Tomer Grinberg passed between food carts in the dining hall of the northern Kibbutz Evron last week. Quite a few kibbutz members came up to him, asked him how he is, and shook his hand. It’s not everyday that a kibbutz member returns after years abroad.
But the 33 year-old Grinberg didn’t come home because he was homesick for his country or his friends; Grinberg was deported from the USA by the immigration authorities.
He was just another Israeli guy who came to New York to work for a moving company. But something went wrong in Tomer Grinberg’s climb to the top. In May 2004 the young man was arrested by the FBI for an unusually serious offense: Conspiring to export sensitive military equipment to Hizbullah.
He served a six month sentence in a Pennsylvania prison and then took one last look at the US sky from his one way flight back to Israel.
Kibbutz Evron was happy to take back the prodigal son. They are certain that it was his naïveté that made him fall for the trick. “Tomer is a serious person, a good man, who just got in trouble,” said one of the members of the kibbutz.
“Tomer isn’t greedy and this doesn’t suit him. He’s one of the good guys. In the kibbutz, if someone isn’t liked they’re finished, but in this case everyone will forgive and embrace him, because we know he’s not a criminal.”
'Goody two shoes'
Nothing in Grinberg’s life story could have foreshadowed what happened two and a half years ago. After graduating from high school, he joined the armored corps as a fighter, like everyone else.
This is an important fact to keep in mind, since his combat record would be a major factor in the charges brought against him years later. After his discharge at the age of 22 he packed his bags and headed to the US.
He started working for moving companies, and became a foreman. He met an Israeli woman in New York called Orly, and they got married. Life seemed promising for the young couple, and Grinberg, who was quickly getting used to the fast New York lifestyle, started calling himself “Tommy”.
Somewhere around this fairly long time period Grinberg met the man who would ultimately bring to his downfall. Naji Antoine Abi Khalil, a Lebanese-born Canadian, was the owner of New Line Services, an import-export company in Montreal.
Not a lot is known about the connection between the two or how it was made, but it’s pretty clear that he is a shady character dealing with shady business, apparently including selling sophisticated equipment to terror organizations; it also seems the FBI was closely following him for a long while.
In the middle of May 2004 Khalil arrived in New York to meet with a man who asked him to transport a shipment of stolen electronic goods out of the USA. Khalil was unaware that the man was an FBI informant. The two met several times on May 17th and 18th at the Marriot Marquis in Times Square, with agents recording them with surveillance equipment form a nearby hotel.
During their meeting the informant told Khalil he has a customer who would like to send a shipment of night-vision equipment to the Hizbullah in Athens, Greece. Khalil said it would not be a problem, and promised to take care of the shipment. In another meeting at the hotel Khalil met with an undercover FBI agent posing as this client. The agent gave Khalil names and numbers of the people who were meant to receive the shipment in Athens. Khalil agreed to make out a fake receipt which will not reveal the buyer’s name.
This is when Grinberg enters the pictures. On the morning of May 19th, Khalil and Grinberg, who was working for a Brooklyn delivery service at the time, met with the FBI agent in a mini-storage facility in Manhattan to pick up the equipment. It seems that Grinberg was unaware of the deal’s terrorist connections, and was only asked to assist in the transfer of the goods.
The agent showed the two a box containing 14 items of “third generation” night-vision artifacts, which were meant to be mounted on M-16 rifles and other weapons. These were night-vision goggles and other infra-red equipment. The total worth of the items was USD 5000.
Khalil inspected the equipment on the spot, and Grinberg, it appears from the court documents, told the FBI agent that he doesn’t need to test the night-vision equipment because he is familiar with them from his military service and knows how to use them.
The two loaded the equipment into a mini-van, and when they were done loading Khalil received 2500USD as payment for the first shipment. Immediately after that, with clear cut evidence in hand, FBI agents arrested Khalil and Grinberg.
From the moment of his arrest Grinberg claimed he had no idea the equipment was meant for Hizbullah and that Khalil kept that information from him. He also claimed he had no way of knowing that the night vision gear was supposed to reach a terrorist organization. Initially, federal prosecutor David Kelley stated that Grinberg would be charged with attempting to smuggle military equipment to Hizbullah, an offense with a 5 year maximal sentence and a 250,000 dollar fine. Eventually, the charge was for a much lesser offense: conspiracy to import the equipment to Greece.
In other words, the criminal record remained, but the federal offense was gone. On July 28th 2005 in a Manhattan Federal Court Grinberg pled guilty to the charged against him and was sentenced to six months. Khalil also pled guilty to the charges against him in February 13th, 2006 and was sentenced to 50 months incarceration.
The people back in the kibbutz were stunned when they heard the charges. “We believe Tomer didn’t do anything,” said another kibbutz member. “He’s just a good, naïve boy, and I’m sure he treated this package like any other package. It could have happened to anyone.”
'He will be forgiven'
This past August Kibbutz Evron went through one of its biggest tragedies. Days before the ceasefire in the second Lebanon war. In the middle of the night Hizbullah forces fired an anti-aircraft missile at a helicopter back from dropping off paratroopers in the field. The pilot was Major (reserve) Nisan Shalev, a member of the kibbutz.
He was 36 years-old, only 3 years older than Grinberg. Yes, while Grinberg was serving jail time in a Pennsylvania prison for attempting to transfer military equipment to the Hizbullah, the people of Evron were mourning the death of a member killed by that very same equipment.
Amos Shalev, Nisan’s father, is not angry with Grinberg. Like most of the people of the kibbutz, is convinced he was set up.
“I know the truth is that Tomer didn’t sell or try to sell anything to Hizbullah,” he says.
“He was working for a company that was trying to sell night goggles, but was in the role of a mover. His job was strictly logistical. I am familiar with the story since I know the people involved, and we discussed it when it happened two and a half years ago.”
It turns out, however, that some people in Evron do not think he is so naïve. “There is a code of silence in the kibbutz,” says a member.
“I don’t think the kibbutz should embrace him. In my family the sense is that Tomer crossed the line, and this will be tested if he tries to join the kibbutz. I believe he was led by greed. Maybe he didn’t take in the kibbutz’s ideals himself. We couldn’t educate him”
So for the time being he is in Evron, trying to put the pieces of his life back together. His wife Orly returned three months ago, and is working in the dining hall. It is still unclear if they plan to stay in Evron.
Ronen Tal contributed to the report