South's cops get recognition for dramatic crime reduction

Nestled among corporate giants such as Strauss and Rafael, the Southern District of the Israel Police may have seemed an odd choice to receive the Prime Minister's Award for contribution to the development of the Negev and Galilee regions and for strengthening the State of Israel. But according to internal letters of recommendation submitted by city council heads, insurance brokers and volunteer coordinators, intense crime-fighting strategies in the Negev have literally paid off - to the tune of an estimated billion shekels saved through lowered insurance premiums coupled with economic expansion. The economic impact, the local chambers of commerce say, can also be measured by the number of new businesses opening in the Negev - as well as the reduction in the flight of small companies from the once-high insurance premiums there. "For a very long period, residents of the South - and especially businessmen - suffered because of the crime in the district. Damage due to crime was expensive, and the costs of operating in the area brought about the collapse of businesses," wrote Southern Area Insurers' Association Chairman Moshe Tribelsi. But since 2004, the Southern District police, better known for their response to Kassam rocket strikes, has launched a creative war against crime in the Negev, pinpointing specific areas and particular fields of influence - and getting results. Upon taking over the troubled district in December 2004, Cmdr. Uri Bar-Lev divided the area up into "hot zones" and appointed officers to take charge of each one, with their personal performance report tied directly to the crime rate. The police also pioneered a joint program with local business owners, in which two special units - in Ashdod and Beersheba - were established to fight "protection schemes". Through the "protection" phenomenon, which gained force in the Negev in the late nineties and beginning of the current decade, business owners were confronted with extortion attempts and made to pay "guards" to "protect" their businesses. Any business owner who did not agree to pay up would be subjected to threats, violence, break-ins and arson. At least one Beersheba business area - the Emek Sarah industrial zone - was particularly impacted, and for years, shops remained empty because few entrepreneurs wanted to pay the extortion or face near-certain arson. Now, area businessmen say, business is returning. "Every police officer has a part in this wonderful achievement," said Bar-Lev Thursday. "In the police, we usually get credit when there is a security issue, like Kassam strikes or the war in the North. But this time, we are being recognized for our day-to-day work in fighting crime." "The results speak for themselves," said Tribelsi. "Existing businesses have expanded and new businesses are moving in, creating more work opportunities and economic growth. Insurance companies once again began to operate after a long period of reducing their activities to a bare minimum." Tribelsi estimates that the average insurance premium per privately-owned vehicle in the Negev has dropped by NIS 1,000 - a saving of NIS 200 million annually throughout the district. On taxi insurance alone, he estimates the savings at NIS 4.5 million annually. "Data that we hold attests to a dramatic decline of 70% since November 2004 in crime in the South, while in the rest of the country crime increased." "Your action to reduce crime in the Negev Subdistrict creates the necessary infrastructure for economic and business activity and constitutes strong backing for factories and companies operating in the area," wrote Shraga Brosh, president of the Manufacturer's association of Israel and David Artzi, the chairman of the Israel Export and International Cooperation Institute, in their letter to Bar-Lev, informing him of the prize.