Law and Order: An explosive mission

Police are in a race against time to kick negligent handymen and organized crime out of the home gas industry.

By
November 18, 2011 21:35
Rescue workers at Netanya gas explosion

Rescue workers at Netanya gas explosion 311 (R). (photo credit: Reuters)

 
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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.

The blast 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 suspect.

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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.

The stolen 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.

“The 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 Hamishtara (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 attacks.

“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 said.

“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.

But negligent handymen are only one part of the problem police face.

A second issue is the presence of organized crime elements within this profitable area.

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 said.

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 Sderot.

All of the suspects have denied the charges.

Domrani, who 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 way.

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 protection.

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 said.

Undercover officers monitored a meeting in a Sderot cafe between Metatov and a suspect who allegedly represented Domrani .

During the 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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