- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 5, 2002

TUNIS, Tunisia A suicide bomb blast outside a centuries-old synagogue has put a question mark over the future of Tunisia's Jewish community one of the last remaining in an Arab country.

The government has assured Jewish leaders here that it will continue to protect their interests, and that it will even appeal to them to encourage a return of the families of those who left following Tunisia's independence.

Many do travel on vacation from abroad, mostly from France, but the tension caused by Israeli-Palestinian fighting and the international war on terrorism have added extra strain to such visits.

"Somehow, it is not the same," said Emile Nataf, watching the sun set from a hotel in suburban Gammarth. "We feel that something has snapped here."

It is not only television footage that has carried the Palestinian drama to North Africa. In mid-April, a Muslim fanatic parked a gas truck near the Al Ghraba synagogue on Tunisia's resort island of Djerba as a group of tourists prepared to enter the temple.

The truck exploded into a fireball, and when the smoke cleared authorities counted 10 German tourists, five Tunisians including the driver and one Frenchman dead, and some 30 wounded.

Initially insisting that the explosion was an accident, Tunisian authorities later admitted it was a suicide attack.

Terrorism, thought to have been entirely wiped out in this orderly North African nation, once again knocked on Tunisia's door.

The attack has not only put the spotlight on Tunisia's Jews, but also on the safety of tourists, the country's main source of income and the basis for its ambitious economic plans.

The official policy is to protect the interest of some 3,000 Tunisian Jews, as part of the plan of "reconciliation of the sons of Abraham" outlined by Foreign Minister Habib Ben Yahia.

However, suicide attacks by Palestinians and the Israeli retaliation has sent shock waves across the Arab world, and many Tunisians find increasing sympathy with the Palestinian cause.

The authorities rushed to clear up the debris of the explosion, and the damaged walls of Al Ghraba were immediately covered with fresh paint.

The first to start the cleanup operation was Hadj Hedi, a Muslim whose job is to distribute the obligatory Jewish skullcaps to visitors.

While the explosion temporarily affected the flow of German tourists to Djerba, one of their favorite destinations, the annual Jewish pilgrimage to EL Ghraba took place as planned, attracting some pilgrims from Western Europe.

Jews consider Tunisia one of their ancient homes, a country where, according to Gabriel Kabla, who was born in Djerba, "there isn't a square yard that has not been marked by Judaism. "The Ghraba synagogue was initially built by Jews who came to Tunisia after the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem.

The number of Jews residing in Djerba now is 1,045, mostly silversmiths known for their precise and delicate work. Authorities would like their number to grow, pointing out that last year the Djerba Jewish community had 45 births and only five deaths.

However, the annual Ghraba pilgrimage clearly reflects the turmoil of the Middle East: While in 2000 there were 8,000 pilgrims, including 600 from Israel, the number dropped dramatically to 300 in April of this year.

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