Mob Violence Spurs Israeli Crackdown on Organized Crime

By Elli Wohlgelernter

Published December 19, 2003, issue of December 19, 2003.
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JERUSALEM — The Israeli government has decided to make the fight against organized crime a national priority, following the deaths last week of three bystanders during a failed assassination attempt against a reputed leading Tel Aviv crime boss.

Following Sunday’s Cabinet meeting — devoted almost entirely to the issue of fighting crime — Internal Security Minister Tzahi Hanegbi was instructed to formulate a detailed plan and budget within 30 days that would allow the police to deal with the escalating phenomenon of organized crime.

The announcement followed the December 11 assassination attempt on reputed crime boss Ze’ev Rosenstein in downtown Tel Aviv. Rosenstein sustained slight injuries to his hand and leg, while three passersby were killed and 33 wounded. In the last year, 10 innocent passersby have been killed and dozens wounded when caught in the crossfire of mob-related attacks.

The attempt on Rosenstein was the sixth effort to kill him in the past year, and he, himself, was brought in for questioning just days before last week’s murder attempt, on suspicion of ordering the assassination of two rivals.

Prime Minister Sharon told the Cabinet Sunday that while he understood the difficulties the police have been facing during the past three years of ongoing Palestinian terrorism, the recent increase in crime is a national problem and the police must step up their fight against it.

“The government has made a special effort during the last few years to act against Palestinian terror, and apparently has put less effort into fighting domestic crime and domestic terror carried out by criminal organizations,” Sharon said at the weekly Cabinet meeting.

Police Inspector-General Shlomo Aharonishky asked the Cabinet for an increase of at least $100 million in the national police budget for the planned all-out battle against organized crime, which includes illegal gambling, drugs, extortion, prostitution and human trafficking. His proposal also calls for cooperation between government agencies in the field of intelligence on organized crime and money laundering.

“The police do not set their own priorities,” Aharonishky said at a news conference held after the Cabinet meeting. “Their priorities are determined by the government and the person at the head of the government. The war against organized crime will be long and hard, and there will be no knock-out punch.”

Indeed, within 24 hours of the assassination attempt on Rosenstein, another underworld figure suspected of drug-related activity, Rafi Cohen, was found shot dead in Lod; Alon Levy, 20, suspected of carrying out a gang-related grenade attack last month that killed a married couple in a Hadera car lot, was shot and critically wounded in his Hadera apartment by two assailants; and last Friday, Tel Aviv police defused a bomb discovered in a parking lot of a building in which a businessman involved in the gambling industry lives.

According to police spokesman Gil Kleiman, the problem is that his forces are spread too thin. “We don’t have the resources to fight a two-front war,” he said. “We have the anti-terror war, and then we have the anti-crime war. We can’t do both if we don’t have the available resources. What we’ve said many times — even before Thursday’s bombing — is that it’s a very big bed, and a very small security blanket, and we have to move that blanket around.

“So if your blanket is covering anti-terror work, those are police officers who can’t be working anti-crime work, which is checking and stopping vehicles, and doing what proper police criminal procedures are. You can’t do both at the same time.”

Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who was in Israel this week, said the key to fighting organized crime is the same as fighting the infrastructure of terrorism: taking aim at the financial assets.

“The two organizations are different, but the approaches are very much the same: You have to arrest the people that are responsible,” Giuliani said at a news conference upon his arrival. “You have to take away their money. And you have to take away the organizations that support them.”

Kleiman said that overall crime is down slightly during the past couple of years. There were 167 murders in 2002 compared to 171 in 2001. Attempted murders totaled 215 in 2002, down from 322 in 2001. Overall violent crime fell 2.7% from 2001 to 2002. Figures for 2003 will be released in February.

“We find that the quantity of crime has stayed pretty much the same, but our feeling as police officers is that the quality, the intensity of the violence, the recklessness of the violence, has risen,” Kleiman said. “Whereas one time they would plant a bomb in someone’s car, and that person would be killed or wounded, now they are being reckless in regard to everyone in the area.”

David Weisburd, director of Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute of Criminology, called a state of affairs in which organized crime figures are killing innocent people “a very dangerous situation for Israel.”

“It suggests that criminal elements do not view the police and the other social control agencies, like the courts and criminal justice agencies, as able to deal with them, because if they were really concerned at this moment, they would be much less likely to be getting to this level of violence,” he said.

Weisburd said the killing of innocent civilians in gang wars goes against the best interests of organized crime leaders, who would benefit from keeping the spotlight away from their activities: “The question that has to be asked is, why is it that these organized crime figures are not more concerned about creating this instability and public exposure to their activities?”

One reason for the current violent gang warfare, Weisburd suggested, is that organized crime is in the midst of a fight between different gangs.

“It could be that one group or another group is trying to exert greater power than it had before, and other groups are responding, trying to ensure their position,” he said. “Or the groups that are trying to take over are trying to increase their position. That leads to instability, and in that kind of situation, you can reach the level of violence that we have at the moment.”

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