5 Die in Tunisia Synagogue Blast
5 Die in Tunisia Synagogue Blast
BOUAZZA BEN BOUAZZA
Apr. 11, 2002
DJERBA, Tunisia (AP) _ A natural gas tanker crashed into the outer wall of a historic synagogue on a Tunisian resort island Thursday, causing an explosion that killed five people and injured dozens. The government described it as an accident, but an Israeli official called it an anti-Semitic attack.
The explosion on the island of Djerba came amid a spate of attacks on Jewish targets in Europe stemming from the escalation in fighting between Israelis and Palestinians.
Among the dead were two German tourists, according to a list compiled by hospitals and given to The Associated Press by Gov. Mohamed Ben Salem. The other fatalities were two synagogue workers and the driver of the truck filled with natural gas, all identified as Tunisians. Initial reports said four German tourists died.
Several dozen people had been inside the synagogue, which is about 40 feet from the outer wall, witnesses said.
``We heard a loud explosion,'' said Andrea Esper, a German tourist. ``Outside we saw people screaming. It was total panic.''
Most of those injured were German tourists, according to the hospitals' list, which also said five Tunisians and one Frenchman were among the injured. The German Foreign Ministry said more than 20 Germans were injured, but had no immediate information on deaths.
``I dismiss the theory of an attack because Tunisian Arabs and Jews live like brothers here,'' Ben Salem said, ``but we still have to wait for the conclusions of the inquiry to determine the exact causes.''
Perez Trabelsi, president of the Ghriba synagogue, also did not believe it was a deliberate attack.
``I think it's an accident, and that it has no link to the situation in Israel,'' Trabelsi said. ``If it was an attack, it would have targeted people inside the synagogue.''
He added that Tunisian Jews don't face many problems with anti-Semitism. ``We live with no problems, everything has gone well for us,'' he said.
As tensions have escalated in the Middle East, synagogues in Europe, notably in France, have been targeted, often by arson attacks. In the most serious case, a synagogue in the southern French city of Marseille was burned to the ground on March 31.
In Jerusalem, Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior said, ``The wave of recent (anti-Semitic) events reached its peak today with the cruel murder of tourists at the ancient synagogue of Djerba in Tunis.''
Helicopters brought the injured, who suffered from burns, to Djerba's regional hospital. Security services and judicial authorities opened investigations into the blast, which damaged the facade of the historic blue-and-white synagogue set in an olive field.
Djerba is a popular tourist destination off the southeast coast of the North African nation. Its Ghriba synagogue, a large, airy building filled with intricate carved woodwork, is a site of pilgrimage for Jews and is built on the foundations of one of the oldest synagogues in Africa. It was open to visitors Thursday when the blast occurred.
Tunisia, a predominantly Muslim nation with a population of about 7.5 million, is not known as a hotbed of Islamic terrorism.
Tens of thousands of Jews lived in Djerba in the early 20th century, but tensions in the Arab world prompted many to leave. Today, the Jewish community numbers about 2,000.
According to tradition, the first Jews came to Djerba in biblical times, bringing a stone from the ancient temple of Jerusalem that was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. The stone is kept in a grotto at Djerba's synagogue.
The first documented evidence of a Jewish community in Djerba dates from the 10th century A.D. By the 18th century Djerba was an important Jewish cultural center and home to traders, craftsmen and Hebrew publishing firms.