AMSTERDAM (Mar. 4)
When a Dutch parliamentary committee began investigating a 1992 EI AI Airlines cargo crash in late January, many thought the lingering questions about the crash would be answered.
So far, however, the inquiry into the Oct. 4, 1992, disaster — which killed 39 residents and 4 crew members when it crashed into two densely populated apartment blocks on the outskirts of the Dutch capital — has only increased suspicion and helped fuel an anti-Israel backlash that some believe borders on anti-Semitism.
The inquiry’s hearings are being broadcast live on television three days a week and Internet “disaster sites” are swamped with outraged viewers.
Amid the intense scrutiny, El Al is being subjected to “routine customs checks” at Schiphol airport, resulting in a delay of planes.
One flight, refused permission to change its landing place, recently skidded off a slippery, snow-covered runway,
Three Dutch ministries are reviewing the “special status” of EI AI, which is the airport’s third largest carrier, and El Al’s director testified last month that the airline’s offices here have been receiving hostile phone calls.
Against this backdrop, Dutch TV recently broadcast images of rabbis taking a Torah from the ark at a synagogue, with the following superimposed newspaper headlines: “Cover-up of toxic cargo in El Al disaster plane”; “Mystery men in white at disaster site”; “El Al messed with maintenance”; “Israeli pilots fear cancer.”
The report appeared to forge a link between Dutch Jews engaged in ritual and an Israeli airline accused of secretiveness.
The Dutch Parliament had several reasons to institute an inquiry into the disaster and its aftermath.
The plane crashed into a low-income neighborhood riddled with petty crime and populated mainly by immigrants who feel neglected by the authorities.
More than 800 inhabitants and rescuers are suffering from health problems – - never investigated by the Dutch Health Ministry — that they believe were caused by hazardous substances emitted when the plane crashed.
And conspiracy theories about the crash were fueled when the cargo, first said to be harmless, was found to include military equipment as well as ingredients that can be used to make sarin nerve gas.
Salvage operations failed to turn up part of the plane’s “black box” as well as depleted uranium used as a counterbalance in the plane. Some residents of the area and others fear they inhaled fine particles released from the blocks of uranium during the blaze that followed the crash.
At the same time, rumors about mysterious Israeli “men in white” removing evidence from the site went unchecked.
For its part, El Al says it has turned over all surviving documents to the Dutch authorities, and Israel has sent several delegations to speak to the committee.
At the start of the hearings, the chairman of the parliamentary inquiry, Theo Meijer, warned witnesses: “For six years people could say what they liked. We aim to find the truth and I remind you of your oath.”
But after more than a month of contradictory testimony, the public is more bewildered than ever, and the Jewish community is wondering why the anger is targeted at El Al, rather than at the Dutch authorities.
“They looked for a scapegoat and found EI AI,” says Orthodox Rabbi Raph Evers.
Some 80 percent of the Netherlands’ prewar Jewish population of 130,000 died during World War II, and Evers’ congregation consists of survivors and their children.
There are currently an estimated 25,000 Jews living in the Netherlands.
Two weeks ago, Israeli Transportation Minister Shaul Yahalom warned against an anti-Semitism that “might lead to pogroms.”
Rabbi Awram Soetendorp, of the Liberal movement, finds Yahalom’s warning “wildly exaggerated” in view of the “unique ties between Holland and Israel.”
But in a recent opinion poll, 52 percent of those questioned said they saw “no justification for special ties between Holland and Israel” and 26 percent weren’t sure.
Media experts say El Al’s initial failure to show public compassion for the victims, talk to the media and refute rumors are partly to blame for the problem.
“El Al’s reaction was typical of Israeli ethnocentrism,” said former El Al public relations adviser Hans Knoop. “Everything is reduced to the question: `Is it good or bad for Israel?’”
“El Al fueled old stereotypes about `mysterious Jews’ by being secretive about the cargo,” said another pundit. “By now everyone believes the plane carried an atom bomb.”
Several weeks ago, El Al launched a media offensive to counter these rumors.
But, says Dutch media expert Melcher de Wind: “The very fact that El Al is threatened by terrorism reminds the Dutch of latent guilt feelings against the Jews. These have been festering since World War II, and they don’t like El Al for reminding them. This inquiry finally provided a reason to say: `Why should we be so considerate to Israel anyway?’”
The parliamentary committee is scheduled to release its findings later this month.