Israeli Stuck in Homeland Security Web

Netty C. Gross - The Jerusalem Report - April 18, 2005

Relatives of Yaniv Ifrah, a 24-year-old Israeli citizen sentenced on January 12, 2005, by the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas to a 14-month prison term after he ran afoul of Homeland Security agents at Houston's George Bush International airport last year, say his arrest, trial and incarceration "are absurd and a mockery of justice."

Since the sentencing, they charge that Houston public defender Richard Banks refuses to take their calls and that Israel's Foreign Ministry has been "particularly unhelpful." "Yaniv is an innocent man whose crime was that he wanted to vacation in the United States," says his aunt Anita. She adds that the family lacks the necessary funds to hire a private attorney.

Ifrah arrived at the Houston airport on October 24, 2004, from Colombia, where he'd spent several months on a post-army tour. The Colombian point of origin aroused suspicion, apparently for its drug- trafficking reputation, and Ifrah was taken aside for questioning by Homeland Security agents.

According to his relatives, Ifrah, whose command of English is poor, at first told agents that he had two relatives in the United States, but when he could not provide telephone numbers or other proof, he was detained on suspicion of lying. He was later also accused of "assaulting" and "interfering" with Kim Pham, a Customs and Border Protection officer. Relatives say that charge, too, is spurious, the result of an innocent misunderstanding between Ifrah, who needed assistance filling out police forms, and Pham.

Ifrah's aunt says that relatives provided the court with documents demonstrating that he had two relatives in the States (one of whom had died, which Ifrah did not know). In a Kafkaesque twist, Homeland Security then claimed that he had lied in saying that he lacked information about American relatives - and issued a "superceding indictment."

Lawyer Glen Cook of the Houston District Attorney's office, who prosecuted the case, acknowledged to The Report that the Ifrah case was "uncommon but not impossible," but would not comment on details. Public defender Banks refused to speak to The Report.

Tel Aviv attorney Mordechai Tzivin, who represents Israelis arrested abroad (some 500 Israelis are currently incarcerated overseas), says the Ifrah case is, apart from anything else, an egregious example of Foreign Ministry refusal to assist its citizens who are detained or arrested outside Israel. In January he participated in a meeting of the Knesset's State Control Committee, which heard complaints of families of Israelis arrested abroad that the Ministry was unhelpful.

The Ministry's Rachel Shani told The Report that official policy is "not to get involved in local criminal complaints. We provide humanitarian help for citizens." Ifrah, she says, was visited by a consul in jail, who made sure that he had legal representation and a translator at the trial.