Taking down the mafia: The arrest of Israel's famed crime boss, Michael Mor

The crime boss's ability to beat the system time and again is a sign of the police’s challenges in coping with organized crim

October 28, 2017 08:11
Alledged Israeli mobster Michael Mor is seen in the Nazareth Magistrate’s Court last month.

Alledged Israeli mobster Michael Mor is seen in the Nazareth Magistrate’s Court last month.. (photo credit: BASEL AWIDAT/FLASH90)

My grandfather used to tell us he was sent to the US in the 1940s on a secret fund-raising mission by the Irgun Zva’i Leumi. What made the mission secret was the patron he met: American-Jewish mobster Bugsy Siegel.

The truth of this tale has never been confirmed.

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My maternal grandfather, Gabriel Zifrony, a journalist, was famous for telling entertaining stories without sticking to factual details. He was even nicknamed by his friends “Zipka- bluff.” Despite the nickname, my mom claims she once saw a gold coin he kept as a souvenir – it supposedly came from a handsome donation made by a Jewish mafia boss to the Zionist cause.

This story about a link between the Zionist Irgun and an American-Jewish crime organization is either grounded on truths or is just a familial myth. Nevertheless, as the century wore on, organized crime in Israel got tougher, going well beyond the sweetest dreams of legendary criminals such as Siegel.

The 1980s and 1990s saw the heyday of criminal bloodshed in the streets of Israel, carried out by competing gangs fighting one another. The violent incidents haven’t completely stopped, but the sophistication of the criminal organizations has ramped up the annual revenue shared by several criminal families and organizations into an estimated NIS 50 billion business.

In 2008, then-chief of police David Cohen stated that crime organizations were penetrating local municipalities and were gaining increasing influence in regional politics, to the extent that they “threatened Israeli democracy.” He noted that these organizations were becoming tech savvy, noting the difficulties police had in keeping up with their pace.

To make matters more complicated, WikiLeaks revealed a 2009 cable sent by the US ambassador to Israel about the alleged penetration of organized crime into the Knesset. The cable spoke of a young female, an Israeli politician, whose father was allegedly a mafia boss, noting that: “The election of Inbal Gavrieli to the Knesset in 2003 as a member of Likud raised concerns about organized crime’s influence in the party’s Central Committee. Gavrieli is the daughter of a suspected crime boss, and she attempted to use her parliamentary immunity to block investigations into her father’s business.”

A source close to one government minister, who refused to speak on record, told The Jerusalem Post Magazine that this is “nonsense” and that “Gavrieli’s dad would perhaps like to see himself as a mobster, but he is far from being anywhere close to influential people. It’s true that his daughter became an MK, which is good for the family business, but that doesn’t mean organized crime has penetrated the parliament.”

It’s difficult to assess whether organized crime is infiltrating the political system; sources in the government have a paramount interest to calm public nerves about such allegations. There is, however, less dispute about how these organizations play a role in the everyday life of citizens.

A Mako article from 2016 stated that there isn’t a commercial sector in Israel that isn’t connected in some way to criminal activities, ranging from money laundering to using or producing fake bills whitewashed by taxi drivers. Their preferred places of operation are money-changing spots and 24/7 kiosks. The article concludes that each and every one of us directly uses money that comes from or goes into the hands of crime bosses.

In 2000, the government passed a money-laundering bill that was supposed to crack down on the economic operations of criminal organizations. However, Israeli mobsters were quick to adapt, moving their money around and cultivating new and more profitable, but less detectable, business dealings, such as online gambling and Internet schemes. While the police were able to confiscate some NIS 3b. that had been illegally trafficked between 2000 and 2016, this sum amounts to less than 6% of organized crime’s total revenue.

On September 3, the police arrested alleged organized crime boss Michael Mor and 32 of his “soldiers,” confiscating arms, drugs and ammunition in the process. Mor, 39, has been under careful police scrutiny for almost two decades and is considered one of the main targets of their investigations. He started off as a small-time crook, dealing drugs and arms and was convicted of minor property crimes, but then he made a name for himself as a fearless gangster who didn’t hesitate to intimidate anyone, even policemen.

Mor was born in Nahariya under the name Michael Modzgrishvily in a neighborhood that offered many fast tracks to jail. People who knew him say he was physically very strong and charismatic.

In his late teens and early 20s he became involved in petty assault and theft cases and attracted a small group of followers that he allegedly led into armed robbery jobs, cultivating a network to accumulate US dollars under the radar with currency exchanges, drugs and weapons trafficking and more. However, he was still considered a minor criminal and was mostly ignored by the local police.

When he was 22 years old, during Purim festivities in Nahariya, Mor allegedly threw a firecracker that almost hit a policewoman. He was arrested and released a few hours later. He may have been behind an attempt to get revenge on those cops who took him in. In the following weeks, a grenade was thrown into the house of the detective who arrested him, and two more were thrown at the local police station, along with a LAW missile.

That was just the beginning. Mor spent his 20s purportedly expanding his organization, sidelining seasoned criminals from the game and doing time in prison. It is said he used his jail time to foster new connections and that every time he got out he was “stronger” than when he walked in. He is remembered for intimidating business owners and police alike in Nahariya.

In 2016, a former detective interviewed by Shimon Ifergan in Mako said: “Truth be told, we dropped the ball on this one. For years, his name didn’t show up as someone we should pay attention to… intelligence officers and detectives were afraid to investigate this case, fearing the well-being of their families. When he became a crime monster it was already too late. He already had a lot of property and his people had access to any kind of weaponry. [His people] forced [IDF] soldiers to sell them their guns and declare later, when questioned, that they were stolen from them.”

In 2006 the police shifted gears and intensified their attempts to bring him down. In response, he allegedly made an attempt on the life of Nahariya’s mayor, and on the lives of policemen involved in the operations to catch him. For some cops, this crossed a line and a group of them plotted to strike back in a case that was solved only a year later and was nicknamed “The Avenging Cops.”

These policemen covertly planted explosives near one of Mor’s apartments and his SUV. The first explosive blew up, causing minor damage to Mor’s nephew, but Mor himself came out of it unscathed. The cops were trailed, kicked out of the police and condemned by the chief of the police at the time, David Cohen.

This incident, however, underlined how the police as a unified organization failed to protect their own people, to the extent that individuals were so desperate that they resorted to criminal means and participated in a mobster-like war.

Just recently, before he was arrested, Mor was allegedly involved in a war against a competing criminal and Mor’s former second-in-command who took the life of his brother. He also expanded his business to the center of Israel and took charge of businesses in Holon, Ramat Gan, Haifa and even casinos abroad.

His arrest in early September was initially framed as an enormous success by the police. But pinning the mobster down with a solid conviction proved elusive.

The police planned to charge him with heading a criminal organization, but later toned down their charges to illegal possession of arms.

Could Mor walk away, laughing at the feeble attempts of law-enforcement officials to put him away? And after that, would he just continue building his empire?

Mor’s ability to beat the system time and again is a sign of the police’s challenges in coping with organized crime.

Aside from Mor, there are some seven other organizations and families – Jewish, Arab, and an arm of the Russian mafia – that are allegedly involved in turf wars, drug and arms trafficking and money laundering.

Another market that the mafia is trying to get its clutches on is government contracts. Environmental recycling in general and recycling of plastic bottles are businesses that some observers say are almost entirely in the hands of criminal organizations. However, if you ask Mor and his friends, they will tell you that they are only businessmen, trying to make a living. Thus far, it is their version that stands in court.

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