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Their cases were labeled 'special interest,' a designation used for cases arising from the attacks investigation.

Friday December 14 6:44 PM ET

Detainees Asked if They Were Spies

Associated Press Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) -- During Yaniv Hani's four weeks in custody of investigators probing the Sept. 11 attacks, the 22-year-old Israeli says the interrogation turned from terrorism to another subject: Was he an Israeli spy?

Hani and another young Israeli detained in Ohio are being kept in the United States under an unusual oral order from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, though an immigration judge ruled last month that the INS lacked any evidence to justify keeping them in custody.

Hani and Oren Behr, 25, said that during four weeks in custody they were first asked about connections to terrorism, then whether they worked for the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence service.

"After a while, I think that they (investigators) understand that we are not terrorists," Hani said, "so they think that we are spies from the Mossad that come to the U.S. to spy -- to follow after Arab groups or to get pictures of Arab people and get pictures of buildings or something."

Sixty Israelis have been detained across the United States in the attacks investigation, said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Washington, but "not a single one has been charged with intelligence violations. It has all been visa violations."

Regev said Israel doesn't condone its citizens working illegally in the United States, but it has nothing to do with espionage. Regev said Israelis have not been singled out for FBI scrutiny, and no American official has raised concerns about espionage.

Israel's intelligence services have kept a worldwide watch on terrorists and Arab militants for decades, in some cases reportedly with the informal help of Israeli citizens and businesses abroad.

Mark Hansen, district director of the INS Cleveland office, refused to comment on Hani and Behr. Robert Hawk, an FBI spokesman in Cleveland, also declined comment, saying the INS has jurisdiction.

Hani and Behr were detained Oct. 31 near Toledo, Ohio, along with nine other Israelis. All had come to the United States separately and took jobs with an Israeli-owned company, Quality Sales, based in Miami Beach, Fla. The company hired them to sell toys in shopping mall kiosks and gave them temporary housing.

Many young Israelis finishing military service take several months off for world travel before returning to start work or enroll in a university. They often take temporary jobs to fund the trips, and there is an informal network of companies around the world willing to hire them.

Quality Sales attorney Thomas Dean said the company had gotten bad legal advice on the use of tourists as workers, and has since stopped the practice.

Hani said he was told by Quality Sales that the company would change his visa status from visitor to temporary labor. He began working in Ohio Oct. 1, expecting to resume his travels after Christmas. But the INS said Hani and the others violated their visas, and their cases were labeled "special interest," a designation used for cases arising from the attacks investigation.

"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," Dean said.

Hani says he served three years in the engineering corps of the Israeli army but does not work for the government. Behr, who spent four years in the Israeli army's military police, also said the FBI believed he was working for the government. "They asked if I was spying on anybody," he said.

The INS asked immigration Judge Elizabeth Hacker to deny bond for all 11 Israelis, saying they were part of an ongoing investigation. She rejected that request in a Nov. 15 ruling.

"Although the (INS) alleges that these cases are 'special,' it has failed to present any credible evidence of the basis for this finding," Hacker wrote. "Indeed, the service has failed to submit any evidence of terrorist activity or of a threat to national security."

The INS released nine of the Israelis, but held Hani and Behr until Nov. 27. The INS then issued an oral "order of safe guard" that the two should remain in the United States. No written order was issued, and the INS has set no schedule for additional hearings, said the men's attorney, David Leopold.

Such orders generally mean the detainee's passport is taken until the INS can escort the person to a flight home.

Hani, out of jail but unable to leave, is living in Leopold's house. Behr is staying with relatives in Maryland.

"The two of us just want to go home," Hani said. "After Sept. 11, something happened to this county. Everybody is being afraid. I think that the government and the officials don't know how to deal with this situation, and so they are doing things that are radical things."

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