Nearly five months after the bombing of a small Panamanian commuter plane in which 21 people, including 12 Jews, died, authorities still do not know whether the attack was the work of Islamic fanatics or Colombian drug thugs out to kill one specific Jew aboard the plane.
The lack of answers has led to frustration, anger and a certain degree of paranoia among Panama’s 8,000 Jews, most of whom are wealthy and very religious.
At Congregation Shevet Achim in Panama City’s Bellavista neighborhood, three teenage boys stood guard one recent afternoon, suspiciously eyeing two Jewish visitors who had asked to meet with the rabbi.
When community leader Ruben Abadi finally came out, he would not let the visitors in and he refused to discuss the bombing.
“The press has taken all our comments our of context. I’m not talking to any more journalists,” Abadi snapped, turning his back on the visitors and retreating into the synagogue.
Joseph Harari, president of Shevet Achim and chairman of the Latin American section of B’nai B’rith International, later apologized for the incident.
But he said that it illustrates the suffering felt by Panama’s Jews in the wake of the worst tragedy ever to hit the close-knit community.
The bombing in Panama occurred one day after a powerful bomb ripped apart the Buenos Aires offices of Argentina’s central Jewish organization, killing nearly 100 people.
In a Nov. 29 letter to President Clinton, Harari was one of several Latin Americans to ask that the issue of terrorism be placed high on the agenda at the Summit of the Americas, scheduled to begin Friday in Miami.
Harari said Latin America’s Jews “need a pledge from each country that economic involvement with terrorist-spawning states will not take precedence over the life interest of the public at large.”
Neither the White House nor any of the agencies investigating the July 19 crash have any solid answers.
“Among the Jews there is a sense of despair,” said Harari, a Panama City businessman who lost a nephew in the attack.
The Alas commuter plane, carrying 21 people on a 50-mile flight form Colon to Panama City, crashed in mountainous terrain shortly after takeoff.
On board were 12 Jews – including four Israelis – who ran businesses in the Colon Free Zone, which annually transships about $11 billion worth of electronics, liquor, designer clothing and other luxury goods from the Far East to Latin America.
Four non-Jewish Americans were also killed in the crash. The Lebanese-based Party of God terrorist group immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing. Panama’s Civil Aeronautics Board launched an investigation, bringing in the FBI, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and Israel’s Mossad.
To date, the investigation has centered on Lya Jamal, a Lebanese national who was on the plane and whose body was the only one left unclaimed after the crash.
Panama’s leading newspaper, La Prensa, recently reported that Jamal refused to give airline employees a local address when purchasing his ticket, and that he had entered Panama illegally.
Harari said that Jamal’s body was the most mutilated by explosives, and that “our contacts with intelligence organization give us the general impression that this is linked with the Middle East, above all because of the type of explosive utilized in this attack,” he said.
Yet some prominent Panamanians have suggested that the attack was not aimed at Jews in general, but against one Jew in particular, Saul Schwartz, who reportedly was under investigation by Italian authorities for his alleged links to the Medellin, Colombia cocaine cartel.
A few weeks before the crash, said Harari, someone planted a bomb in the car of a cousin, Alan Schwartz, but no one was injured in that attack.
According to Roberto Eisenmann, publisher of La Prensa, “Saul Schwartz was definitely in the hank-panky business. There were people in the free zone who wouldn’t get on the same plane with Schwartz.”
According to Eisenmann, “Most of the Jewish community would prefer to call it an anti-Semitic act than to accept that one of their own was involved in drug trafficking.”
What is not clear, however, is why a suicide bomber would be sent to assassinate a single person.
On the other hand, if the point was to attack Panamian Jews in general, there were much easier targets, such as the Jewish community center, or the free zone itself.
Regardless of the motive, security has been noticeably tightened at all Panamanian airports in the months since the disaster, and authorities have stepped up immigration controls at Tocumen International Airport outside Panama City.
Vigilance at Panama’s three synagogues is also evident. At Shevet Achim, for instance, only members of those known to the community are allowed in for daily prayers.
“Until we have some sort of hard evidence, we can’t really make a judgment,” Harari said, suggesting that the bombing was almost certainly the work of Middle East terrorists.
“We’re not saying it is or it isn’t, though everything seems to point to that direction.”