Euskadi-Israel: A relationship of military training, ETA’s empathy for Zionism and politics
During the Nazi occupation of France, the Basque resistance, who were the ones controlling the crossings passages (and in coordination with the allies), managed to evacuate many Jews throughout the basque border with France. There are some rescue operations, for example in the concentration Camp of Gurs, which allowed the release of some arrested Jews through an underground tunnel that was made by the Basque resistance. Later, between 1947 and 1953 a large number of Basque sailors-more than a hundred-were hired by the Haganah and the Jewish Agency in Marseilles and Paris to participate in helping them to bring Jewish immigrants to Palestine.
During Civil War
These contacts had the approval of the delegation of the Basque Government in Paris, represented by Javier de Gortázar. They were carried out through the Ginesta Society, which in the midst of the Spanish Civil War had served as a cover to support the Spanish Republic, and which has now become a backdrop for Mossad activity. One of the most spectacular operations was the one executed by Víctor Gangoitia. Mr. Gangoitia, delegate of the Basque Government for Refugee Affairs from 1947 to 1953, along with Captain Esteban Zubiaga Hernandorena de Portugalete, Rafael Inda, Mariano de Lekeito, and thirty other Basques from several basque cities, helped more than a thousand Jews to escape from Bulgaria.
During the Dictatorship: Basque Nationalist Party and Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA)
Afterwards, there would be more operations performed by Mr. Gangoitia. One of the most prominent ones being the Exodus operation in 1947. In 1948, Mr. Gangoitia decided to permanently stay in Israel. From that date until 1959 he was part of the ZIM Integrated Shipping Services, Israel’s largest shipping company. In Israel, he would meet the woman of his life and one of his two daughters were born there. Captain Esteban Hernandorena, best known in Israel as “Captain Steve Gate”, settled in Haifa in 1948 with his wife and their four children. Captain Hernandorena became one of the most important members of ZIM. After his death in 1965, a plaque was placed in his memory as an homage on the wall of the house of the sailors in Haifa that says: “1905-1965, born in Vizcaya; sea captain, active in the “illegal” fleet; one of the founders of Israeli Merchant Marine, based in Haifa”.
Between 1946 and 1948, the Haganah also requested the services of the Basques for the acquisition of armament in Marseille. Nationalist leaders like Javier de Landáburu, José Mitxelena, Julio Jáuregui, Leizaola, Ajuriaguerra and Lehendakari José Antonio Aguirre (President of the Basque Government) received with joy the creation of the new State of Israel. The kibbutzim living model, the renascence of Hebrew and armed groups like Irgun and Lehi were achievements that the Basques looked up to. Jesús de Galíndez, delegate of the Basque Government in New York, had many meetings and developed close friendships with several Israeli ambassadors to the United Nations (UN) such as Abba Eban, Moshe Tov and Golda Meir. In May 1949, the Basques congratulated the Israeli Government for voting against the entry of Spain into the UN and for not recognizing Francisco Franco’s regime.
For many young people of Euzko Gastedi (EGI), Israel’s proclamation of independence was their ideal model of political sovereignty for the future “State of Euskadi”. The Jewish groups armed struggle, especially Irgun’s one, were movements from which the Basques hoped to learn from. Irgun Zvai Leumi had been the main Jewish paramilitary formation against the British occupation in Palestine. For this reason, the book The Revolt, written by Menachem Begin, became the literary work of reference for EGI. Another manual that also influenced EGI is a textbook about the Jewish resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto. From what they learned in this book, the Basque resistance developed strategies and methods to try to make collapse the francoist dictatorship.
On June 5, 1967, shortly after the beginning of the Six-Day War, the President of the Basque Government in exile, Jesús María de Leizaola, visited the Israeli ambassador in Paris to express his support for the people of Israel. In its struggle for resistance and freedom, the Basques offered the Israelis the assistance of the Basque diaspora colonies scattered worldwide. The Society of Friends of the Country of Pamplona transmitted to the Israeli ambassador in Paris “the offer of a donation of blood of the Basque youth destined to the relief the wounded in the present war and formulated by this Cultural Association, representative of the feelings of the Basque People towards the admirable and heroic Jewish nation”. On November 25th of 1975, the powerful Caracas Basque Center-located in the capital of Venezuela-publicly protested against the UN resolution 3379 condemning Zionism “as a form of racism” and expressed their solidarity with Israel and the Jewish people.
For the first time, it is during this period when founding leaders of the terrorist group ETA started seeing Israel as a political-national entity to admire. A nation that achieved their national liberation based on the armed struggle. For ETA, the clandestine Jewish terrorist group Irgun became their role model, and Menachem Begin’s literary work, The Revolt, was their “bible”. The internal security rules that ETA established in the beginning were basically the same that Irgun followed when they were active. During the 1960’s ETA did not have the necessary resources-paramilitary training or weapons-to perpetrate acts such as the ones Irgun did at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Julen Madariaga, one of ETA’s main leaders, pushed in favor of the adoption of these type of actions during the terrorist group’s third assembly in 1964.
Madariaga raises the need for an immediate start of the violent struggle and for the implementation of an urban guerrilla action plan. In his opinion, they should not be fooled by the course of the revolutionary war in China, Tunisia, Cuba, Algeria, or other countries. In all the cited cases, the revolutionary war had taken the form of “guerrilla warfare essentially, that is to say, in the countryside, mountain and unpopulated areas”. But to apply the same to Euskadi was a great mistake, since the immense majority of the population was part of the industrial class and therefore concentrated in great urban complexes. For this reason, Madariaga pointed out Israel as a modern example that had more similarities with them, because there “the urban commandos prevailed over the mountain guerrilla”.
During the months that he was incarcerated in 1961, Madariaga was extremely attracted by the French edition of the book The Revolt by Menachem Begin. This textbook was facilitated to Madariaga by the BNP member Luis Maria Retolaza, another enthusiast of Israel who in 1980 was appointed Secretary of Interior of the Basque Government. A few months before his arrest, the head of the military branch of ETA proposed to attempt against the Civil Government of Bilbao, as the activists of the Irgun did when the British intelligence headquarters were installed in the King David Hotel of Jerusalem. However, the attack was not perpetrated. Before this, Julen Madariaga proposed an unprecedented step: he wanted to request military aid to Menachem Begin, who will later become the Prime Minister of Israel between 1977 and 1983.
In the autumn of 1963 Julen Madariaga, accompanied by another member of ETA’s military branch, Juan Luis Irusta and Jaime, moved to Paris. Through the well-known basque nationalist Alberto de Onaindía-an official at Unesco’s headquarters- and thanks to the mediation of a personal friend of BNP leader Juan Ajuriaguerra, Elie Meisib (a Haaretz correspondent), the two ETA leaders achieved their goal. They contacted Irgun’s representative in Paris, Shlomo Steinberg. Although Irgun formally dissolves shortly after the War of Independence of Israel, for about fifteen years it maintained a parallel structure integrated within the political party Herut, led by Menachem Begin.
Steinberg welcomed Juan and Jaime in his office located in Paris. For more than an hour, he listened carefully to the two BNP leaders. During this meeting, Madariaga narrated the lack of freedom Basques have in Spain, the “occupation of Euskadi”, the Franco’s dictatorship repression of all Basque national identity symbols and explained that ETA was a “Basque Revolutionary Movement of National Liberation “, similar to Irgun. However, this requires help and support, so Julen Madariaga asked Steinberg to transmit this to Menachem Begin. He asked for Begin’s help and required him to provide ETA the necessary tools to carry out the “armed struggle for the national liberation of Euskadi”.
At that time, ETA had about 300 militants in the “free community”, and another 110 in prison. During this meeting, Madariaga made clear that “Euskadi is under the occupation of the oppressive states of Spain and France.” Before concluding the meeting, Steinberg tells them that he will immediately transmit their requests to Begin, but he warns that if Begin asks for his opinion, he will desist from this idea because of the close relations that Israel had with France at the time. Is actually during this period when France helped Israel in many issues, such as the development nuclear technology, investment and military training. Three weeks later Irgun’s representative in Paris informed to the leaders of ETA’s military branch that Begin, despite being sympathetic to their cause, could not provide them with any assistance that could go against De Gaulle’s France.
Three years after the request to Begin, Julen Madariaga has a new occasion to request military aid, but in this case to the Government of Algeria. In March 1966, the ETA leader, who had been exiled in Algeria since March 1965 after being expelled from France, asked the National Liberation Front of Algeria leaders to supply ETA with arms, financial aid, paramilitary training and a radio station to promote their struggle as Nasser’s Egypt did with the PLO in the 1960’s. The response of Colonel Huari Bumedian, head of the Algerian state, was also negative. But the reason is really interesting: Spain was going to sell them about half a million lambs, essential to celebrate the day of Ait Lakbir-the Islamic festival of Sacrifice-and he cannot renounce to this because Spain was the only country willing to do this. So in February 1972, ETA signed its first statement of solidarity with the Palestinian cause and became an ally of the Organization for the Liberation of Palestine (PLO). Undoubtedly, this was a clear political and ideological switch for ETA who in its beginning was very Pro-Israel. But because of their political and paramilitary needs, receiving help from the PLO was more convenient and useful, in a period of time in which it was very much necessary.
Nevertheless, Madariaga is not the only ETA leader who admired Israel. José María Benito del Valle, José Manuel Aguirre and José Luis Álvarez Emparanza (Txillardegi), members of ETA’s founding group, in addition to the Irgun struggle, greatly valued a very important Israeli achievement: the recovery and resurgence of Hebrew. For them, the loss of Euskera would mean the disappearance of the Basque nation. Above all, Txillardegi, an scholar expert in linguistic matters, advocated for the need of prioritize the use of the Basque language in an eventual independent Euskadi, as Israel had previously done it with Hebrew. However, Benito del Valle, next to Madariaga, is the most interested one in Israel. He even visited the Israeli embassy in Paris during the spring of 1967 in search for documentation to write some of the articles that he would later publish about Israel in Zutik and Branka, ETA’s newspapers.
Thus, in 1968 Del Valle writes a long article in Branka in which he analyzes the use of Hebrew, the achievement of Israeli independence, and the kibbutzim and moshavim models in order to give a general perspective of Israel at the time. Among his conclusions he pointed out that the Basque language must reborn before the beginning of any national liberation movement. The interest of José María Benito del Valle is such to learn about the Israelis day-to-day life that, in the early seventies, he lived for several months in a kibbutz in Israel.
Basques and Israelis links during the Spanish Transition period
Between January 1974 and May 1977-one month before the first democratic elections after Franco’s death-Euskadi’s Government in exile and the BNP, requested and obtained military training from two Israeli captains belonging to elite units. The contacts were made by Primitivo Abad Gorostiza, who had a long military career. He was a commander for the gudaris (Basque soldiers) during the Spanish Civil War, and amid World War II he was integrated into the Basque Brigade, fighting alongside American troops. From January 9 to February 6, 1974 Primitivo Abad visited Tel Aviv to take, as head of the Solidarity of Basque Workers group (SBW), a course on labor and cooperative issues taught by the Histadrut- the General Confederation of Workers of Israel.
But his real mission, was totally different. According to the indications made by the powerful BNP leader Juan Ajuriaguerra, Abad must contact Israeli soldiers who are willing to train paramilitary commandos who, under the guarantee of the Basque Government, will be sent to Israel. Through Josu de Arenaza, member of Buru Batzar (National Council) of the BNP in Vizcaya, Abad comes in contact with captain Yair Dori Yussif. This military captain belonged to an elite unit of parachutists of the Israel Defense Forces.
Captured two years earlier in the Sinai by the Egyptian army, he was the sole survivor of a special commando composed of fifteen members. After eleven months of being in captivity, and because of the successful mediation performed by the Red Cross, he was exchanged for several wounded Egyptians soldiers. At this point, the Basque emissary communicated to Dori the purpose of his mission, indicating that in addition to training commandos in Israel itself, there is a possibility that he and other Israeli military commanders selected for training will have to go to the French Basque Country. Abad assures “not to use the knowledge acquired for other reasons than the national freedom of Euskadi”.
On February 6, Primitivo Abad had a meeting in Paris with the Basque Government President, Jesús María de Leizaola. Abad informed about the acceptance of Captain Yair Dori to carry out the requested mission. The lehendakari approves and goes even further by stating that in the near future he will make efforts to establish, even if unofficially, relations with the Jewish State. Eight days later, Abad asked Juan Ajuriaguerra, Joseba Rezóla and Luis María Retolaza to have a meeting with the captain in Paris to which the Lehendakari himself will attend. The meeting is set to take place in the French capital on April 8th, 1974. In that meeting participated Yair Dori- who had just arrived from Tel Aviv-, Lehendakari Leizaola and Mikel Isasi. The latter had been a liaison between the youth of the BNP and EKIN-the incipient group of ETA-, and had some military knowledge since in the early 60’s he had participated in a course organized by the Provisional Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland.
The Basque leaders explained to the Israeli captain that it is unknown how are they going to leave clandestinity, that they believed that a state of violence will appear after the dictatorship, and that before that happened they wanted to have a series of commandos that could maintain public order. They also asked Dori to select other Israeli officers in order to help him. In the beginning, he contacts three other captains, also belonging to elite units. Together they prepare a program for a two weeks-long course. In subsequent contacts, Abad reports that the best date to carry out the first “military session” will be August, and that the size of the group to be trained will be of fifteen or twenty people.
The Region of Vizcaya counted already with 19 companies with 103 fighters each one. The training place was going to be the BNP’s party house in Bayonne. Since it was a small group, Yair Dori Yussif decided to move with only two other captains. It is proposed to travel from Tel Aviv to Paris by plane and to take a train from there to Bayonne. However, at the end of July 1974, by request of the Basque nationalists, the trip was postponed. Franco’s sudden illness make them cautious before launching into such an operation. In addition, the general assembly of the BNP to be held on July 6 was postponed until September or October. In any case, Captain Dori is informed that his help is important to them and that they will contact him soon with new information.
Additionally, the BNP was immersed in a serious economic crisis, and therefore the delay was accepted. After several contacts by letter and after more than a year, in September 1975, Abad communicates Dori that all the mechanisms have been put in place again to carry out the postponed mission. Throughout October, Ajuriaguerra, Retolaza, Isasi and Abad himself, began carefully selecting the personnel who would participate in these training sessions. On December 7th 1975, seventeen days after Franco’s death, Ajuriaguerra asked Abad to contact Dori and to expedite his transfer to Bayonne. He added that he was being asked about the possibility of a short visit to the Basque Country to gain field knowledge in order to better comprehend its peculiarities.
It seems that from the earliest contacts, the Basque resistance within the francoist Euskadi had expressed its desire that Dori and his men’s move there to show their commitment with the Basque resistance. On December 17th, 1975, the Israeli captain replies that he is willing to move on any date, alongside another commander of equal rank called Marcos G. and who has no problems with going to Euskadi. Finally, on February 15th, 1976, the green light is given.
The purpose of the course was to teach some specific military techniques that they knew could be transmitted to the future Basque government’s security/military forces. For all this, they wanted some extensive knowledge on issues such as forms of recruitment, commitments that they should accept, smaller number or unit cell, square, section, company, etc. Also, geographical distribution of these units in populations of 300,000 people and in villages of 10,000 people or less, materials to be use, and means of acquiring them.
Yair Dori and Marcos G. stayed in Bayonne from February 15th, 1976 until March 6th, 1976. There, they trained a group of 18 people including: Primitivo Abad, Mikel Isasi, Antón Ormaza (President of the BNP’S Buru Batzar in Vizcaya) and José Luis Irurita, a member of Buru Batzar. Juan Ajuriaguerra and Luis María Retolaza personally attended two training sessions. On the 16th and 17th of March the two Israeli captains visited the Spanish Basque Country, although after many hesitation, as they feared a possible arrest in a State that does not maintain-at that moment-diplomatic relations with Israel. Moreover, the delicacy of their mission makes them more suspicious of the journey.
Anyways Yair Dori asked Abad if the president of the Basque Government in exile contacted with Israel to formalize their relations. From Jerusalem, Abad makes two telephone calls to Jesus Maria de Leizaola, urgently asking him to appear at the Israeli embassy in Paris to “secure the captains” and to explain “the motives of the trip”. The lehendakari even visited the diplomatic delegation twice, but he himself realizes on Friday May 13th, 1976 that the whole operation has been short-circuited. In Euskadi, 5 people were killed the day before after a terrorist attack was perpetrated. The operation ended up being a failure. Abad, Irarita and Emeldi left Israel on May 19th. Less than a month later, on June 15th, 1977, in the first national elections, the Basque Nationalist Party obtained eight seats. Juan Ajuriaguerra and Xabier Arzalluz became members of the Spanish Deputies Congress during Spain’s Constituent Assembly.
The maintenance of the relations from then to nowadays
A “National Home”, so called by the Founding Congress of Zionism in Basle, and later by the Balfour Declaration (1917), is what Basque nationalism wanted and wants for Euskadi. For Basque nationalism the ideas of Theodor Herzl – the Sabino Arana of Basque Nationalism – and its design of a Jewish national state are enriching and very useful. But one of the key elements to learn from Zionism is the common language Jews re-established in Eretz Israel. For the BNP and Euskadi’s nationalism in general, it is desired to apply the Israeli experience in the recovery of Hebrew within the current borders of Euskadi and beyond (by this I mean Euskal Herria)
Thus, between 1978 and 1979 contacts began with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Later in the mid-1980’s, the Basque Government’s Education Minister and spokesman, Pedro Miguel Etxenike, traveled to Israel together with his deputy minister and professor of Linguistics, Koldo Mitxelena, to study and learn the Israeli teaching techniques with the objective of its possible application in Euskadi. As a result of this visit, Israeli specialists in education travelled to Euskadi and signed a collaboration agreement with the Basque Government within the context of a program of technological innovation in education. But Etxenike, in addition to his contacts in Israel during the years he was the Ministry of Education and Culture, will establish another type of ties in an area that he knows perfectly well because he was a recognized professor of physics: nuclear energy.
Also the Minister of the Interior, Luis María Retolaza, had a close friendship with the Israeli professor of Nuclear Physics, Yavin Avivi. While Etxenike travels to Israel, Avivi visits Euskadi. In June 1981, a large delegation of experts from the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission and officials from the Dimona nuclear power plant in the Negev moved to Euskadi to advise on issues of interest to the Lemoniz nuclear power plant project. One of the issues that most interested the Basques was the plant’s security. While the leaders of the Basque Government were trying to reduce the importance of these “nuclear contacts”, authorities in Madrid did not wanted to ignore what was happening in Euskadi.
On one occasion, alarmed by the large number of visas requested by Israeli citizens bound for the Basque Country, the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs requests authorization from the Presidency of the Government, to instruct its consulate in Jerusalem to reduce the flow of ‘scientific trips’ to Spain. The relations between the BPN and Israel continued, and once leading the Basque Government from Euskadi, secret contacts between both sides continued. In 1980, Spain’s Ministry of Interior, prefers British and German security forces to train the future members of the Ertzaintza (Basque police). Nevertheless, Luis María Retolaza, Euskadi’s Minister of Interior, was interested in asking the Israel Defense Forces to train the new Basque security forces. The Israelis are little used to train “intelligence units” so the services of the Mossad are requested in 1983 to form the Ekintza, an elite corps of the Erizaintza. The main goal was to create a Basque intelligence entity. This petition was made in April 1986. Some Basque agents of the Ekintza were housed in a kibbutz during their lessons sessions in Israel.
Another issue that has always interested the BNP-who has controlled the Basque Public Institutions since the Transition-is the health field. Israel’s health organizations enjoy of great prestige around the world. So the Basques fell in love with Israel in this field too. One of the most successful journeys is the one made by Andoni Monforte in the mid-1980s as health advisor to the Basque Government. The official reason for his visit to Israel was to get closer to the various cardiovascular research advances the Israelis had achieved. But in reality the trip had two other “secret” reasons. The first was to know how Israeli scientists could help in studies on the high percentage in the Basque population with the RH negative factor. The other reason was to contact the Israelis to find convergent points of collaboration between the security forces of Israel and Euskadi. Some of the Basques’ requests were rejected by the Israelis. Let us not forget that Mossad also collaborated closely with Spain’s old intelligence agency-CESID.
On July 16th, 1994, Basque Nationalist Party President, Xabier Arzalluz, moved to Israel to head a delegation composed also by Aguirre Arizmendi, Senator Caballero Laskibar and Congressman Ollora Ochoa de Aspuru. The motive was to explore the possibilities of reaching an agreement with ETA through a similar process like the one Israel and the PLO carried out weeks prior to the agreement reached in Oslo in August 1993.
Arzalluz was also interested in the procedure used to begin direct negotiations, as well as the lengthy decision-making process followed by the Israeli Government. The president of the BNP met with Israel’s Prime Minister at the time, Isaac Rabin, and with one of its man of confidence, the architect of the agreements of Oslo, Yosi Beilin. Today, relations between the BNP, which, like Center and Right-wing Catalan nationalism have captured the political scene of their respective peoples, are limited to certain commercial and business agreements, and institutional visits. An example of this is the visit made by the current Israeli Ambassador to Spain, Daniel Kutner, who visited on February 9th, 2016 Euskadi’s current Lehendakari, Iñigo Urkullu, in Vizcaya.