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From 'Zoomcopters' to a month in jail

For Israelis working a small job while seeing the U.S., the Sept. 11 attacks turned their stay into a long nightmare.

Martin
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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 23, 2001


To an Israeli just finishing three years of mandatory military service, it seemed like an ideal break from the embattled Middle East: go to America and sell "Zoomcopters" in malls.

Yaniv Hani, 22, eagerly answered the ad in an Israeli newspaper. So did other young men and women. Last summer, they flew to the United States and went to work for a Florida company demonstrating the windup helicopter toys.

Then came Sept. 11 and the biggest dragnet in U.S. history. Among those arrested in the sweep of suspected Muslim terrorists were some unlikely targets: Hani and dozens of other Israeli Jews working at malls.

What happened offers a rare look at how people detained since Sept. 11 have been treated while in federal custody. Their story shows the breadth of the investigation into the attacks, and what critics say are disturbing instances of ethnic profiling and civil rights violations.

Unlike hundreds of Muslims who remain in prison and have been virtually incommunicado, most if not all of the Israelis have been released and are free to talk about their treatment. Most have returned to Israel; among the last to go is Yaniv Hani, who spent a month in jail and several more weeks barred from leaving the United States.

Now, as he begins the long trip home this weekend, Hani has mixed feelings about a country he always considered "the land of the free."

"I know the difficulty of this situation and I feel too the pain and the sore of all the people that died in this attack and I'm really sorry all this happened," he says.

photo
Yaniv Hani
"But I don't understand why, after they realized we are Israeli citizens and not come to do terrorist activities or come to spy, I was in jail one month."

'We like the U.S.'

Hani, the son of a teacher and a beautician, grew up near Tel Aviv. Like many young Israelis coming off their army duty, he wanted to see the world before settling down. He had never been to the United States, so he jumped at the chance.

Before leaving, Hani met with a representative of Quality Sales, a North Miami Beach company that leased pushcarts in malls to sell Zoomcopters and puzzles. For $220, Hani says he was told, the company would change his tourist visa to an employment visa so he could legally work. He paid the money and assumed everything would be taken care of.

That was a mistake that would eventually trip him up.

Hani arrived in the United States on Sept. 9. In the coming days, while most of the world was preoccupied with the terrorist attacks, he and 10 other Israelis were in Ohio learning how to demonstrate the Zoomcopters and master the sales pitch.

Quality Sales also steered them to an apartment complex in Findlay, Ohio, where they shared three apartments.

The Israelis spent the next few weeks working uneventfully at malls in Findlay, Lima and Toledo. Then, at 7 a.m. on Oct. 30, Hani answered a loud knock on the door and found himself staring at agents from the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"They came into our apartment and they started to ask questions. They ask, "What are you doing here? What are your nationalities? Are you connected to Sept. 11?' and they check all our stuff, our papers, our passports. We just said to them, "We are from Israel, we like the U.S. and the U.S. is the best friend of us.' "

The agents rounded up the 11 Israelis, slapped on handcuffs and leg cuffs and drove them more than 100 miles to a federal building in Cleveland.

"We think this is just going to take a few hours," Hani recalled. "All of us have a phone number of a company lawyer and the company told us, "If you have a problem with the INS or something like that, show them the phone number and everything will be fine.' We showed (the agents) that and . . . one of them called the lawyer and she didn't do anything."

The hours dragged into days, as the Israelis were repeatedly interrogated Most, like Hani, spoke imperfect English and struggled to understand the questions.

The line of questioning also changed, as the FBI apparently first suspected them of being Muslims, then of being agents for the Israeli intelligence service, the Mossad, who had come to America to spy.

"They think we have unreal passports or that we are not Jews, that because some Israelis look like Arabs, maybe they think we are Arabs or something," said the dark-haired, dark-eyed Hani. "We told them we are Israelis and Jews and we like the USA.

"After they realize we are maybe not a terrorist, they think maybe we are spies of the government of Israel. They asked if we come here to follow after Arab groups or if we come to get pictures of somebody or something. We really didn't understand -- we didn't believe they ask some of these questions."

Hani said few of the FBI agents seemed to know much about the Middle East or Israel, even though it is one of the United States' closest allies.

"They really think Israel is part of Third World countries. They think we have only camels and don't have computers and don't have malls. They ask really stupid questions."

'No evidence of harm'

For some time, Hani said, he and the others were unable to contact relatives because they had no money and none of the phones in the jail could be used for collect calls. Eventually, one young woman managed to reach an uncle in New York, who called Cleveland immigration lawyer David Leopold.

Leopold was dismayed by what the Israelis told him.

"We had two women who were handcuffed to a chair for four hours," he said. " . . . There were reports of intimidation: One kid reported to me later that he had been asked how much pain or torture could he withstand. I don't think anybody threatened to torture them, but you're dealing with people in a second tongue who don't always understand.

"They were also housed in the general criminal population at county jails. And at the beginning, there were reports that they had been told they really didn't need a lawyer, they all reported they were told that if they got a lawyer it would just complicate the process."

The FBI had no comment on the case last week. However, at a hearing in mid November, the immigration service argued that the 11 Israelis in Ohio should be kept in jail because they were "special" nonterrorist cases, a designation sharply challenged by a federal judge.

The service "has failed to present any credible evidence of the basis for this finding," Judge Elizabeth Hacker said. "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 harm to the community."

Hacker released nine of the 11 on bail. Yaniv Hani and another Israeli remained in jail.

At the hearing, government lawyers said the men worked for Quality Sales of Florida and were the subject of an FBI criminal investigation into "an individual or company who had agreed to pay living and travel expenses" in exchange for selling trinkets from mall pushcarts.

Florida records show that Quality Sales Corp., also known as N.S.B. Supplies, was incorporated last spring. The principals, both 24 and reported to be Israeli natives, are Amit Raibi, the president, and Oren Anker, co-president.

Anker would not comment. Raibi could not be reached and the company's Miami lawyer, Thomas Dean, did not return phone calls.

People held responsible

Although Hani and others say they thought Quality Sales would take care of changing their visa status, the Israelis should have made sure they had the proper visas to work in this country, the INS says.

All those entering on visitor visas, as Hani did, are given a form with a warning that they can be deported if they take unauthorized employment. "People are held responsible for complying with the law," says Russ Bergeron, an INS spokesman.

In the end, the FBI and other government agencies apparently concluded Hani and the other 10 Israelis were guilty of nothing more than visa violations. Still, even after their release from jail, Hani and a friend were subject to a "safeguard order" that has kept them from leaving the United States up to now.

Leopold, their attorney, says he is "100 percent supportive" of the U.S. government in its efforts to keep the country safe from terrorism. But, he says, the crackdown has been unjustly harsh on foreigners who are here for innocent reasons.

"The government has essentially given itself the right to lock people up on no evidence of any national security threats or terrorism or other harm to the public, and throw away the key until they decide it's time to let them go. So essentially what the government has done since Sept. 11 is strip away any kind of procedural or substantive rights that noncitizens may have in this country.

"This is still the United States and just because somebody is not a citizen of this country, doesn't mean a person should walk around without any rights. That's what's so appalling to me."

After the FBI and INS swooped down on its Israeli workers, Quality Sales left its kiosks in Toledo's Franklin Park Mall and other places. Hani, who was to be paid solely on commission, says he never made any money from his aborted employment. For the past few weeks, he has been staying at Leopold's house and going to the movies while waiting for the safeguard order to be lifted.

On Thursday afternoon, it finally was. On Friday, Hani left by bus for New York and the 13-hour flight home.

Once in Israel, he'll forget about Zoomcopters and try his hand at bartending.

"What happened," he says, "is a crazy story."

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