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Around the Jewish World for Spain’s Jews, a Tense Time After Bombings and Terrorist Plots

April 23, 2004
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Nicholson family members love getting out of Madrid on weekends, and often they round up other young families for the weekly kosher barbeque at Masada, a Jewish retreat in the mountains outside Spain’s capital.

Masada, it turns out, was on a list of bombing targets police found in the hideout of the Islamic militants suspected of blowing up four commuter trains in Madrid on March 11, killing 191 people.

So will the Nicholsons go back to Masada?

“Absolutely I would. You cannot let that sort of thing stop you from continuing with your life,” Paul Nicholson said, several days after his wife Dalia gave birth to a baby boy, their second child.

After the train bombings, Spain’s 35,000 Jews — like most other Spaniards — were outraged that Islamic terrorists had struck in the country. Videotapes and statements on behalf of Al-Qaida said the attacks were meant to punish Spain for supporting the United States in the Iraq war.

Most Jews already accepted the importance of stringent security measures for a small community in a country with a large and rapidly growing North African population, and a long history of anti-Semitism.

But at least this time, it seemed after the March 11 bombings, the Jewish community had been left out of the terrorist vendetta. Many Jews thus were taken aback when, a few weeks after the train attacks, the newspaper El Mundo published the terrorists’ plans for further attacks — including a map showing Masada’s precise location.

“Masada is pretty well off the beaten track,” said Nicholson, a New Zealand-born business consultant. “For them to have been able to track it down, get information about it — you really wonder a bit about the security in Spain for Jews.”

In addition to Masada, the suspected terrorists also had planned to blow up a suburban shopping mall and bullet trains.

None of these attacks took place thanks to a cell phone, found March 11 attached to an unexploded bomb as a makeshift detonator. Police used the phone to track the suspected leader of the train bombings — a Tunisian named Sarhane Ben Abdelmajid Fakhet — to an apartment in Leganes, a southern suburb of Madrid.

When police tried to storm the building, Fakhet and a group of followers triggered an explosion, killing themselves and a policeman and ripping off the front of the apartment building.

Police believe several suspects remain at large, and the Jewish community is taking no chances.

Jacobo Israel Garzon, president of Madrid’s Jewish community, said synagogues in the city are beefing up their own security, and Spanish law enforcement authorities have been asked for additional help.

Some people are staying away from Jewish activities, he said, but “those of us who are not afraid are more numerous.”

In Barcelona, where another 8,000 Jews live, Yitzhak Levy’s home is next door to that city’s Masada.

“When I went last weekend there were only four families, when usually there are 20 or 30,” said Levy, a spokesman for the community.

He says there has been no specific threat against Jewish institutions in Barcelona. Still, there is reason for caution: Investigators believe the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington were planned about an hour away, in the beach resort of Salou. In addition, many of the Al-Qaida suspects detained in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks lived in Catalonia, the northeastern Spanish region of which Barcelona is capital.

Levy says it’s clear the Madrid train bombings, which came just three days before Spain’s national elections, influenced the outcome. Yet he accepts the common analysis that many Spaniards voted for the Socialist government not because of its stance against the Iraq war but because they felt deceived by the conservative government of then-Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.

Aznar’s government first blamed the attack on the outlawed Basque separatist group ETA, despite increasing evidence of involvement by Islamic extremists. Aznar has said the government released new information pointing to Islamic radicals as soon as it became available, but many Spaniards felt the government was trying to hide something, afraid its support for the Iraq war might backfire electorally.

“For many people, it was the last straw,” Levy said. But, he concedes, “I’ve heard Jews say the winner of the Spanish elections was Osama Bin Laden.”

On Sunday, a day after being sworn in, the new Socialist prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, announced that he would make good on a campaign promise to withdraw Spain’s 1,400 troops from Iraq.

He previously had said he might reconsider if the United Nations were given control of Iraq as planned by June 30.

After his inauguration, however, Zapatero said it seemed clear the transition wouldn’t happen, and he promised to bring Spanish soldiers home “as soon as possible.” Opinion polls showed that around 70 percent of Spaniards agreed with the decision.

Many also are wondering if the previous government’s focus on the Basque terrorist threat blinded it to the possibility of an attack by Islamic extremists, especially given Spain’s pro-U.S. stances and its crackdown on the local Sept. 11 cell.

An investigative report in El Mundo claimed Spanish authorities had received warnings from the intelligence services of several countries, including the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Israel.

“On at least 10 occasions, Israeli intelligence agents had let their Spanish colleagues know” that “Islamic militants were preparing a major attack in Madrid,” journalist Fernando Mugica wrote.

Madrid’s Garzon said the rapidity with which Zapatero announced the pullout “gives the impression that we are submitting to the threats” of the terrorists.

“Most of my Spanish friends disagree with me,” Nicholson said. “But one Spanish government made the decision to go in there, and for another Spanish government to come in and change that, all you’re doing is answering the terrorists’ request. Whether that was right or wrong doesn’t really matter anymore.”

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