The earthquake, the backpacker and the spy


The Jewish community in New Zealand has reacted angrily to explosive allegations that Israeli backpackers caught in the massive earthquake earlier this year may have been involved in espionage.

The allegations were broken by the Southland Times newspaper on Wednesday, drawing an irate response from Israel's ambassador to New Zealand, Shemi Tzur, who blasted it as "science fiction".

The paper claimed four Israelis – Ofer Mizrahi, Michal Fraidman, Liron Sade and Guy Jordan – were the focus of an investigation by the country's Security Intelligence Service amid fears that Israelis may have hacked into the national computer network. But police said on Wednesday they were confident their computer systems were secure.

Mizrahi, 23, was driving a van when the February 22 earthquake in Christchurch struck and was killed. The other three Israelis left the country within 12 hours, the paper reported.

The SIS became suspicious after "at least" five passports were found on Mizrahi, according to the report.

Prime Minister John Key – the son of a Jewish refugee who escaped Europe before the Holocaust – said the central allegation in the report was wrong.

"Security agencies conducted the investigation and found no evidence that the people were anything other than backpackers," he told reporters.

David Zwartz, chairman of the Wellington Regional Jewish Council, told the JC on Wednesday: "Reactions received during the day from members of the Wellington Jewish community expressed disgust at the level of allegation and smear in the article.

"As soon as we read that the Israeli ambassador to New Zealand was based in Canberra – he has lived in Wellington since April 2010 – we knew we could expect a level of fabrication in the whole story," he said.

"Once more a media beat-up at the expense of Israel."

The paper also reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called his Kiwi counterpart four times on the day of the disaster, but failed to get through.

Key also confirmed that an Israeli search and rescue team were not permitted to enter the CBD in Christchurch as it was not accredited by the UN but was later found in the area and escorted out by armed police.

Three Israelis were among the 181 fatalities in the disaster.

In 2004, two alleged Mossad agents were caught and jailed for stealing a Kiwi passport. New Zealand severed diplomatic ties with Israel for more than a year until Israel apologised.

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