Growing Mob Violence in Israel Gets Some Government Attention

The word “danger” is scrawled in white paint on the scorched metal doors of the currency-exchange shop where a bomb recently exploded in a botched hit on an alleged Israeli mobster.

The explosion killed three innocent bystanders and woke the country up to the reach of Israel’s underworld.

The apparent target — Ze’ev Rosenstein, a casino owner who is suspected of being the leader of one Israel’s largest crime rings — walked away with only slight injuries to his hand and leg.

“Jews killing Jews in this country — now that is not a good situation,” said Oded Shoshani, who owns an electronics store near the scene of the foiled assassination.

The violence Israel has experienced in recent years, especially as a result of the Palestinian intifada, has both cultivated a more violent society and diminished the police force’s ability to crack down on crime, experts say.

The violence is “contagious,” said Shlomo Giora Shoham, a professor of criminology at Tel Aviv University. “People now see violence as a kind of legitimate way of solving conflicts.”

Indeed, 10 innocent bystanders have been killed in violence between warring crime families in the past year.

Crime families involved in gambling, prostitution, extortion, and drug dealing long have existed in Israel, but, according to Shoham, their activities have boomed during the intifada.

The crime families, he said, have now broken an unspoken understanding between them and the police that their violent rivalries would not go beyond the boundaries of the underworld itself.

“Criminals are doing things they were not doing before,” said national police spokesman Gil Kleiman. “We feel we are in a more violent society” and that “criminals are doing things with total disregard for innocent people,” he said.

Organized crime syndicates in Israel have swelled with immigration from the former Soviet Union. Trafficking in prostitution and money laundering largely are the domain of criminals from that region, while gambling and extortion are the main focus of Israeli-born crime families.

In the last decade, Israeli crime syndicates have become major players in international organized crime.

Israeli underworld figure Meir Abarjil was arrested last week in Austria on suspicion that he trafficked five kilograms of heroin. Abarjil’s two brothers also are involved in crime — Yitzhak Abarjil is living abroad after striking a deal with Israeli authorities, and Abie Abarjil, believed to have plotted to import drugs from South America, currently is being held by Israeli police.

On Yehuda Halevy Street, where the bomb went off Dec. 11, workers repaired damaged storefronts and passers-by pointed out the singed walls and crumbling awning of the money-changing shop.

A store owner who still is suffering ringing in his ears from the blast lashed out against the police for not doing a better job of protecting the community and for not giving the same attention to battling organized crime as it does to fighting terrorism.

“I’m angry,” said the shop owner, who asked that his name not be used. “Why are they not treating us like terror victims? Terror is terror. If it comes from Muslims it is considered terrorism, and if comes from Jews it is not?”

The same fear of terrorism that keeps people away from cafes and public places now keeps members out of the upscale Herzliya gym where Rosenstein works out. Some members said they were wary of going there, fearing they might be the next victims of rival gang crossfire.

The Tel Aviv bombing was the sixth attempt on Rosenstein’s life in an underworld war that has revolved around assassination attempts of the heads of rival gangs.

Kleiman, the national police spokesman, said the police had been directed by the government to make fighting terrorism their top priority since the intifada began more than three years ago.

“The main effort was to fight terror and that came at the expense of anti-crime work,” he said.

But that might be changing.

In the aftermath of the bombing in Tel Aviv, the Israeli government announced that fighting crime organizations was now one of the nation’s main priorities.

Public Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi was quoted as vowing “an all-out police offensive” against

crime organizations.

Within the month, police are planning to submit a $116 million plan to the government that police officials say would allow them to move effectively against crime organizations.

But even if that plan is approved, it might take some time for its effects to trickle down.

The lights in Rahamim Naftali’s tailor shop, two doors down from the money-changing shop, all fell and crashed into pieces by the force of the recent explosion. His awning also has partially collapsed. He said he feels helpless.

He said, “Who is taking care of the criminals?”

An older couple, regular customers of Naftali’s, stepped into the shop to say they were relieved to see Naftali well and working.

“What a world we live in,” the man said.

“Yes, what a world,” Naftali answered sadly, nodding his head.

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