Police and Thieves: Organized crime – blue and white, and here to stay

"One thing the underworld can’t stand is a vacuum; Someone always steps in to fill the shoes of the big shots put behind bars."

Avi Ruhan (photo credit: BEN HARTMAN)
Avi Ruhan
(photo credit: BEN HARTMAN)
This time, the police hype was warranted. Forty-four suspects and counting, including several crime family bosses, arrested for a litany of organized crime charges.
At the heart of the case, a series of gangland murders from years earlier – including a botched hit in Tel Aviv during the second intifada that left three civilians dead and shocked the country.
When “Case 512” (as police codenamed it) broke last month, the Israeli media were full of breathless accounts of a police gangland sweep like no other; a blow to organized crime, the likes of which had never been seen.
While the Israel Police deserve credit for the case, anybody looking to write the epitaph for the Israeli underworld should slow their hand – organized crime is here to stay, part and parcel of the Israeli landscape like bad landlords and worse customer service.
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For one thing, other than Avi Ruhan and a few others, many of the big names arrested (including some who have already been released) were underworld stars from the past whose power has long faded. Nissim Alperon stands out among these gangland has-beens, a gangster from a different era, whose family never retained their status after Yaakov Alperon, Nissim’s brother and the head of the family, was killed in 2008.
Others, like Asi Abutbul, are not only has-beens, but were already behind bars to begin with. This also goes for Itzik Abergil, once the head of Israel’s most powerful crime family, which broke apart into warring factions and smaller organizations years ago.
Furthermore, many of the marquee names in the Israeli underworld have nothing to do with the case. This includes, of course, Shalom Domrani and Benny Shlomo in the South, Amir Mulner, and the Lavi brothers in Rehovot, to name just a few.
The major organized crime case also doesn’t include any of the Arab crime families, arguably the most powerful and ruthless organizations in Israel, and has nothing to do with the Beduin extortion gangs taking protection money from construction sites across Israel, a criminal industry believed to be worth billions of shekels.
Putting all that aside, though, the fact remains that organized crime is destined to remain a fact of life in Israel.
THE MAIN culprit for this reality is arguably the so-called “gray market,” the unofficial, unregulated economy worth as much as NIS 130 billion or more annually, according to a recent report by the Justice Ministry.
That report also issued a series of recommendations for how Israel could increase regulation of the gray market, but as of February, when the report was released, there were only six inspectors in the Finance Ministry responsible for regulating the more than 2,000 currency exchange stores that form the backbone of this market in Israel.
Jet fuel for the underworld, the gray market includes not only the thousands of currency exchange stores across Israel, but also countless loan sharks charging exorbitant interest rates from everyday Israelis. The gray market provides a source of loans for Israelis turned away by the banks or swamped by debt – people who aren’t going anywhere no matter how many gangsters police arrest.
The gray market also ensures that the underworld will always have easy avenues to launder their money and hide their tracks from the Israeli authorities, who are already understaffed and incapable of policing them. This situation could potentially be improved to a great extent, but only if the government allocated the necessary resources.
Maybe if domestic and foreign companies decided the influence of organized crime and the gray market and corruption are bad for business and take their money elsewhere, it could possibly force the hand of Israeli authorities; but without outside pressure, the situation will most likely continue as is.
One of the other pillars of the Israeli underworld is extortion. This ranges from the Beduin syndicates extorting mountains of cash from contractors across the country, to neighborhood roughnecks shaking down small business owners in countless towns throughout Israel. The only way to stop these predators is if enough Israelis decide they aren’t going to pay up, no matter the (very real) risk that they’re going to go to police and testify against the extortionists.
No matter how successful Case 512 ends up, there is no reason to expect that more Israelis are going to feel comfortable testifying against gangsters and putting their lives in the hands of police – who have not proven they are capable of ensuring the safety of witnesses.
YOU MAY not be shocked to hear it, but Israelis love to gamble and the underworld is more than happy to front them money, knowing that the house always wins.
Furthermore, as long as drugs remain illegal and the prices stay as high as they’ve been in recent years, another major money-maker for Israeli crime families will be intact.
That’s not to say that police don’t have reason to pat themselves on the back. A week before Case 512 broke, a Tel Aviv court indicted eight members of the Musli crime family – widely considered Israel’s richest criminal organization – on a series of charges including murder. If those charges stick, Israel Police could score a major victory against one of their main investigative targets even before Case 512 goes to court.
The Musli family case and 512 have something else in common. Both cases are built on the testimony of state witnesses, men who police believe are responsible for some of the more grisly underworld murders in recent years. In the Musli case in particular, the witness at the center of the investigation reportedly has more blood on his hands than any of the eight men indicted.
Though it’s standard practice for law enforcement worldwide, the fact that these two flagship cases are dependent on the cutting of deals with such men should leave a bitter taste in citizens’ mouths.
In recent years, there has been a string of arrests of organized crime figures both large and small, with each police press release beginning with a headline incorporating “the unyielding war against organized crime.” Most of these arrests don’t result in indictments, but regardless, police have had a lot of success disrupting the work of organized crime figures – with many ending up behind bars, and others deciding that they’re better off seeking their fortunes in greener pastures outside Israel.
That’s all nice and well, but one thing the underworld can’t stand is a vacuum.
Someone always steps in to fill the shoes of the big shots put behind bars, with the power struggle often resulting in an uptick in violence.
That doesn’t mean that police shouldn’t continue their “war” against organized crime, a plague of Israeli society that extracts the greatest toll on the weakest. Still, one can be forgiven for suspecting that no matter what happens, only the names will change.
The writer covers crime, African migrants and security issues for The Jerusalem Post. He also writes and hosts “Reasonable Doubt,” an English-language crime news podcast on TLV1.FM. His blog can be found at www.benjaminhartman.com