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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
An underworld figure who agreed to act as a police informer has enabled the arrests of 32 suspected gangsters belonging to at least three crime organizations in the South and the Central region, police revealed on Thursday, following the lifting of a court-imposed media gag order.
The witness helped uncover at least three homicides – including the killing of a former professional soccer player – eight attempted murders, and dozens of arson attacks, grenade attacks, extortion attempts, and instances of arms and drug trafficking, allegedly carried out over the past two years, according to Dep.-Cmdr. Yossef Cohen, head of the Negev Police’s Central Unit.
“The state’s witness has risked his life,” Cohen said at a press conference held at a Beersheba police station on Thursday.
All of the alleged offenses took place among criminals, Cohen told The Jerusalem Post
“The South will be quieter after this,” he said. The murders were all carried out using firearms, Cohen added.
The murder victims have been named as Nati Ohayon, Moshe Zeitoun and Eli Uzan, a former Hapoel Beersheba soccer player.
Uzan was found dead in his vehicle early on November 24. His car had crashed into a pole on Beersheba’s Levi Eshkol.
Large amounts of blood found in the vehicle – more than would be expected to be found in a car crash – aroused police suspicions. Still, no bullets or other conclusive evidence were found on the body.
A Beersheba native, Uzan was a popular defender for Hapoel during the ’80s, and was known for his unusual speed and athleticism. Before that, he was a star in the national youth squad. After his career was over, Uzan was plagued by rumors of involvement in gambling, and his name was mentioned in connection to a match-fixing scandal involving Hapoel Beersheba in 2006.
Leading the lists of suspects is ex-convict Hagai Zagori, considered by police to be “Beersheba’s godfather.”
Zagori completed a prison sentence in 2008 for attempting to bribe Hapoel Beersheba players and match fixing. Since his release, a number of his rivals have been shot dead.
Zagori is suspected of murder and attempted murder, Cohen said. “The Zagori family is heavily involved in crime in the Beersheba area,” he added.
Zagori’s brother Yaniv is serving a seven-year prison sentence for a variety of serious crimes.
Other suspects under arrest include Zachariya Edri, from Beersheba, considered by police to be Zagori’s deputy, Dadi Ben-Haim, Sharon Ben-Haim and Victor Atiya.
The suspects have all denied the allegations.
“Not all of the offenses we detailed are attributed to all suspects. Every suspect will have his own case to answer, and indictments will be served after the evidence is assembled and sorted,” Cohen said.
Dozens of detectives from the police’s Southern District and the National Serious and International Crimes Unit raided the homes of suspects on Tuesday morning, carrying out arrests and searches, and seizing cash, vehicles and other assets. The arrests mark the end of a two-year undercover investigation.
Cohen said the three criminal organizations operating in the South and Center targeted in the raids were not engaged in wars against one another, nor were they linked by alliances. “Each group looked out for its own interests,” he said.
Police are still unsure whether they have amassed sufficient evidence to charge the suspects with belonging to criminal organizations.
Police are describing the investigation as one of the most complex ever conducted, adding that the criminal activities crossed police jurisdictions and required high-level oversight and cooperation.
“We are waging a determined struggle against crime organizations... This is not a slogan, it has been seen in our actions over the past year, in which the number of arrests have grown significantly, and cases have been pursued until the offenders were brought to justice,” Southern Police District chief Cmdr. Yochanan Danino said during a briefing of police commanders before Tuesday’s raids.
“We will continue to fight crime on all levels, from street crime to severe offenses, using all available means, to safeguard the security of the residents of the South,” Danino said.