NEW YORK (Jul. 20)
The Jewish community of Panama was engulfed by grief and apprehension this week following the deadly crash of a commuter plane Tuesday carrying mostly Jews on a flight between Panama City and Colon.
All 21 on board were killed, among whom 12 were Jewish, and at least four of them Israeli, according to the Israeli Embassy in Panama City and other sources.
The flight is a known route for Jewish business commuters, and the Jewish community feared that the plane had been bombed by terrorists. Most of the passengers lived in Panama City and worked in Colon, an important commercial city that is part of a free-trade zone.
Panama’s president-elect, Ernesto Perez Balladares, who was in Washington this week to meet with President Clinton, confirmed to reporters Wednesday that the crash “was not an accident, but a planted bomb inside the plane.”
The incident sparked concern among the 7,000-member Panamanian Jewish community, especially since it occurred only one day after a bomb exploded in the main Jewish community building in Buenos Aires, killing at least 34 people.
“The whole Jewish community is in shock,” said Joseph Harari, chairman of the Latin American section of B’nai B’rith, speaking from Panama City. Harari knew all the victims and is an uncle of one of them.
Harari had ironically been asked by Kent Schiner, international president of B’nai B’rith, to go to Buenos Aires as the organization’s Latin American representative at a march to be held Thursday by the Jewish community to protest Monday’s bombing.
When asked about sabotage, Harari said, “The community doesn’t wish to comment or speculate on what it can be.
“But we can only indicate from what we read and learn from local officials that apparently the plane exploded in midair. All the passengers and crew were found dead in the radius of the crash,” he said.
PREVIOUS BOMBING ATTEMPT ON A VICTIM
The crash took place over mountainous terrain in heavy rain at 4:30 p.m. local time.
Harari said, “The community wants to get the first findings” from the Panamanian government, to “determine the cause of the accident. “We have sent our request to the president.”
Warren Eisenberg, executive director of B’nai B’rith in Washington, said that because no one was arrested after the bombing in Argentina, “we are very concerned with them catching people.
“We have raised the issue with the State Department,” Eisenberg added, and said that the matter would be brought to the attention of Panama’s president-elect.
Two sources familiar with the Panamian Jewish community told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the attack may be linked to an extortion campaign that has targeted several Jewish business leaders in recent months.
There was also some speculation that the downing might be tied to the recent kidnapping of one of the crash victims, Saul Schwartz, said sources in the community.
The mystery was complicated by the fact that one of Schwartz’s cousins had placed a bomb in his vehicle some time ago. Schwartz was not injured in that attack.
“I don’t know if we can link this at this time,” said Harari, and preferred not to comment further on that case.
Schwartz, a wholesale jeweler, had also been recently accused in Italy of smuggling gold bullion. He had denied any wrongdoing.
Two other victims were Emanuel Attie, an active member of the Panama Jewish community and president of a local lodge of B’nai B’rith, and his nephew, Alberto Attie.
The other Jewish victims of the crash were identified in the Panamanian press as Chaya Yaker; Joseph Gershon; Moshe Pardo; Isaac Harroche and his son, Mauricio; Rami Gabay; Simon Chocron; Lizzie Philips; and Freddy Moade.
Said Harari, “First we wish to bury our dead. Then I think we will pressure the local authorities to take the appropriate action, and insist that they find” the cause.
(JTA staff intern Jeannie Rosenfeld in New York contributed to this report.)