Major American Jewish organizations are hopeful that congressional hearings on the 1994 bombing of Jewish community headquarters in Buenos Aires will lead the Argentine government to pursue its investigation more vigorously.
“With no clear path to a trial emerging after a year of intensive investigation, the Jewish community is understandably angry, frustrated and despondent,” Tommy Baer, international president of B’nai B’rith, said in testimony before the House International Relations Committee, which opened hearings on the bombing Sept. 28.
“In addition, there is fear which grows out of the realization that Argentina remains a soft target,” Baer said.
The July 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, which claimed the lives of 86 and left more than 300 wounded, has been linked to Hezbollah, the Islamic fundamentalist terrorist organization based in Lebanon, which has close links to Iran. Several arrests have apparently led nowhere.
A 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 29 and injured 252 has also been linked to Hezbollah, though no charges have been brought in that case, either.
Argentina is home to some 250,000 Jews, Latin America’s largest Jewish community.
Members of Congress as well as a senior State Department official sharply criticized the Argentine government’s investigation of the AMIA bombing.
“It is simply inexcusable that so little progress has been made by the authorities in Argentina,” said Rep. Rom Lantos (D-Calif.).
That view was supported by Philip Wilcox, the State Department’s terrorism coordinator, who said, “The evidence points to Hezbollah as the bomber.”
Responding to the sharp criticism by U.S. officials of his government’s investigation, Argentina’s President Carlos Menem said he would instruct his Foreign Ministry to lodge a formal protest.
The World Jewish Congress, Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith, American Jewish Committee, Coalition for Jewish Concerns and Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations joined with relatives of bombing victims in calling for more accountability from the Argentine government and a tightening of security of protect against terrorism.
“We firmly assert that the mistakes and omissions that followed the first attack – which was practically not investigated – acted as an immense and attractive invitation to persuade terrorists to repeat their action,” said Luis Czyzewski, whose daughter, Paolo, died in the attack against the AMIA headquarters.
Some of those who testified before the House committee raised the possibility of the United States placing sanctions on Argentina to keep the government from dodging its responsibility to investigate.
“I urge that the Congress of the United States use its prestige and economic power to assure meaningful investigations of the 1992 and 1994 terrorist attacks to keep the international community and the families of the victims informed,” said Ralph Goldman, whose son died in the 1992 attack on the Israeli Embassy.
Goldman served as world director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee from 1976 to 1988. He now serves as honorary executive vice president. His son, David Ben Rafael, was a senior official at the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires.
Rabbi Avi Weiss, national president of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns, deplored the “abysmal” security in Argentina, saying that Buenos Aires is “ripe for another terrorist attack.”
He took the call for sanctions a step further.
“To prevent further terrorist attacks in Argentina, it is critical that the U.S. government conduct a full on-site investigation into Argentine security,” Weiss told the committee. “If Argentine airports are found to be unsafe, the U.S. government should prohibit American carriers from landing there. And if the Argentine borders are found to be porous, U.S. citizens should be warned not to travel to Argentina.”
Weiss also charged that the government is engaged in a cover-up and “lacks the will” to bring its investigation to fruition.
The committee will reconvene in closed session to hear developments related to the investigation. A date for the hearing has not been set.