At first, the deadly explosion that tore through a Netanya building in the
middle of a hot summer night last June led many to believe that the
terror-stricken city had once again been targeted by bombers.
left four people dead – three teenage girls who were handing out Shabbat candles
to members of the public, and a restaurant employee. It also left behind a
wrecked building in Netanya’s central Atzmaut Square. The incident turned out to
have been the final sequence of a series of criminal and negligent acts, police
A massive cooking gas leak began when a copper thief arrived at
the building earlier during that day and allegedly cut through gas piping with
the intention of stealing copper and selling it for profit.
metal market is a lucrative and well-developed criminal industry, according to
police – so much so that thieves have even managed to steal parts of old F-15
fighter jet engines and sell them as scrap.
After the metal thief left
the building, residents smelled gas and a technician arrived to repair the leak.
But he allegedly failed to stem the flow and hours later, when the entire
building was enveloped in an invisible cloud of flammable gas vapor, a trigger,
such as a short circuit or the lighting of a cigarette set off a blast that
rocked Netanya’s city center.
The suspected gas thief and technician were
both arrested and then released to house arrest at the beginning of a
painstaking police investigation that is still in progress.
explosion was caused by copper theft and by illegal, unlicensed work on gas
[facilities],” Asst.-Cmdr. Aharon Valeriola, head of the infrastructure branch
of the National Crimes Unit, told internal police publication named Marot
(Police Sights) this week.
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Valeriola’s unit is in a race
against time to prevent further accidents involving lethal gas. External tanks
of cooking gas can be found at the base of almost every building in the country,
meaning that police need to work swiftly to ensure that the industry is cleaned
up. To that end, police have begun using a new legal interpretation that draws
some parallels between negligent gas maintenance and actual bomb
“According to an expert opinion given to us by the
Infrastructure Ministry’s [chief] engineer, a liter of gas is the equivalent of
2.5 kilograms of explosives. Criteria have been set to apply this interpretation
in a way that allows retroactive enforcement [of gas safety laws]. This means we
can now arrest criminals and charge them while they’re in custody,” the officer
“From the moment this came into effect, we began getting
intelligence on negligent ‘handymen,’” Valeriola said. The increased enforcement
has begun forcing those who wish to earn their living from gas maintenance and
distribution to attain the proper licenses, he added.
handymen are only one part of the problem police face.
A second issue is
the presence of organized crime elements within this profitable
Shortly after the Netanya gas disaster, the director-general of one
Israel’s biggest gas companies, Amisragas, appeared before the Knesset committee
to issue an alert.
“Criminal elements are penetrating the market,” said
Amisragas general manager Idan Ben-Ari. Some of the maintenance people are
working for the criminals, he added.
“They’re carrying out unsafe
repairs... and offering cheap gas from dubious and dangerous sources,” he
In March, southern district state prosecutors filed charges against
one of the most powerful alleged crime bosses in the country, Shalom Domrani,
and seven of his associates over an alleged extortion campaign utilizing threats
and arson to protect their alleged monopoly over the gas distribution market in
All of the suspects have denied the charges.
resides in a walled, heavily secured mansion in the village of Otzem, near
Ashkelon, surrounded by CCTV cameras, became the focus of an undercover
investigation by the Economic Crimes Unit after Menashe Metatov, a businessman
from Sderot, told police he was the victim of a campaign of arson, death threats
and extortion aimed at dissuading him from opening a new gas distribution
network in the town.
One of the defendants in the case runs a gas firm
named Petrol Gas, which distributed its goods on behalf of the Paz Gas company.
It was the only distribution game in town and, according to police, powerful
underworld elements had a vested interest in making sure it stayed that
Metatov wished to open a rival firm on behalf of Amisragas and
turned to alleged Jerusalem underworld strongman Yossi Malka with a request that
he become a “patron” of the new gas business in order to gain
Malka agreed to the offer at first, but Domrani later talked
him into giving up his patronage of Metatov’s business, according to the charge
sheet. Men allegedly appeared at Metatov’s address to say that harm would come
to him if he proceeded with his business plans, the charge sheet
Undercover officers monitored a meeting in a Sderot cafe between
Metatov and a suspect who allegedly represented Domrani .
conversation, the underworld representative allegedly mentioned the murder of a
previous gas company owner, a man named Jamal Shahada, who had once also sought
set up a rival distribution company.
Shahada was a Palestinian who
relocated from Gaza to Sderot to protect his life and that of his family after
working with Israeli security forces in the Strip. His body was found by police
in a forest outside of Sderot in 2009. Police say he was murdered, but did not
arrest a suspect.
“Do you remember what happened with the Arabs,” the
underworld man is alleged to have asked Metatov. Later, Metatov’s car and the
entrance to his new office were torched.
Police say the situation has
improved in recent months.
“Three months ago, the Israeli gas market was
unprotected. Anyone could be a gas supplier,” said Ch.-Supt. Anat Bashan, editor
of Marot Hamishtara
. “No more,” she added.
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