Euskadi-Israel: A relationship of military training, politics and ETA’s empathy for zionism
During the Nazi occupation of France, the Basque resistance, who were the ones controlling the crossings passages, in coordination with the allies managed to evacuate many Jews through the 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 (Nacionalismo vasco-Estado de Israel: Historia de unas relaciones secretas-a).
During Civil War
These contracts 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 (Lisbona, 91).
During Dictatorship: Basque Nationalist Party and ETA
Afterwards, there would be more operations performed by Mr. Gangoitia, one of the most prominent 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 his wife 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” (Lisbona 96-99).
Between May of 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 kibbutz living model, the renascence of Hebrew and the 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 (Lisbona, 117).
For many young people of ‘Euzko Gastedi’ (Basque Resistance), Israel’s proclamation of independence was their ideal model of political sovereignty for the future State of Euskadi. The armed struggle of the Jewish groups, especially Irgun, were movements from which the Basques hoped to learn from. Irgun Zvai Leumi had been the main Jewish paramilitary formation against the British occupation of Palestine. For this reason, the book The Revolt, written by Menachem Begin, became the literary work of reference for the Basque Nationalist Party’s (BNP) youth group (EGI). Another manual that also influenced Euzko Gastedi is a text about the Jewish resistance in the Ghetto of Warsaw. From what they learned in this book, the Basque resistance developed strategies and methods to try to make collapse the francoist dictatorship (Lisbona, 120).
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 throughout the world. 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 of 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” (Lisbona, 145-193). On November 25th of 1975, the powerful Caracas Basque Center-established in the Venezuelan capital-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 founding leaders of the terrorist group ETA, as for EGI, Israel was 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 at the beginning were basically the same that Irgun followed when they were active.
Irgun’s most spectacular operation was the blasting of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem; intelligence headquarters of the British forces in the British Mandate of Palestine. But by the 1960’s, ETA did not have the necessary resources, training nor weapons to perpetrate these kind of acts. 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 (Nacionalismo vasco-Estado de Israel: Historia de unas relaciones secretas-b).
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, one should not be fooled by the course of the revolutionary war in Indochina, 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” (Lisbona, 195). 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” (Lisbona, 198).
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 by Jaime-an engineer who later integrated himself into the BNP- 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 Meisi, 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 in Paris. For more than an hour and a half, 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 training to carry out the “armed struggle for the national liberation of Euskadi” (Lisbona, 225).
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 to 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.
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 done 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 model 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. 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.