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Originally published September 10, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 10, 2007 at 1:59 PM

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Neo-Nazi gang broken up in Israel

Police said Sunday they have broken up a cell of young Israeli neo-Nazis accused of a string of brutal racist and anti-Semitic attacks...

JERUSALEM — Police said Sunday they have broken up a cell of young Israeli neo-Nazis accused of a string of brutal racist and anti-Semitic attacks, videos of which were played on television to a stunned national audience.

The eight suspects, all immigrants from the former Soviet Union in their late teens or early 20s, are seen in the videos kicking bloodied victims on the ground, hitting a man over the head with an empty beer bottle and proclaiming their allegiance to Adolf Hitler with a Nazi salute.

The news shocked Israelis, whose state was founded as a refuge for Jews in the wake of the Nazi Holocaust. Video said to have been taken by the gang to document its beatings was shown at Sunday's Cabinet meeting.

Voicing outrage on radio talk shows, Israelis faulted a standard that allowed many families with Jewish roots but weak ties to Judaism to immigrate from the Soviet Union nearly a generation ago and take Israeli citizenship.

Israeli leaders said they were appalled. "We as a society have failed to educate these youths and keep them away from dangerous and crazy ideologies," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said, calling for harsh punishments.

The Interior Ministry said it was studying the possibility of stripping the youths of their citizenship and deporting them.

The eight youths, who immigrated to Israel as children, were arrested over the past two months in connection with at least 15 attacks against religious Jews, foreign workers from Asia, drug addicts, the homeless and gays. A ninth member has fled the country, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

A court decided Sunday to keep seven of the eight in custody, pending expected indictments this week. The young men covered their faces with their shirts during the court hearing, revealing Nazi-themed tattoos on their arms.

"We didn't beat anyone," protested Arik Benyatov, 20, the gang's alleged leader.

Israeli newspapers said six of the eight alleged gangsters had confessed to police that they carried out assaults in and around Tel Aviv over a period of months.

The arrests were made public Saturday, capping an investigation that began after the desecration of two synagogues sprayed with swastikas in the city of Petah Tikva more than a year ago.

Rosenfeld said the young men would be charged with "causing bodily harm to individuals and sabotaging synagogues."

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Israel doesn't specifically have a hate-crimes law, and the case has drawn calls for new legislation.

Legal experts said the young men could be deported if judged to have committed acts that constitute a breach of loyalty toward the state and the foundation of its existence.

Israeli television stations played footage seized by the police showing several young men surrounding a heroin addict and ordering him to kneel and beg forgiveness for being a Jew and a junkie. Then they pounded him with their fists.

A photograph of six of the suspects raising their arms in a Nazi salute ran across the front page of Israel's most widely read newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, under a one-word headline: "Unbelievable!"

Police said they found knives, spiked balls, explosives and at least one M-16 rifle in the suspects' possession.

The gang maintained computer contact with neo-Nazi groups in Germany and other countries abroad, police said.

Israelis have been scandalized before by neo-Nazi activity. In 2003, a soldier from an immigrant family was arrested after launching a Nazi Web site. A court sentenced him to community service and a tour of former Nazi death camps in Europe.

But police said this was the largest group of neo-Nazis ever arrested in Israel.

Amos Hermon, an official in the semiofficial Jewish Agency, which helps organize immigration to Israel, said neo-Nazism is a "minor phenomenon" in the Jewish state. He called the gang a group of disaffected youths venting their frustrations by expressing "some of the most hurtful sentiments toward the Jewish people."

But Zalman Gilchinsky, an Israeli who has been documenting neo-Nazi groups for several years, said they are more common than Israeli leaders are willing to admit.

"There are such groups in nearly every city in Israel," he said on Israel radio. "This group was perhaps a little careless and a little too violent, and this is why they got caught."

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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