Netanya noir

With constant mob wars, and despite a booming aliya and tourist influx, the seaside city is struggling to shake its image as Israel’s ‘Little Chicago.’

Netanya 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Netanya 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
‘I heard five or six shots. Then I saw two men on motorcycles drive away,’ says a man who was at work on the eve of Rosh Hashana, when not far away those two motorcyclists tried to kill Netanya mafia leader Charlie Abutbul. Somehow they missed, and Abutbul, 54, went back to being under “house arrest” for his suspected role in a recent plot to murder a local mafia rival.
“He’d just finished working out in the gym and was going out to his car,” says the man, pointing to the luxury high-rise Carmel apartments overlooking the sea, where Abutbul keeps one of his residences.
“It’s nothing new. This is Netanya. Seems like it’s killing season again,” says the man. “Have a good day. Be careful.”
Actually, there’s no need to be any more careful in Netanya than in other cities here, but it’s also true that Netanya has a lot more than its share of violent mafia activity, with the Abutbul family usually at the center of it. The city’s 180,000 residents try to see things in proportion. “The killings are between the criminals, each one wants to rule the world, it doesn’t touch us, the little people. Let them kill each other,” says a vendor in the produce shouk downtown.
In fact, gang murders have also killed and wounded innocent bystanders. When rival gunmen wounded Abutbul two years ago, three bystanders got hurt. In July, a grenade thrown at one of the family’s Bat Ha’ikar restaurants left a woman in shock. (All three Bat Ha’ikar branches in town had been torched the previous night, and remain shuttered.) Six years ago, at the family’s casino in Prague, a grenade wounded 18 customers.
“There are certain restaurants in town where if you eat there, you know you’re taking a chance that something could happen,” says a shouk vendor.
“Netanya’s a very nice place to live, but if you’re sitting in a restaurant and you see what looks like a mafia family meeting going on at one of the tables, you’re not going to make it a point to finish your coffee before you leave,” says a shopkeeper near one of the burned-out Bat Ha’ikar eateries.
TWO YEARS AGO, after a murder attempt on Abutbul was followed four days later by an attempt on the life of a “soldier” in the rival Shirazi family, police went into the Abutbuls’ Bat Ha’ikar restaurants and the Shirazis’ Gahalim restaurant to warn diners of the danger in the air.
Nobody interviewed for this story agreed to be photographed or identified in any traceable way. At the gas station adjacent to the parking lot where the pre-Rosh Hashana attempt on Abutbul took place, attendants played dumb when asked if they’d seen or heard anything about the shooting.
An expressionless young man came out of the office and said: “I ask you not to talk to any of the workers and not to photograph. This is private property.” Asked if he himself had seen or knew anything about the assassination attempt, the man clucked his tongue “no” and added: “I’ve asked you nicely. Have a good week.”
The Abutbul family, which migrated from Tunisia to France to Israel, has been known since the 1970s as the rulers of Netanya gambling, loan-sharking and extortion. Netanya is known as a magnet for French immigrants; the shop signs in French and sidewalk cafes reflect the Gallic influence, and so does the local organized crime profile. Mafia assassins with ties to local families have been flown in from France to carry out hits, then flown back home.
In the last couple of decades, Russian immigrants have come onto the scene, and one, Alex Dubitzky, was killed in Netanya, allegedly by Abutbul gunmen, in 1997. Earlier, Dubitzky’s wife and stepson had been murdered without authorization, and the overeager gunman, an Abutbul family member in France, was killed by his own clan for tarnishing its name. Arab crime families from nearby Taiba have also moved into Netanya’s mafia picture; it was an alleged plot to kill a member of the Karajeh family in Netanya’s industrial zone last month that landed Charlie Abutbul under house arrest.
But the turning point in the family’s fortunes came in August 2002 when Felix Abutbul, Charlie’s brother and the organization’s godfather, was shot to death outside his Prague casino. (As with Dubitzky and so many other mafia victims, Felix was killed by gunmen on motorcycles.) THE SIDEWALK CAFES in Independence Square closed for the funeral as Felix’s body was driven round and round. “It was like he was saying good-bye to us,” a cafe owner said at the time. “Thousands and thousands of people came out. Everybody was crying. He was like the mayor here.”
This week a shopkeeper near one of the torched Bat Ha’ikar restaurants said: “Felix and Charlie were what you call ‘gangsters with honor.’ They’d walk around town and people would come up to shake their hand, they helped people, they didn’t settle their scores in public where people could get hurt. [That last statement contradicts the facts reported here. – L.D.] Their children, however, are a different story.”
Felix’s son Assi is serving a 13-year prison sentence for an assortment of mafia-related crimes, including extortion. Charlie’s son François is serving a life sentence for the 2004 stabbing murder of an 18-year-old boy, Ra’anan Levy, during a brawl outside a local nightclub.
For all this mafia lore, however, Netanya is not the country’s capital of organized crime.
There’s more criminal gang violence and drug dealing in Lod, and more overall mafia activity – violence, drugs and illegal businesses – in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, and possibly in Jerusalem as well.
But organized crime stands out more in Netanya, and gives the city a unique flavor. Lod is a poor, rundown city where criminal gangs seem a natural part of the environment. Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are major cities with large neighborhoods of poor people – again, natural settings for organized crime to take root.
Netanya, on the other hand, is a middle-class, middle-sized city not very different from Holon, Petah Tikva or Rehovot except that it’s on the sea. Yet Holon, Petah Tikva and Rehovot are known as sleepy burgs, while Netanya is Israel’s “little Chicago.”
“Wherever you have tourism and entertainment, you get crime,” suggests a neighbor of one burned-out Bat Ha’ikar. Netanya is a tourist town, especially for French Jews, who’ve bought many of the luxury villas and high-rise apartments, such as Abutbul’s in the Carmel, that have gone up along the south coast. There’s always been a lot of money in the city, which used to host the country’s diamond bourse before it moved to Ramat Gan; the main streets still feature a disproportionate number of jewelry stores.
The mafia image seems to blend in with Netanya’s sultry climate and salt air, with its many night spots and bustling street life, with its tangy, French Mediterranean flavor. Netanya is reminiscent of the balmy seaside town in the murder mystery Body Heat. It’s a Raymond Chandler town. It’s the one “noir” city in the country.
And that Charlie Abutbul? Nicest guy in the world, say his neighbors. “He always said shalom, hag sameah,” says the man who heard the shots from the motorcycles last week. “He was always nice, never asked for a nickel in ‘protection money,’” says a shopkeeper near a Bat Ha’ikar.
Across the street, a vendor says he once bought a small restaurant from Abutbul. “We had lawyers draw up the contract, I paid the agreed price, they gave me the restaurant and that was the last I heard from them. It was all straightforward and businesslike. No extortion, no nothing.”
And now that Abutbul has survived yet another assassination attempt, he has yet another score to settle. “Somebody’s waiting for a bullet,” shrugs a vendor in the shouk. “So is Charlie.”