A botched underworld hit that killed three innocent bystanders and wounded 18 in Tel Aviv December 2003 is at the center of an organized crime case that broke on Monday, which police are calling one of the biggest cases in the state’s history.
Police said on Tuesday that the suspects in the bombing include Itzik Abergil – then the head of one of the country’s largest crime families – as well as his brothers Meir and Ayvie, and Avi Ruhan, the head of a major crime family based in the Sharon.
The bombing targeted mobster Ze’ev Rosenstein at a currency exchange store he frequented on Yehuda Halevi Street, at a time when the Abergil organization was at war with Rosenstein, as well as with the Abutbul crime organization and others.
On Monday, police arrested 44 suspects – some only for drug trafficking and organized crime charges, some for involvement in the murders, and others for both. In addition to Itzik Abergil and Ruhan, the suspects include three other organized crime bosses – Hanoch Atzmon, an ally of Ruhan’s who runs a Rosh Ha’ayin-based gang; Ya’acov “Aka” Shimon, the head of the Jerusalem branch of the Abergil organization; and Rishon Lezion-based Moti Hassin, whom police have described as the active head of the Abergil organization since he returned from Mexico to run the shop after Itzik’s 2008 arrest.
The investigation, codenamed “Case 512,” has involved several hundred detectives and investigators from the Lahav 433 anti-corruption and YAMAR central investigative units. They have largely been working on evidence and people of interest from a decade earlier, and following up on testimony and evidence that police received from at least one state’s witness.
Itzik Abergil was brought to court on Tuesday from Nafha Prison, 20 km. north of Mitzpe Ramon, where he is serving the remainder of his US drug-trafficking and violent-crimes sentence following his extradition to Israel in January 2014.
The case against him and his associates includes another attempt on Rosenstein’s life using a car bomb near the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds earlier in 2003. Rosenstein and several bystanders were wounded in that blast. In addition, police believe a number of the suspects were involved in the murder of Micha Ben-Harush, an Abergil associate who disappeared in 2005 and is believed to have been killed in Israel or abroad.
A series of other violent crimes are part of the case as well, but are still under a gag order.
The case revolves around events that happened between 2003 and 2006, in the middle of a decade when feuds between the Abergil organization, and the Abutbul organization and Rosenstein saw car bombs and shootouts across the country. That era was the bloodiest ever in the Israeli underworld, and the aftershocks of those gang wars are still felt today.
A number of the suspects arrested on Monday had been arrested shortly after the attacks more than a decade ago, but been released without indictment when the cases fell through.
During 2003-2006, the Abergil organization was at the peak of its drug trafficking operations, moving millions of Ecstasy pills and tons of hashish through associates and local criminals in Europe, the Americas, Asia, Australia and elsewhere. The organization had a clear hierarchy, with dozens of “soldiers” and “captains” answering to a chain of command that led directly to Itzik Abergil, a mob boss in every sense of the word.
During this period, the Abergil organization was on top of the Israeli underworld. Since Itzik’s arrest in 2008, however, his organization has been on the decline, and after his extradition to California in 2011, a number of former associates jumped ship and joined up with rival gangs or set up their own criminal enterprises.
The break-up of the organization has led to a blood-letting among the former associates, as well as between them and their rivals in the Musli crime family, resulting in more than a dozen gangland murders in the past few years.
The December 12, 2003, bombing at the change store on Yehuda Halevi Street shocked the public, coming as it did during the second intifada, when Israelis were dealing with frequent suicide bombings. It led to a series of police and political leaders calling for a “war on criminal terror” – a demand repeated during the string of underworld hits over the past two years.
The bomb exploded at 12:30 p.m., just as Rosenstein was stepping out of a car in front of the store. The bomb had been placed on an awning above the change store, and the force of the blast floored pedestrians and motorcyclists hundreds of meters away.
Rosenstein escaped with only a light injury to one of his hands, but the blast took the lives of Naftali Meged, the store owner’s 19-year-old son; Moshe Mizrahi, a 28-year-old employee of the currency exchange; and 43-year-old Rahamim Suriya, a taxi stand dispatcher who had been on his lunch break and walking past the store when the bomb went off.
Abergil and his organization have been the chief suspects since day one, but have escaped prosecution so far.
On Monday, police Insp.-Gen. Yohanan Danino referred to the case as one of the largest in the country’s history, telling a conference in Eilat that “in the coming days, one of the biggest, most meaningful cases the Israel Police has ever carried out will be revealed.”
He added that police “are not resting for a moment” in their war against organized crime. He cited indictments last week against eight members of the Musli family on a series of murder charges, saying similar cases had become a deterrent to organized crime.