There used to be a common perception that Israelis were busy focusing on their external enemy, and crime within the country was but a small detail. Today, nothing could be farther from the truth.
Just ask someone whose house has recently been broken into. In the Sharon region, such people are not hard to find.
One burglary victim said, "It's sad for me that my jewelry, which had more sentimental than monetary value, was stolen. It's just not the same Israel anymore."
While police insist that crime is down significantly, local residents are not so sure. Many long-time residents of the Sharon region speak fondly of years gone by, when they did not feel the need to lock their doors at night.
Last month, the Sharon region police captured a well-organized group of 16 thieves who are suspected of breaking into approximately 500 homes in upper-middle and upper class neighborhoods in the area. According to the police, the gang was targeting five or six houses a day.
"They would enter a house, close the door behind them and disconnect the alarm system. When the security company's response team arrived on the scene, all they would find was a closed door and a quiet house, so they would leave. That is when the thieves went to work, quickly finding valuables and dislodging safes," explained one high-ranking officer.
Yet the break-ins continue.
In a University of Haifa website article, Joshua Caspi, one of Israel's leading criminologists, points out that the statistics for crimes against property in Israel are very similar to those reported by other Western countries.
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, 14% of the crimes committed in Israel in 2003 - the most recent year on record - were against property. Crime rates were generally consistent throughout the country. Altogether, 5,285 crimes against property were reported that year - approximately two-thirds committed by primarily native-born adult Jews.
Property crime was less prevalent than crimes against public order or bodily harm.
Igal Hadad, Central District spokesman for the Israel Police, says it is true that property crime in on the increase. But only, he says, since the terrorist attacks have slowed down.
"It's hard to explain, but it is a known thing. In the last year, the terms of security have changed for the good. There are fewer terrorist attacks. And what usually happens in that case is that crime goes up."
The police statistics show that property crime in general is up seven percent in the Sharon Region, while apartment break-ins are up 20%.
"Maybe because when there are more terrorist attacks," says Hadad, "there are more policemen on the street. But we can't stay in the street all the time. There is a lot of other work to do in the office."
The question that is uppermost on most residents' minds is "Who is committing these crimes?"
In public, the police prefer not to define the criminal group. All that police officers will say is that they are Jews who, for the most part, were born here or have lived here for many years.
A week after the gang bust, Chief Superintendent Suzy Ben-Baruch, head of the youth section of Israel Police's investigations department, told the Knesset's Absorption Committee that there has been a significant drop in the crime rate among new immigrant youths this past year.
There is one area of property crime where Jews and Arabs apparently work together: car theft. As one police officer put it, "In this particular area, we have shalom."
Jewish thieves usually steal cars and drive them to the territories, where they sell them to their Palestinian accomplices for a few thousand shekels. The accomplice in turn sells the car to a local resident. The thieves apparently prefer older car models.
There appears to be a silent acceptance of this process in some law enforcement circles. The logic is that when someone steals a car in Israel, it is good for the country. When a car is stolen, the insurance company pays the owner to replace it. That person, in turn, goes out and buys a new car, which stimulates the economy, they reason.
Police say that most break-and-enter criminals do it for one of two reasons: The first is money. As one officer explained, it's a lot easier to get money - and lots of it - through criminal pursuits than by going to a job every day and slowly earning a living.
The second motive that draws people to crime is drug dependency. Many of the criminals are drug addicts who need to pay for their regular fix. Hard drugs are playing an increasingly important role in criminal activity in Israel. The harder and more addictive the drug, the more an addicted user is prepared to go to any length to get it.
While local police forces insist that no one ethnic group dominates this type of criminal activity, they are quick to add that within the Israeli criminal world there is a perception that areas such as Herzliya, Kfar Shmaryahu and Ra'anana, for example, are filled with rich people and therefore are the most likely places for a successful quick hit. And residents of these communities definitely feel like they are being targeted.
The police officer explained that there are many people in these communities who keep large sums of money in home safes - and the thieves do their homework. They are also very creative, he noted, describing one of the more popular tactics. "They [the thieves] work in groups because they need a look-out person, a driver, an alarm expert and at least a few people to break and enter. They often stake out a house and wait for the residents to leave for work or the weekend. Then one of the team goes to the door and knocks, holding a bouquet of flowers. If someone answers the door they make up a fake name, which naturally causes the homeowner to send them on their way. The homeowner thinks it was an innocent mistake. However, if no one answers the door, they break in."
One Sharon region resident said that she heard that "taxi drivers alert the burglars to the addresses where they picked up passengers to the airport. The burglars burgled while the travelers traveled."
Similar rumors accuse garbage disposal men of reporting to thieves, for a fee, when a house is empty.
Another resident recounted that she heard that the private security companies were letting burglars know when an alarm was switched on, which meant that the residents had left the house, probably for several hours. Then the burglars would come in and pull out all the alarm's wires. They would hide while the security companies "responded" to the alarm call, checked the property and left. Then the burglars would get to work and be done within 15 minutes. "As I understand it," she said, "everyone who was burgled had their alarms on and were robbed within a half hour of leaving home."
Some cities are fighting back.
Ra'anana has established a steering committee to prepare a list of recommendations for fighting property theft in the city which, according to the mayor, Nahum Hofree, is at an unacceptably high level. Among the key recommendations on the table right now are nightly manned checkpoints at the city's five main exit points; physical obstacles blocking the dirt roads that lead in and out of the city; and more closed-circuit cameras in strategic locations. This is a cooperative effort between the city's Engineering Department and the police. The number of nightly police patrols has also increased.
Avi Geva, head of security for the city of Ra'anana, is confident that implementing these changes will reduce the number of property thefts and break-ins significantly and swiftly. Local police agree that these tactics make sense, adding that this is particularly true in Ra'anana, where there are only five main access roads, making it easier to monitor than other cities.
The city is also preparing a program to actively teach residents what to look for in a potential crime situation and how to handle it. A municipal spokeswoman said that now that fighting property crime has reached the media, it has also become part of the public agenda.
"There's a heightened awareness with residents, and the initial results are positive," she said.
A senior police officer in Ra'anana said that crime is down in the city but added, "We cannot do it alone. There aren't enough of us."
Police shortages will remain a problem as long as municipalities are forced to balance having enough police officers with having money to spend on other infrastructure necessities such as roads and sanitation.
Several Sharon cities, including Herzliya, Hod Hasharon, Kfar Saba, Ra'anana, Netanya and Tel Mond, host active volunteer, armed civil guard organizations created with Knesset approval. These civil guard units act as adjuncts to the police, supporting them with volunteer foot, bicycle and jeep patrols. They also have sniper and traffic units, and a program called Matmid that pairs civil guard volunteers with salaried police officers.
The civil guard plays an important role in crime fighting, and its members have been directly involved in catching many criminals red handed. But at the end of the day, police say, they are volunteers who help when they can.
Another pro-active measure now underway involves groups of police officers from several cities in the region focusing all their efforts and resources on one city at a time, for a controlled time period. The officers are blanketing individual Sharon towns or neighborhoods with police protection for a few weeks at a time. They report that this approach is working.
Any citizen interested in joining the volunteer civil guard, Mishmar Ezrahi, should contact his or her local police department.
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