TEL AVIV (JTA) – The morning after a 31-year-old mother of two was gunned down in Bat Yam by mafia hit men in a botched assassination attempt of a rival underworld figure, the front page of Israel’s daily Ma’ariv carried a single-word headline: “Enough!”
The headline ran over a photo of Margarita Lautin taken just moments before her killing: on the beach, smiling, her arms wrapped around her toddler son wearing inflatable water wings, leaning toward her husband and young daughter sitting in the sand.
The picture has become a symbol of the human toll violent crime is taking in Israel – in particular, the plight of innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire of increasingly brazen shootouts between organized crime syndicates.
Even though Israel’s violent crime rate remains smaller than most Western countries, there is a growing sense among Israelis that their streets, restaurants and playgrounds are becoming increasingly dangerous.
Last month, three bystanders were injured when two gunmen opened fire at a Netanya restaurant in an attempted hit on Charlie Abutbul, allegedly one of Israel’s senior mobsters. At about the same time, a pipe bomb was found near the home of another suspected mob boss in Netanya.
The spike in mob-related violence has Israelis nervous and upset.
“We must not allow what is taking place in our streets,” Knesset member Ophir Pines-Paz said during an emergency Knesset hearing last month on organized crime.
The sense of public unease has been compounded by reports of other types of violence this year, including severe beatings and robberies of elderly Israelis in their homes and this summer’s shocking cases of domestic violence against children. Three 4-year-olds allegedly were murdered by members of their own families – two by their mothers and one a grandfather.
Feeding into Israelis’ concerns about violent crime, the Israeli media are reporting more closely on crime stories, sometimes even bumping political news to lead nightly newscasts with reports on the latest murder or assault.
Criminologists say violent crime, including murders and assaults, is on the rise, but police refused to disclose precise numbers. Experts attribute the rise in violent crime, including mob-related crime, to Israel’s growing population.
Although rings operated by Russian-speaking Israelis are part of the problem, police say most of the organized crime is run by veteran Israeli families who peddle in the international drug scene and are involved in smuggling, illegal gambling rings and demanding protection money from businesses.
When it comes to victims of “criminal terrorism” – the new term used by law enforcement to describe innocent victims of violent crime, usually those perpetrated by the mob – Knesset legislation is being drafted by the Shas Party that calls for victims and their families to receive the same sort of compensation from the state afforded to victims of terrorism.
“We live in a society that is very dynamic, that goes through changes very quickly, and the nature of crimes being committed is also changing,” said Simcha Landau, a professor of criminology at the Hebrew University.
“There is also the sense that something at its very roots went wrong here,” he said, referring to recent high-profile criminal cases, including suspected corruption at the highest levels of government. “The society is in crisis and the crime is one of its aspects.”
A recent editorial in the Ha’aretz daily decried the growing crime in the country.
“Not only is an Israeli’s home not his fortress because he is vulnerable to break-ins, public areas have become battlefields among rival underworld figures and between them and the police,” the editorialists wrote after a recent mafia-related hit.
Regardless of where Israel stacks up compared with other countries, the editorial said, “What matters most is not the dry calculations but the public mood. And by that standard, crime is rampant and the police have yet to find an effective way to combat it.”
The police counter that they are fighting back and making personal security a top priority.
Ratcheting up their battle against organized crime, as well as government corruption and other serious offenses, a new national crime-fighting unit named Lahav 433 has been formed to coordinate intelligence and operational activities.
The police also recently launched the country’s first witness-protection program and drafted police units to fight crime that in the past dealt solely with battling terrorism. Police also formed new anti-drug units.
Despite these changes, Israel’s police commissioner, David Cohen, warned in a recent interview with Ha’aretz against high expectations, saying the police suffer from a shortage of manpower. There are 2.7 police officers per 1,000 residents in Israel, compared to the European average of five per 1,000, Cohen said.
In Netanya, where mob-related violence in September has made locals jittery, Kobi Barda, the city spokesman, called for a zero-tolerance campaign.
“We need to be able to catch people on even the smallest infraction and make them pay according to the law,” Barda said.
Yitzhak Shemer, a police spokesman for the region that includes Netanya, said September saw a dramatic change in police response. More officers now patrol Netanya’s streets, there are more searches of suspect individuals and the police are working to shut down illegal gambling rings and restaurants known to be affiliated with organized crime.
Police also are conducting security checks at restaurants known to be owned or frequented by crime families.
“We are doing all we can to protect the public,” Shemer told JTA.
But police and prosecutors complain that tougher laws and stiffer penalties are needed. As one example, they point out that membership in an organized crime ring currently carries a sentence of just nine months.
Avi Dawidowcz, the former deputy head of investigations for the national police unit in charge of organized-crime investigations, said the focus needs to be on deterrence through beefed-up enforcement and increased police presence on the streets – in the style of former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, he said.
“What works is not harsher penalties,” said Dawidowcz, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University’s criminology department, “but to make sure these criminals know they have a good chance of being caught.”