Midnight Express

From Yediot America

November 2, 2001

Note to those being referred to this article by one of several antisemitic, conspiracy-theory web sites: Please notice that these sites have left out the following important passage: "The five denied dancing. I presume the neighbor was not near them and does not understand Hebrew. Furthermore, the neighbor complained that the cheerful gang on the roof spoke Arabic. As far as I understand it, that neighbor has had previous problems with the company, and she could have been waiting for an opportunity to avenge the owners." In other words, the one "witness" was not telling the truth.

Last Thursday we arrived at the detention facility of the immigration authorities in Brooklyn. The penitentiary stands in the heart of a blue-collar neighborhood, next to a chewing gum factory which spreads its sweet scent all around. Before we got used to the smell, we were stopped in a blockade four blocks from the jail. Two FBI agents wearing bulletproof vests told us we couldn't proceed without a permit. "But you can photograph the building from any other direction, as long as you won't enter the restricted area," they explained courteously.

Following their advice, we went to the back of the building, where there was a police barrier and an empty police car. The photographer started snapping his camera but after 30 seconds about 20 FBI agents appeared out of nowhere and with pointed guns ordered us to surrender our equipment (a camera, a pen and a notebook) and raise our hands. Traffic on the nearby road was immediately stopped and drivers were diverted to a side street. With our hands up and barrels pointing at our necks, we were interrogated by the officers on our actions. We didn't know whether to laugh or cry. We came to the penitentiary writing an article on the Israelis arrested a day after the terrorist attack, and soon, we thought, we'll find ourselves in the cell, next to them.

The story ended with the film's confiscation, a warning not to return and an apology from the force's commander. "You have to understand the situation we're in," he told us and sent us on our way. If until then we didn't fully comprehend how much the city changed during the last couple of months, now we know.

Steven Gordon is the lawyer representing the five detainees, held in Brooklyn. The five, Yaron Shmuel, Oded Helmar, the brothers Paul and Sivan Kretzberg, and a fifth man named Omer, were arrested in New York a few hours after the disaster. They worked for the Urban moving company; whose offices are located in Hoboken, New Jersey. The company's offices closed down following the arrests, and the owner, an Israeli named Dominick, could not be located. Many versions of the reasons leading to the arrests and the events following them have been circulating in the last weeks. Gordon's is the most complete and reliable one.

"On the day of the disaster, three of the five boys went up on the roof of the building where the company office is located," said Gordon. "I'm not sure if they saw the twin towers collapse, but, in any event, they photographed the ruins right afterwards. One of the neighbors who saw them called the police and claimed they were posing, dancing and laughing, against the background of the burning towers. The five denied dancing. I presume the neighbor was not near them and does not understand Hebrew. Furthermore, the neighbor complained that the cheerful gang on the roof spoke Arabic. As far as I understand it, that neighbor has had previous problems with the company, and she could have been waiting for an opportunity to avenge the owners.

"Anyhow, the three left the roof, took an Urban truck, and drove to a parking lot, located about a five-minute drive from the offices. They parked, stood on the roof of the truck to get a better view of the destroyed towers and took photographs. A woman who was in the building above the lot testified that she saw them smiling and exchanging high-fives. She and another neighbor called the police and reported on Middle-Eastern looking people dancing on the truck. They copied and reported the license plates.

"The five men then drove to Yaron's friend's place in New Jersey. At around 2:30 p.m. they decided to go to the Brooklyn apartment of Oded, Sivan and Paul. They headed toward the George Washington Bridge, but, after hearing radio reports about traffic jams and police blockades at entrances to Manhattan, they decided to return to the company's offices in Hoboken and spend the night there. On their way, a policeman stopped them, using the description provided by the neighbors. FBI agents were summoned instantly and the five were arrested.

The agents found a few items that raised their suspicion. Yaron, who also has a German nationality, had two passports, and $4,000 in cash were found in the belongings of one of the men. Police were also alarmed that none of the five were American. News broadcasts reported that a truck full of explosives was caught on its way to blow up the George Washington Bridge. Photos of the Urban truck accompanied the reports, which said there were five young men in the truck, apparently terrorists, who were taken to an FBI facility.

The five were taken to a police station near the Meadowlands sports complex. Gordon said that the FBI agents who questioned them understood after a few hours of interrogation that the suspects had no connection to the World Trade Center disaster and no intention of blowing up a bridge. But during the investigation, it was found the men had no work permits and that some were staying in the United States illegally. The agents called the Immigration and Naturalization Services, which took responsibility for the detainees.

The days turned into weeks, and the five are still under arrest. Gordon said he did not understand why.

"The authorities know for certain they are not involved in the attack. The simplest explanation is the lack of manpower in the INS. I think the paperwork in their case just didn't reach whoever should sign the release . . . . It's not supposed to take 120 days, maybe 120 minutes. All the answers I got about this issue were bull..... In the detention facility, I was told they are not there, which is a total lie. I have no sensible explanation for why they are still arrested."

(Translated from Hebrew by Oren Yaniv)

(Read about how Yediot America covered the detentions of hundreds of Israelis in America after September 11th)

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