What is the role of Israel in Central America, and why have the nations there sought arms and military advisers from Israel? There seem to be four reasons for this curious relationship.

The foremost reason has to do with the reliability of the main military patron in the region, the United States. At one point or another, Washington has interrupted arms sales to Nicaragua and to the governments of El Salvador and Guatemala. Most recently, Congressional opposition has blocked any acknowledged US military support for the counterrevolutionaries (the contras) fighting the Sandinista government in Managua. Furthermore, Israel provides aid to the police forces of Costa Rica, Guatemala and El Salvador, something Congress has prohibited the US from doing since 1974.

A second reason is that Israeli weapons come combat-tested, and they are priced competitively with those of other arms suppliers. Until recently, with Israel's forced withdrawal from Lebanon, its weapons sales have no doubt been aided by the aura of "invincibility" attached to previous Israeli military campaigns.

Thirdly, the Central American governments see a close military relationship with Israel as a political asset in restoring or maintaining military and political ties with Washington. As one Israeli study of that country’s arms exports noted, the purchaser country perceives its ties with Israel as the key to the influential American Jewish community and thus a way to create a favourable climate and image for its standing with the United States.

A fourth factor is the self-perception of some Central American regimes as internationally isolated and politically undervalued, trapped in a political state of siege, usually on the basis of their atrocious records of human rights abuses. They presume, in other words, a political affinity with Israel as a fellow pariah state.


     Nicaragua’s relationship with Israel predates the founding of the state. Anastasio Somoza Garcia had provided agents of the forerunner of the Israeli army, the Haganah, with diplomatic covers necessary for purchasing arms in Europe. This favour doubtless played some role in Israel’s provision of military equipment to the Somoza regime beginning in the mid-1950s. In February 1957, a Nicaraguan delegation to Israel negotiated a $1.2 million arms deal with Shimon Peres, then the director-general of the Israeli Defence Ministry. Over a period spanning more than two decades Israel sold tanks, light aircraft, armoured cars, automatic rifles and ammunition to the Nicaraguan military. By the 1970s, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Israel accounted for 98 percent of Nicaragua’s arms imports.

Israeli arms sales to Nicaragua and to other Central American nations remained fairly uncontroversial until the intensification of the Sandinista opposition in 1978. The savagery of Somoza’s troops toward civilians in the period after the September 1978 uprising, along with continued gross abuses of human rights, forced the United States to cut off arms shipments to the National Guard. Reporting on a secret Israeli arms delivery to Managua in November 1978, Newsweek cited US officials as confirming that in the past year Israel has become Nicaragua’s main supplier of weapons and ammunition. One Carter administration official said elsewhere that the administration had decided against trying to prevent Israel from supplying light arms to the Somoza regime. Israel justified its military supply relationship with Somoza by pointing to the special relationship dating back to 1948.

Israel and the Sandinistas

     The close relationship between the Somoza and Israel and the fact that Israel provided arms to fight the Sandinistas helps to explain the relations between the Sandinistas and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) that date back to the late 1960s. The Sandinistas saw their participation in battles against Somoza’s allies as a matter of self-defence. Several early Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN) members trained with the PLO in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

A FSLN-PLO relationship, however, has not led Nicaragua to express a strong interest in the Middle East, nor has it precluded reestablishment of the diplomatic relations with Israel that were suspended in 1982. A New Jewish Agenda report sums up the situation concisely: While they certainly have a history of support for and cooperation with the PLO, which maintains an office in Managua, the Sandinistas appear far less concerned with the Middle East than they do with Israeli policies as they affect Central America.

Not surprisingly, Israel’s relations with the victorious FSLN have been contentious from the start, and Israel has fully supported US efforts to undermine the revolutionary government in Nicaragua. Israel’s hostility toward the Sandinistas took two main forms, both of them useful to the Reagan administration’s counterrevolutionary campaign. The first is the charge that the Sandinista government has engaged in anti-Semitic persecution of Nicaragua’s small Jewish community. The second is Israel’s direct support of the CIA-created contra force.


     Honduras is the poorest and most strategically located of the Central American nations, sharing borders with Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. While the levels of repression and violations of human rights are unacceptable by any standards, they have not reached the brutality of, for example, Somoza’s dictatorship during the late 1970s, or of the current regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala. Honduras was the base in 1954 for the US coup which overthrew the progressive and democratic government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala; more recently, the Honduran military has cooperated with their Salvadoran counterparts in counterinsurgency efforts. Honduras is also the base for the largest group of contras fighting to overthrow the Sandinista government.

Israel’s sale of 12 refurbished Dassault Super-Mystere fighter-interceptors to Honduras in early January 1977 gave that country the first supersonic bombers in Central America. By failing to inform the State Department that the Dassaults had been outfitted with US-made Pratt and Whitney engines, Israel violated US laws banning third-country transfers’ of US military equipment. The matter was settled with little fanfare; then-US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger accepted the Israeli explanation that it had all been an honest misunderstanding. In addition to the fighter jets, Honduras purchased from Israel three Arava transport planes, a Westwind jet, Galil automatic rifles, Uzi submachine guns, 14 RBY Mk armored cars, 106 mm mortars and five rapid patrol boats over the course of the 1970s.

Seeking even more modern aircraft for an air force that defense analysts describe as having a marked ascendancy in air power over neighboring countries, the head of the Honduran armed forces, Gen. Gustavo Alvarez, in late 1982 made a quasi-secret visit to Israel in search of alternatives to US warplanes in case Congress refused to sell them. Shortly thereafter, in December 1982, Israeli Defence Minister Ariel Sharon visited Tegucigalpa, raising speculation that another arms sale to Honduras was imminent.

El Salvador

     Like their counterparts in Guatemala and Nicaragua, El Salvador’s ruling class had effectively blocked all peaceful options for political and social change as of the early 1970s. By then, both the popular opposition movement and the armed guerrilla organisations gained momentum. As in the case of the other Central American countries, most of the Salvadoran military’s operations were against their own people. The exception was a brief conflict with neighbouring Honduras in 1969.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), between 1975 and 1979, 83 percent of El Salvador’s defence imports were from Israel. This included 25 Arava aircraft; six Fouga Magister trainer planes; 18 Dassault Ouragan jet fighters; 200 80 mm rocket launchers; 200 9 mm Uzi submachine guns; ammunition and spare parts. With the first arms agreement in 1973, El Salvador got military equipment and the Israelis gained a Salvadoran embassy. A 1983 agreement between El Salvador and Israel provided for the relocation of the Salvadoran embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and discussed further Israeli military aid to El Salvador. In April 1984, Yossi Amihud, spokesperson for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, denied that Israel had any military relationship with El Salvador.

According to the former Salvadoran undersecretary of the interior, Francisco Guerra y Guerra, Israeli technicians have installed a computer system with capabilities similar to those used by the Guatemalan security forces. These computers would enable the military and police to seek out government opponents more systematically. Guerra y Guerra also confirmed that there had been Israeli advisers working with the Salvadoran secret police in the late 1970s. In early 1985, the deputy minister of defence for public security, Col. Carlos Reynaldo Lopez Nulia, traveled to Israel where he reportedly explored the possibility of Israeli training for internal security forces.

Costa Rica

     Since its revolution in the 1940s, Costa Rica has not experienced the political upheavals of Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. However, as the US-sponsored effort to overthrow the government of Nicaragua unfolds, Costa Rica has assumed a prominent position. Costa Rica abolished its military in 1948, retaining a national police and security forces. In the area along the Costa Rican-Nicaraguan border, the civil guard has adopted Galil rifles and Uzi sub-machine guns as its official arms. The Israelis have also provided advice, particularly in the field of intelligence and communication. In 1985 the Costa Rican government announced that it would seek anti-aircraft weapons and high-caliber machine guns from Israel and other countries.

Furthermore, Costa Rica has long maintained good relations with Israel. Luis Alberto Monge, president from 1982 to 1986, was formerly his country’s ambassador to Israel. Over the past 20-odd years, the greater share of Israeli-Costa Rican relations have not been concerned with security matters. Yet as early as 1964, when Costa Rica was creating its Movimiento Nacional de Juventud (i.e. National Youth Movement) under Israeli direction, a representative of Israel’s Ministry of Defence went to Costa Rica to convince officials that the Gadna (an Israeli paramilitary youth organisation) prototype was feasible.

As with Honduras, Israel in late 1982 offered a substantial amount of military equipment captured from Palestinian forces in Lebanon if Costa Rica would pay for the transportation costs. Israel has provided, and apparently still provides, intelligence and anti-terrorist training to the Costa Rican security forces. Deputy Security Minister of Costa Rica Johny Campos admitted that Israel was helping train Costa Ricans in intelligence matters, although he denied any other kind of assistance in the military field. In 1984, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Israel will sell arms and provide counterinsurgency training to the Costa Rican police.

Israeli weapons in Central America

Middle East Research & Information
— March 1, 1998


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