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Police Try to Adapt to the Fight Against Organized Crime in Israel

June 23, 2004
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It’s said of Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik that when he heard that a Jewish burglar had been caught in Tel Aviv, he said, “Finally, we have one of our own.” Now, in the Jewish state Bialik could only dream of, it seems there are too many of them.

“I would not speak of organized crime, but rather of crime organizations,” said Moshe Levin, former commander of the Israel Police International Crime Unit.

Crime in Israel hasn’t yet permeated the political establishment, as it has in places like Italy and Russia, Levin said. But over the past three and a half years, while the Israel Police has focused on terrorists, old-fashioned criminals have been having their way in the Jewish state.

Last year, police filed 464,854 criminal cases, an increase of 4.5 percent from 2002. And police say it’s the quality of crimes, not necessarily the quantity, that is most alarming.

Crime in Israel is controlled by a number of organized cri! minal gangs, according to police, with several families at the center of things.

Recently, police said, the two most prominent of those families, the Rosensteins and Abarjils, engaged in a bloody duel of mutual killing, probably related to control of casinos. That invited a police crackdown, but not before 20 people were killed in the gang war, at least nine of them innocent bystanders.

After years of neglect, the Israel Police finally is waking up to the bitter reality: It’s time to take off the gloves in the fight against crime.

Inspector General Shlomo Aharonishky targeted organized crime and juvenile delinquency as the police’s prime challenges this year.

Earlier this month, police announced that they had arrested nine alleged senior gangsters, all members of the Ohanina family. Among the detainees were Rafi and Moshe Ohanina, the putative heads of the family, who are suspected of committing at least two murders and making several more attempts.

An old! er brother, Hanania, 42, served 12 years in jail for importing heroine to Israel from Holland. He was gunned down by criminals last year.

“It is the first time that heads of the organization are behind bars, and we have solid evidence against them,” said Menashe Arbiv, a high-level police commander.

Police said the arrests marked a high point in the offensive against organized crime. The offensive grew out of the sense that police were failing to cope with rising crime due to the preoccupation with Palestinian terrorism, severe budget cuts and reductions in police manpower.

“Since Dec. 12 of last year, thousands have been detained as part of the police fight against organized crime,” Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel’s minister of internal security, recently told the Knesset Interior Committee. “The entire system is recruited for this battle, which it perceives as an essential battle for the soul of democracy in Israel.”

But despite occasional police success stories, crime is prospering in Israel.

Israeli mafia bosses control illegal ca! sinos throughout Israel and in places like Romania and Bulgaria, where they operate almost freely. Trafficking in drugs, weapons and prostitutes also brings in big money.

In the last few months, police have shut down some 1,700 illegal casinos and 1,400 brothels and confiscated large amounts of arms.

But the outlook isn’t rosy.

“All attempts to eradicate illegal gambling in Israel have failed,” Levin said. “All closed institutions are like a drop in an ocean of illegal gambling.”

The trade in women is just as perplexing. Women, mostly from the former Soviet Union, are smuggled into Israel through Egypt’s Sinai Dessert.

Many are lured under the pretext of work opportunities in Israel, but they often end up in local brothels with little chance to escape.

Even the recent breakthrough with the arrests of the Ohaninas came as a result of some good luck.

Yaron Senker, who allegedly worked with the Ohanina family, reportedly was on his way to a wedding hal! l in Rishon Le-Zion three months ago in a booby-trapped car. The car, loaded with explosives, was to blow up near the hall, where the Abarjils, bitter rivals of the Ohaninas, were celebrating.

But as Senker left Kfar Saba, he got into a traffic accident and the mission had to be aborted.

“Hundreds of innocent people who came to celebrate at the wedding could have died,” Arbiv said.

Senker revealed details of the plot shortly after he was arrested in another case earlier this month. He decided to turn state’s witness against his former employers, he said.

In any case, the local crime lords are believed to have little connection to organized-crime rivalries outside the country. In the past, gangs in Russia tried to reach out to Israeli ones, but police thwarted those attempts, according to Levin.

Nevertheless, police said, local criminals have imported professional killers from Russia. Several weeks ago police arrested four “tourists” from Belarus suspected of having been hired by the Ohanina family to assassinate rivals, among ! them Ezra Gavriely, father of Knesset member Inbal Gavriely.

“One needs a strong national unit to deal with organized crime, and then there is a good chance to succeed in the fight against crime,” Levin said, adding that the police’s present approach allows for too many loopholes that smart criminals use to their advantage.

Hanegbi recently appointed Moshe Karadi, 44, to be the police’s next inspector general. Hanegbi, who passed over a number of experienced veterans, said he made the choice to bring some new blood and new thinking into police work.

Many here would say the police need it.

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