U.S. arrests of Israelis
Most charged with immigration violations either have been deported or will be
By DOUG SAUNDERS
With a report from Associated Press
Monday, December 17, 2001 Print Edition, Page A7
LOS ANGELES -- U.S. officials have arrested, detained and questioned hundreds of people on vague suspicions of ties to terrorism since Sept. 11, but a few dozen cases are especially mysterious: They are Israelis, young and apparently Jewish, working in the United States on temporary visas and have little obvious connection to Islamic extremism.
The U.S. government has offered no explanation for the detentions, estimated to be as many as 60 in number, and some of them have begun speaking out in protest and asking courts to end their detention. But Washington appears to be treating them as palpable threats: Many remain in jail. Most have been charged with immigration violations, and either have been or will be deported.
Based on what the Israelis say about the questions they have been asked, federal officials appear to believe they are either Muslim extremists hiding behind false Israeli identities or spies working for the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency.
If the latter is the case, it raises the possibility that Washington is using its antiterrorism campaign as an excuse to round up other groups of people it wants out. "They asked if I was spying on anybody," said Yaniv Hani, 22, who spent four weeks in custody after Sept. 11 and now faces charges from the Immigration and Naturalization Service for working with an improper visa. He said
Federal Bureau of Investigation officials asked him whether he was really Muslim before switching to questions about possible ties to Mossad. Mr. Hani worked for a number of years for Israel's military police.
Israel has protested the arrests. Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Washington, said the FBI has not contacted Israel about spying allegations, and that "not a single one has been charged with intelligence violations. It has all been visa violations."
Another possibility is that the FBI suspects the Israelis of taking part in a clandestine operation. A majority of those arrested were employees of a Florida company, Quality Sales, that hires vacationing Israeli youth to work at vending carts in U.S. shopping malls.
Thomas Dean, a lawyer for the company, acknowledged that the Israelis had been issued the wrong type of visa, since they were tourists on working vacations rather than permanent workers.
However, he noted that their cases had all been labelled "special interest" by the INS, a new designation indicating that they are suspects in the antiterrorism campaign, not regular immigration violators.
"Clearly that was what the FBI, from the very beginning, was very interested in talking about -- their activity in the Israeli military or any kind of intelligence agency."
(Israel does have a history of spying against the United States, even though the two nations are officially allies. The most famous case is that of Jonathan Pollard, a U.S. military official convicted in 1987 of espionage for stealing top U.S. military secrets on behalf of Israel.)
Also, five of the Israelis came to the FBI's attention after they were seen by New Jersey residents on Sept. 11 making fun of the World Trade Center ruins and going to extreme lengths to photograph themselves in front of the wreckage. The FBI seized and developed their photos, one of which shows Sivan Kurzberg flicking a cigarette lighter in front of the smouldering ruins in an apparently celebratory gesture.
Steven Noah Gordon, a lawyer for the five, told The New York Times that their behaviour may have been offensive, but said the behaviour was not criminal -- "and they were being treated as if it was." The five have since been deported.
U.S. officials have offered no explanation for the arrests, even to immigration judges. Last month, when the INS asked that bail be denied to 11 of the Israelis, a judge rejected the request, saying the government had been less than forthcoming with evidence.
"Although the [INS] alleges that these cases are 'special,' it has failed to present any credible evidence of the basis for this finding," Judge Elizabeth Hacker wrote. "The service has failed to submit any evidence of terrorist activity or of a threat to national security."
Copyright © 2001 Globe Interactive, a division of Bell Globemedia Publishing
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