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Panama’s Jewish Community Mourns Its Dead As It Worries About a Motive

Emanuel Attie was on his way to meet his daughter at the Shevet Achim synagogue in Panama City to set a date for her wedding.

Solomon Chochron was also headed for the synagogue, hoping to make it in time for afternoon prayers.

Neither man ever made it.

The two were among the 21 victims of last week’s deadly plane explosion that took the lives of 12 members of Panama’s small Jewish community.

Panama’s president-elect, Ernesto Perez Balladares, visiting Washington last week, said the crash “was not an accident, but a planted bomb inside the plane.”

The day after the July 19 crash, several thousands of the 7,000-member close-knit community turned out to bury their dead — and to worry over the motive that downed the commuter plane en route from Colon, a commercial free-trade center about 50 miles from Panama City.

“Shock and fear has clearly set in,” Mitchell Drimmer said in a phone interview from Panama City.

Drimmer, a New York purchasing agent for department stores in Panama, has developed close ties with the Panamanian Jewish community over the years. He flew south as soon as he heard about the plane crash.

“You come for the weddings and Bar Mitz-vahs,” he said. “You have to come for the tragedies, too,”

Occurring just one day after the devastating explosion that rocked the Jewish community’s headquarters in Buenos Aires, many feared the Panama plane crash was yet another terrorist attack aimed at Jews.

However, speculation in the Jewish community and elsewhere in Panama has shifted to the belief that this “wasn’t political, but drug-related,” according to a source in the community who asked not to be named.

SUSPICION ABOUT PASSENGER’S TIES TO CARTEL

One of the victims, Saul Schwartz, reportedly was under investigation by Italian authorities for ties to the Medellin, Colombia, drug cartel.

Last year, Schwartz, a gold dealer, had been kidnapped and later released, Drimmer said.

A month ago, Schwartz’s cousin Alan allegedly attempted to assassinate him by attaching a hand grenade to the steering wheel of Saul Schwartz’s car. The grenade went off and Schwartz was injured.

Adding to the speculation that the plane bomb was motivated by drug-related crimes rather than anti-Semitism is the fact that there were “better” sites to bomb if Jews alone were the target, according to one source.

He cited Panama City’s three synagogues, its Jewish community center and even the next flight out of Colon, which would have carried more than 50 Jewish passengers.

Despite the widespread belief, as one source put it, that the explosion “has all the makings of a Colombian hit,” Panama’s Jews continue to feel uneasy over the incident.

“We will not sleep until we know if this is an act of anti-Semitic terror or drug-related narcotics terror,” Drimmer quoted one community leader as saying.

Fueling speculation that the bombing was the action of a terrorist group, according to Drimmer, was the fact that one of the bodies found in the wreckage had been registered on the flight under an Arab name. So far, the body has not been claimed by any family or friends.

Drimmer also noted that a bullet hole had been found in the fuselage of the aircraft.

“We don’t know what it means,” said Drimmer, adding that the question remained of whether “the bullet was from the ground coming in or from the inside going out.”

He noted that reports indicate that officials of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, were in Panama helping with the investigation. But officials with the Panamanian government and the Israeli Embassy would not confirm the reports.

Panama’s Jewish community, meanwhile, is doing its best to cope with the present lack of hard answers about the motives behind the crash.

Joseph Harari, chairman of the Latin American section of B’nai B’rith International and an uncle of one of the victims, said, “First we wish to bury our dead. Then I think we will pressure the local authorities” to find the cause.

Regardless of cause or motive, the crash left families and friends in Panama’s wealthy and mostly observant community in deep mourning.

LATE-NIGHT FUNERALS WERE ARRANGED

For Miriam Harouche, the crash signaled the end of her family as she had known it. She lost her husband, Mauricio, and her son, Isaac. Now her daughter-in-law intends to return to her native Colombia, taking her children with her.

The funerals for most of the Jewish victims were held late at night on July 20. According to Drimmer, the Jews had secured special permission from Panamanian Vice President Guillermo Ford to contravene Panamanian law to hold the funerals at night in order to abide by Jewish tradition, which requires burial within 24 hours of death.

At a mass funeral at the city’s Sephardic cemetery, eight of the victims were buried in consecutive graves at the burial ground.

Laid to rest alongside Emanuel Attie, president of a local lodge of B’nai B’rith, was his 24-year-old nephew, Alberto Attie, who had only recently announced his engagement to be married.

Others buried at the Sephardic cemetery were the Harouches, Joseph Gershon, Elizabeth Phillips, Freddy Moade and Solomon Chochron, 21, who had been heading home for Mincha prayers.

According to Drimmer, Gershon, who was in his 40s, was one of the few survivors of the Eilat, the Israeli warship destroyed by the Egyptians in October 1967.

Two of the victims, Schwartz and Chaya Jaaker, were interred at the Ashkenazic cemetery.

The victims also included two Israelis. The parents of one of them, Moshe Pardo, were scheduled to fly in from Israel to bury their son on Sunday. The body of the other Israeli, Rami Gabay, was flown to Israel for burial.

With its free-trade zone, Panama attracted hundreds of Israeli businesspeople. In fact, it was the Israelis who started the trend of flying between Panama City and Colon, said Drimmer.

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