Lurking shadows

Violence against the elderly may not be increasing, but awareness of the problem is getting more press - for better or worse.

Entering her apartment building in the Yad Eliahu neighborhood of south Tel Aviv, Mazal Ben-Aviv thought it was her mischievous grandson's hands that had suddenly clapped onto her shoulders from behind. She turned around and saw that instead, a man of about 40 was facing her, and he was trying to tear her necklace off. "He couldn't get the necklace off and he kept pulling at it, scratching my shoulders, tearing my dress. I told him, 'I'll give you money. I'll take the necklace off and give it to you.' But he didn't say anything, he just kept on trying to tear it off," says Ben-Aviv, 62. "He pushed me down on the ground, I fell on a metal pipe. He kicked me, he punched me and finally he got the necklace off and ran away." By this time, the neighbors, hearing Ben-Aviv's screams, had come down. Unable to lift herself off the ground, her face terribly bruised and swollen, she dialed her cellphone - the mugger hadn't taken her bag - for her husband, Yisrael. He was in a car patrolling south Tel Aviv with his Civil Guard unit, as he's done for the last 35 years. "Yisrael," she told him, "they robbed me." In minutes, Yisrael and his partner showed up. "Everything went black," he recalls. "We've been married 45 years. She's my soul. She's lying there; her clothes are torn; I can't recognize her face." The couple are sitting in the Community Police office in the Hatikva quarter, where they lived most of their lives before moving to the adjacent Yad Eliahu. Mazal was mugged on July 16 of last year. Today her jaw still smarts from the beating. When she walks outside, she turns around every few steps and looks behind her. She doesn't open her door without peering through the peephole first. The Ben-Avivs' encounter with the mugger, however, didn't end that day with Mazal lying on the ground. While they still have high regard for the police, they've been left without any faith in the rest of the law enforcement system - the prosecutors and courts. Meanwhile, the mugger has returned to Hatikva quarter. "When I see him," says Mazal, "I become frozen with fear." THE BATTERED faces of elderly people who've endured savage beatings by street criminals have been showing up frequently in the news in recent weeks. What makes these sights especially horrifying, beyond the simple, stark fact of a person in his 60s, 70s or 80s being beaten beyond recognition, is that these victims, such as Mazal Ben-Aviv, were assaulted with far more violence than was necessary to take their money or valuables. They were beaten sadistically. Police say that in many cases, the muggers are drug addicts whose ostensible motive is to get money for their habit. "People say he's recovering from drug addiction now," Mazal says of the man who mugged her, noting that he is a long-time resident of Hatikva. Police are at a loss to explain such sadism against the aged, putting it down to "senseless, animalistic brutality." Because of the intense media exposure, the feeling seems to be that some evil spirit has descended on the country's streets, and that old people are prey to vicious criminals as never before. "They used to steal, but they didn't beat people like this," says Sara Gaddadi, 60, whose bag containing NIS 1,500 in monthly state pension money was snatched from her on a bus in Hatikva in August. "This neighborhood scares me now," says Haya Sror, 74, whose wrist was slashed by a drug-addicted woman stealing her bag on the street a couple of years ago. "We all used to leave our doors open. Now I keep my door closed and I don't open it without looking through the peephole first," says Simha Zelta, 76, whose necklace was torn off her by a mugger standing at a bus stop, also about two years ago. "I don't go out of the house unless I have to. And I don't wear jewelry anymore, except this necklace, which I tuck inside my dress." These three women are sitting in the Multiservice Center for the Elderly of Hatikva Quarter, one of the municipally funded clubhouses for old people in the neighborhood. Hatikva, dominated by Rehov Ha'etzel and the narrow side streets and alleys connected to it, is a poor neighborhood with a great deal of street life and a large number of old-timers, drug addicts and petty criminals, which makes it a natural environment for assaults on the elderly. The Hadar section of Haifa has a similar demographic profile; several of the victims seen recently with bloody, puffed-up faces live there. Yet while the public perception that violent crime against old people is on the rise, police statistics give a mixed picture. On the negative side, the number of assaults this year (as of November 19) has risen very sharply from last year's total - 1,567 compared to 1,014. The number of sexual assaults has gone up even more dramatically, to 32 from 13. On the positive side, though, the number of murders has gone down to 15 from 23, while the number of violent burglaries has dropped to 268 from 351. Other figures indicate that police are solving a greater proportion of crimes against the elderly, but at the same time are closing a higher percentage of them for "lack of public interest," meaning the alleged offenses were deemed too insignificant to justify the police's taking time to investigate further. What's apparent from these statistics is that elderly crime victims are reporting these incidents to the police more often than before. However, the numbers of offenses committed nationwide against the elderly are "very small," so it's pointless to try to deduce any major new crime trends from them, says Chief Superintendent Avi Zelba, spokesman for the Community Police and Civil Guard. Yet whether or not crime against the aged has escalated greatly, the perception is that it has, due to a large extent because of the high-profile, often sickeningly graphic coverage given the phenomenon recently by the TV and tabloid news. This heightened awareness has its positive sides and negative sides, too. One of the unwanted consequences is the traumatic effect this coverage can have on old people, especially those who've themselves been assaulted. "Whenever I see these bloody faces of the victims on TV, I see myself. I relive the whole thing," says Ben-Aviv. But while the fear quotient of the country's elderly has clearly risen in recent weeks, this fear is leading them to greater caution to avoid being assaulted again. Objectively, their lives are safer, if more constricted. "When the social workers here or the police come over and tell them to take safety precautions now, they listen," says Tzipi Ortal, director of the Multiservice Center in Hatikva. "They're calling the Civil Guard to escort them to the bank; they don't withdraw their [monthly government] pensions all at once; they don't take money from an ATM on the street; they don't count their money where strangers can see them; they carry their money in a safer place." Another consequence is that the government has taken notice of the problem. It's an open question whether this will result in serious programs with serious money aimed at reducing the threat to the elderly, but there is at least talk about providing them more police protection. One proposal that, if enacted, would be a godsend is for the government to reimburse aged robbery victims for their losses. "When that drug addict took my bag," recalls Sror, "I had NIS 350 in my wallet. I had my glasses, I had all my documents that I had to go and replace. It also cost me NIS 400 to change the lock on my door." Literally, it all came out of her pocket. Gaddadi says the theft of her NIS 1,500 in monthly pension money left her unable to pay the rent, which got her evicted and compelled her to sleep at friends' and relatives' homes for several weeks. "For an elderly person without money, robbery is as bad as physical violence. The effect is the same. Taking their money means taking their food," says First Sgt.-Maj. Avi Peretz at the Community Policing office in Hatikva. He tells of a woman of about 90 who was robbed in her home. "She didn't eat anything but bread and water for a month afterward until I arranged for a charity to bring food to her apartment," says Peretz. "You see these people lining up at the bank on the 28th of the month when their pension money arrives. They get there at 6:30 in the morning to wait for the bank to open at 8:30. That's how much they need this money." On the 28th and 29th of the month, the Community Police and Civil Guard are out in large numbers guarding the Hatikva banks and post office to ward off street crooks who prey on the elderly. In recent weeks, this protection has increased. Peretz describes one of the con games run on the aged when they go to get their pension money. "These criminals will wait next to the ATMs, and when they see an elderly lady taking her pension money out - they usually target women - they'll introduce themselves as the assistant bank manager. They're always nicely dressed. They'll ask to count the lady's money to see if she's received the right amount, then they tell her there's been a mistake, she has more money coming to her, and they'll switch the money around and hand her back a wad of bills that's filled with phony money. By the time the lady realizes it, the crook is gone." About a week ago, Peretz says, Community Police in Hatikva arrested a robber trying to run this swindle on a man aged about 85. Zelba says another benefit of the increased attention given to attacks on the elderly is that "there's more awareness on the street on the part of bystanders, which is critical to crime prevention. The police can't be everywhere." PUTTING MORE police on the streets would reduce attacks, say the old people of Hatikva. Yet Peretz says that between himself and the other Community Police officer who patrols Hatikva on foot or motorcycle, plus another 70 Civil Guard volunteers, manpower isn't a problem in the neighborhood. Yisrael Ben-Aviv adds: "Even if you put 100,000 more cops on the streets, a mugger who's determined will keep his eyes on some old, vulnerable person and wait for the right moment to strike." The problem is not the police, he and his wife insist, it's the rest of the law enforcement system - the prosecutors and the courts. They are not objective on this subject, but they do speak from personal experience. On the afternoon she was mugged, Mazal Ben-Aviv got a very long, good look at her assailant. "He was short, with a long face, he was left-handed," she says, adding that she described him to police investigators. She also heard from neighbors that the man had previously robbed another elderly woman in Hatikva. About a week-and-a-half after the attack, Mazal was walking at night in Hatikva. "I saw him sitting on a bench with some of his friends near the shouk," she remembers. "He had his sunglasses pushed up on his head." At that hour, Yisrael was on patrol with his fellow Civil Guard volunteers, and she called him. "The men I was riding with told me to stay out of it," remembers Yisrael, "so when we pulled up to the bench where he was sitting, I stayed back at the car. I didn't touch him. We called the police and they came and arrested him. I said to myself, 'Let the police do their work, and he will be punished." Mazal pulls out a letter she received in April from the State Attorney's Office. It states that the case that was opened as a result of her criminal complaint of July 16, 2006, has been closed. The decision was made not to indict the suspect. In a column of terse explanations, the box marked "lack of evidence" has been checked off. "Lack of evidence?" Mazal demands. "I saw him; I identified him to the police; the man they arrested was him. What do they want, to wait until I'm dead so they'll have enough evidence?" As his wife does, Yisrael sees the mugger from time to time in Hatikva. "I don't say a word to him," he says. "If I did what my heart tells me instead of my head, I'd end up in prison for life." So he keeps his rage in check. "It's not right," he says with a pleading, uncomprehending look on his face. "It's not right."