Tackling the mob

The Israel Police have had limited success in combating a surge of Mafia-type killings that have struck some cities and towns.

Netanya mafia boss Charlie Abutbul was found dead in his Netanya home, after allegedly committing suicide, April 17 (photo credit: GIDEON MARKOWICZ / FLASH 90)
Netanya mafia boss Charlie Abutbul was found dead in his Netanya home, after allegedly committing suicide, April 17
(photo credit: GIDEON MARKOWICZ / FLASH 90)
MARCH 23, 2014. It’s late evening in the industrial zone of the Mediterranean port city of Ashdod, 40 kilometers south of Tel Aviv. A car slowly draws alongside a 25-year-old man.
Five gunshots ring out. The man collapses.
The car speeds away. Magen David Adom paramedics arrive soon after, but it’s too late.
The victim is pronounced dead at the scene.
Police road blocks are swiftly deployed, but the perpetrators make good their escape.
The crime was clearly categorized when a police source at the murder scene observed that the dead man was “known to the police,” a now all-too-familiar phrase that inevitably means he was connected to organized crime.
Another mafia hit; added to a growing list of shootings, car bombings, and deaths by a variety of unnatural causes.
The violence reflects the turf wars between the main crime organizations that have flourished over the last two decades, making fortunes from protection rackets, illegal drugs, people trafficking, illegal gambling, money laundering, loan-sharking, and prostitution rings.
On the same day as the Ashdod murder, the body of 60-year-old Bat Yam resident Meir Levi was found adjacent to a gas station in the neighboring city of Holon, just south of Tel Aviv. Levi went missing a week earlier, his abandoned car having been found in nearby Jaffa. He reportedly had been carrying many hundreds of thousands of shekels in cash as befitted a man allegedly well known in loan-sharking circles. The Jerusalem Post reported that local police speculated that “his disappearance could be connected to his line of work.”
Ten days earlier, in the coastal city of Netanya, 30 kilometers north of Tel Aviv, 43-year-old Ayal Sofer started his pick-up truck. The vehicle immediately exploded, seriously injuring the man who had survived a number of previous assassination attempts.
Sofer also had long been “known to the police” and was arrested in 2010 on suspicion of attempting to murder rival crime-family boss Charlie Abutbul, who allegedly had tried to assassinate Sofer (generally referred to as an “affiliate” of the Israeli Arab Karinja crime family) some months before. The Netanya car bombing was at least the 12th incident of its kind to have taken place across the country in the previous six months.
Abutbul died recently at his home in Netanya of apparently self-inflicted gunshot wounds.
“The feeling I get from the police chief is that there’s an enormous elephant in the room and you are incapable of seeing it,” MK Moshe Feiglin (Likud) suggested to Israel Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino, March 3.
The embattled senior law enforcement officer was testifying before the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee and attempting to persuade committee members that serious crime in Israel is on the decline. He claimed that the police force is serially misrepresented by the media.
MK Nachman Shai (Labor), continuing the cross-examination of Danino, suggested, “There is a strong feeling of loss of control in the fight against crime. There is a very uncomfortable feeling regarding the police’s behavior.” Shai was alluding to the February 9 resignation of Maj. Gen. Menashe Arviv, who stood down from his post in charge of the Lahav 433 anti-corruption unit in light of allegations from Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto, a New York-based yeshiva head under investigation for bribery.
Pinto alleges that he gave money to Arviv when the senior police officer had served as an attaché at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Arviv vehemently denies the allegations and, as yet, no charges have been filed against him. A polygraph test he took prior to his resignation indicated he was telling the truth, but Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein’s decision to investigate Pinto’s claims was seemingly the straw that broke Arviv’s back.
“The [Lahav] unit is fully functional even if the head of the unit has stepped down,”police spokesman Chief Inspector Micky Rosenfeld tells The Jerusalem Report. “It doesn’t matter who is leading it [Lahav].
There are hundreds of officers from five different departments.”
Rosenfeld is adamant that the police have made significant gains in the last few years against crime families, even if media coverage sometimes might suggest otherwise. “The media and the public don’t always know what’s going on, but that’s understandable.
It’s the same with the IDF who are carrying out operations in certain areas which they can’t talk about. There are ongoing police operations and ongoing arrests being made.
In 2010-11, more than 500 [organized crime] people were arrested and put behind bars.
The majority of these guys – you could say the soldiers, so to speak – are the middlemen, people selling arms and drugs.”
Organized crime blights all societies to some degree or other and Israel’s law enforcement agencies, like many others around the globe, sometimes have struggled to stem the tide.
“I think that what the police are doing in this field is not effective,” Simon Perry, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute of Criminology and Co-Director of the Program in Policing and Homeland Security, tells The Report. “The bottom line is that the police are very good at taking care of counterterrorism, but dealing with criminal organizations, well, there are a lot of things that have not been taken care of and that is what has brought us to this situation now... but I still think that the level of criminality in criminal organizations in Israel is lower than in most cities in the US.”
Dr. Perry believes that one notorious case, back in 2002-2003, was the catalyst for a surge of organized criminal activity in Israel.
“Etti Alon, who worked in the Trade Bank, stole 250 million shekels ($72 million) to pay off the gambling debts of her brother and father to crime organizations. That money has not been recovered. This was a source of money laundering and the police did not deal with it. They just dealt with the woman who stole from her bank.”
ALON WAS sentenced to 17 years in jail for embezzling the colossal sum. The Trade Bank eventually went out of business following the scandal, but criminals found a new source of legalizing their funds through a website called Donbet, which in 2012 was the target of a highly successful police operation in which 44 people connected with money laundering through the site – which reportedly turned over more than $1 billion in the previous two years alone – were arrested, 14 of whom later were indicted.
There is little doubt that illegal gambling operations provide one of the main income streams for organized crime syndicates.
Thus, the question arises whether it would be sensible to legalize gambling and have it run under the auspices of the state and be taxed at source (as in so many developed countries around the world) instead of it providing income for underworld crime families? “I would support controlled gambling,” Perry, a retired brigadier-general in the Israel Police where he served for 30 years specializing in intelligence, explains. “Illegal gambling produces motivation and capability for crime, and that’s what happened with the Trade Bank case. It appears that disputes over this huge sum of money that went to criminal organizations started the series of murders.
You may remember the first criminal terror act was in Yehuda Halevi St. in Tel Aviv [December 2003] where one criminal organization tried to kill the head of another criminal organization [Ze’ev Rosenstein].
They missed him, but killed three innocent bystanders and wounded many other people.
That was all about that money.”
It has become clear through the recent wave of bombings and shootings that there is a proliferation of weaponry in the hands of crime families, some of which originates in the IDF, stolen from weapons stores and sold on the black market.
In 2013, according to a Military Police report, there were 11 confirmed incidences of break-ins at military bases and weapons armories. There were a further 26 incidents involving the theft of weapons from army units. The growing trend in weapons thefts from the military – a weapon that used to demand around $2,000 on the open market can now reportedly cost more than $10,000 – has coincided with the sealing of the Israel- Egypt border, a factor that the Military Police believe has caused the flow of illegal weaponry into Israel to dry up. Consequently, the temptation for renegade soldiers to steal military weapons for rich rewards has driven the upsurge in misappropriated IDF weaponry reaching crime syndicates. While the thefts remain a source of concern, the 2013 figures did indicate a drop from the previous year, possibly reflecting increased vigilance.
“Over the last six months there has been an increase in incidents involving explosives,” Rosenfeld notes. “There were a number of bombings in Ashkelon, Ashdod and other areas, serious enough to scare innocent civilians. A number of bystanders were injured. Organized crime families have managed to get hold of explosive devices relatively easily, unlike in the past.”
“Now I can say that things are much more under control,” Rosenfeld continued. “Police operations have been stepped up in dealing with organized crime. You have to remember that there are a lot of police operations that are carried out... in areas such as Ashdod, Ashkelon and Petah Tikva, for example, that are not talked about, and a lot of arrests made.
You can’t put it out or say where you got your materials or intelligence from because you want to get to the people even higher up.”
On May 27, Attorney General Weinstein, speaking in Eilat, announced his intention to deploy “civilian and administrative governmental authorities and criminal law enforcement in the fight against organized crime.” According to The Jerusalem Post, “Weinstein said that while in the past there had been some such successful multibranch government efforts against criminal infrastructure, it had been mostly based on the goodwill of individual local officials. In contrast, he will now be exercising special authority to demand that local officials cooperate and meet concrete benchmarks in stamping out crime.”
Like major American gangland figures of the past and present, actually pinning a crime directly on the bosses is a difficult task, as police spokesman Rosenfeld alluded, in stating that most of those jailed are “middlemen.” Major gangland figures represented by high-powered lawyers often fail to be convicted because key witnesses fear for their lives and refuse to testify.
As many as 10 towns and cities across the country are battling the malevolent influence of mafia families. Thus far, the powers that be seem to have had a limited impact on the hugely wealthy mafia families, whose influence often extends beyond Israel’s shores, across Europe and into the US, where a number of infamous Israeli mafia figures, such as Itzhak Abergil, Ilan Zarger and Ze’ev Rosenstein, have served jail sentences for a variety of high-profile offences.
However, on March 17, Eitan Haya, former boss of the powerful US heroin and cocaine importers, the New York Gang, was arrested in Israel on charges of extortion connected to a major figure in the local soccer hierarchy.
Avi Ruhan, allegedly the boss of a significant crime family, a man reportedly suspected of involvement in a number of mafia-related violent crimes in the area over a number of years, was arrested less than two weeks later.
The guarded optimism expressed by senior law enforcement officials that they are coming to grips with the situation gives some hope that this scourge of society might finally be facing a genuine challenge from the authorities, though many observers remain skeptical that it is no more than a glimmer of hope.