 147.
6. Bahbah, idem, p. 63
7. Excerpt from lecture by Professor Israel Shahak, then chair of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights given in New York city October 1985.  Published in the Struggle Newsletter (,), Issues No. 10 (Nov 24, 1985).
8. Aaron Klieman, Israel's Global Reach: Arms Sales as Diplomacy, Pergamon-Brassey, 1985, p. 411.
9. Bahbah, idem, p. 199
10. Andrew Cockburn and Leslie Cockburn,  Dangerous Liason: The inside story of the US-Israeli covert Relationship. (Harper Collins, NY, 1991), 416 pp.
James Petras, The Power of Israel in the United States (Clarity Press, Inc. 2006)
Greg Felton, The Host and the Parasite - How Israel's Fifth Column Consumed America (Dandelion Enterprises, 2007)
11. Chomsky, The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians, (Pluto Press, London, 2000, Updated Edition), p. 110 citing Chaim Herzog, "Good for the Jews?" Jerusalem Post, Dec. 24, 1982.
12. Chomsky, idem, p. 173,  citing interview with Jacobo Timerman in the dissident journal Haolam Haze, Dec. 22, 1982.
13. Excerpts of lecture by Professor Israel Shahak, then chair of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights given in New York City October 1985.  Published in the Struggle Newsletter (, Issues No.11 (Jan 15, 1986).
14. Steven Salaita, The Holy Land in Transit: Colonialism and the quest for Canaan (Syracuse University Press, 2006, 234 pp), p. 15.
15. Robert Allen Warrior, 1991, A native American Perspective: Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians, in Voices from the Margin, ed R. S. Sugirharajah, Orbis, NY, pp. 283-284, cited in Salaita, idem, p. 24.
16. Bahbah, idem, p. 63 p. 185.

Other relevant readings

Benjamin Beit Halahmi (1987) The Israeli Connection: Who Israel arms and why. (Pantheon, NY, 1987), 289 pp.

Milton Jamail and Margo Gutierrez (1986). It's no Secret: Israel's Military Involvement in Central America (Association of Arab American Universty Graduates, Belmont, MA), 117 pp.

Israel Shahak. El Estado de Israel armó las dictaduras en América latina.(Buenos Aires. Editorial Canaán. 2007), 160 pp.

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