New York Times
November 21, 2001

Dozens of Israeli Jews Are Being Kept in Federal Detention


Among the more than 1,100 people the government has detained since Sept. 11 are dozens of young Israeli Jews who came to the United States in recent months and took jobs selling trinkets at shopping malls throughout the country.

Charged with working without proper papers, some have been kept in detention by the Immigration and Naturalization Service for nearly a month. In some cases, the immigration service has invoked special post- Sept. 11 laws to keep the Israelis in jail but presented no evidence of a link to the terrorism investigation.

"We think there are about 50 in detention now, in San Diego, Houston, Kansas City, St. Louis and Cleveland, and there are some who have been released," said Ido Aharoni, a spokesman for the Israeli consulate in New York. "It's not easy to get an exact count. They may be embarrassed that they were working illegally, and we only find out when their mothers call, because they haven't been in touch, and we check and find them in jail."

Normally, working without papers is treated as a minor offense, for which foreigners are not detained.

While both the detainees and their lawyers say they are baffled by the detentions, some of those familiar with the cases said they believed the impetus was the interest of law enforcement officials in companies that offer young Israelis and perhaps others in the Middle East help in coming to, and working in, the United States.

"It's hard to understand," said Suzanne Brown, a St. Louis lawyer representing 5 of the 10 Israelis detained there. "Just today, I talked with the I.N.S. officer in charge of the St. Louis office, who said he doesn't know who is conducting the investigation of the Israelis. And what are they investigating? I don't know."

In Ohio, on Oct. 31, the immigration service detained nine men and two women, all of whom had valid passports and tourist visas. Nine of the 11 were released on bond on Friday, but two remain in the Medina County jail, outside of Cleveland. The next hearing for the Israelis all in their early 20's and recently finished with their Israeli army service is scheduled for Nov. 27, in Cleveland.

"It doesn't make sense that they held any of these kids as long as they did, and we don't know of any reason why they're still holding two," said David Leopold, the Cleveland lawyer representing them. "You hear there's more than 1,000 detainees, and if these cases are any example, you have to wonder if they're just locking people up to make it look like they're getting somewhere on their investigation."

Dan Nelson, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said that he was unaware of the Israeli detainees, but that generally, since Sept. 11, there has been greater scrutiny of those who violate immigration laws.

"We are taking every step we can to prevent future terrorist attacks," Mr. Nelson said. "We are conducting the largest investigation in U.S. history, and we are leaving no stone unturned."

In New York, immigration officials began deporting five young Israeli moving men who have been in federal custody since Sept. 11. Two of the deportees, Oded Ellner and Omer Gavriel Marmari, landed in Tel Aviv yesterday. The others, Paul Kurzberg and his brother Sivan, and Yaron Shmuel, were expected to fly to Israel today.

The five aroused attention in New Jersey after people noticed them going to unusual lengths to photograph the World Trade Center ruins and making light of the situation. One photograph developed by the F.B.I. showed Sivan Kurzberg holding a lighted lighter in the foreground, with the smoldering wreckage in the background, said Steven Noah Gordon, a lawyer for the five.

As objectionable as their behavior may be, Mr. Gordon said of their long incarceration, "It's not a crime and they were being treated as if it was."

The five were asked to take polygraph tests before being allowed to leave. But Paul Kurzberg refused on principle to divulge much about his role in the Israeli army or subsequently working for people who may have had ties to Israeli intelligence, Mr. Gordon said. His client had trouble with one seven-hour polygraph test administered last week, but did better on a second try.

Mr. Kurzberg's lawyer said it was his understanding that Attorney General John Ashcroft had to sign off on his release.

In the Ohio cases, the immigration service said at a hearing last week that the 11 Israelis were "special" nonterrorist cases. But Judge Elizabeth Hacker, the immigration judge conducting the hearing, questioned the agency's case for keeping the Israelis in jail.

"Although the service alleges that these cases are `special,' it has failed to present any credible evidence of the basis for this finding," Judge Hacker said in a bond memorandum. "Indeed, the service has failed to submit any evidence of terrorist activity or of a threat to the national security. There is no evidence of the risk of harm to the community."

Russell Bergeron, a spokesman for the immigration service, said decisions on when to refuse bond were made case by case.

When Judge Hacker set bond, the government filed an emergency appeal, which, under procedures adopted last month, automatically allows the government extra time to detain people.

At the hearing, the government lawyers said the Israelis were the subject of a criminal investigation by the F.B.I. of an individual or company that promised living and travel expenses in return for selling at shopping-mall pushcarts. The government says the Ohio detainees worked for Quality Sales Inc., a Florida concern.

Tom Dean, the lawyer representing Quality Sales, declined to provide information about the company or its principals, but he said the company was cooperating with federal authorities to resolve "any concern about possible criminal conduct."

The F.B.I. refused to comment on its dealings with Quality Sales or other such companies.

Some of those familiar with the cases said such companies may provide an open channel for terrorists to enter the country without background checks.

The Israelis who were detained in Ohio lived in three apartments in Findlay, Ohio, south of Toledo, and worked in several different malls.

"When they came Oct. 31, the immigration agents knocked on the door, and waked us from sleep," said Ori Ben-Tur, one of the Ohio detainees who was released on Friday. "When we asked why they arrest us, they said they suspect we work in illegal jobs. They told us we could probably come back to our apartment the same day, or the day after."

When the detention dragged on, he said, the Israelis became increasingly worried, and, after several days in detention, arranged legal representation by Mr. Leopold.

Mr. Ben-Tur said he and the others had been interrogated separately.

"Some of the questions weren't so nice for an Israeli, who has served in the army, and fought against terrorism," he said. "I asked them, do they know what Israel thinks of the Arab countries, do they know Israel thinks of America as a big, big friend?"

Mr. Ben-Tur, and his lawyer, said they had no idea why he and most of the others had been released, while two, Oren Behr and Yaniv Hani, were still being detained.

Copyright 2001, New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

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