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Israeli Mob War Hits the Streets of Central Prague

TEL AVIV — Minutes into his tenure as Israel’s national police chief last Sunday, Commander Moshe Karadi was welcomed with a blast that sounded all the way from the Czech Republic. An unidentified man threw a hand grenade toward a jeep in the center of Prague. Eighteen people were injured in the August 1 blast. Seated in the vehicle — and astoundingly unhurt — was the apparent target: Assi Abutbul, owner of the nearby Casino Royale and alleged head of one of Israel’s most notorious crime families.

Until recently, fighting organized crime never had been considered a primary mission of the Israeli police force. Many doubted that organized crime even existed in Israel. But in the past few years fierce gang rivalries have erupted, accompanied by repeated assassination attempts and revenge hits, with more than a few innocent civilians caught in the crossfire both in Israel and abroad.

In August 2002, Abutbul’s father, Felix, who once was tried for the attempted kidnapping of a Nigerian Cabinet minister and then evolved into one of Israel’s toughest crime bosses, was killed by a bike-riding gunman in exactly the same spot where his son was parking his jeep in Prague this week. Police say Abutbul’s death allowed his rivals, the Aberjil brothers, Meir and Itzik, to take over much of his gambling operations in southern Israel, while his son, Assi, disappeared, only to resurface this week.

Public opinion turned against the crime families last December. That was when Ze’ev Rosenstein, the best known of Israel’s alleged crime lords, stepped out of a currency exchange booth in downtown Tel Aviv, seconds before a massive explosion tore apart the whole building. Three passers-by were killed. The national police chief at the time, Shlomo Aharonishki, compared the attack to the Park Hotel suicide bombing in March 2002, which left 29 dead and led to the sweeping Israeli anti-terrorism drive through the West Bank, Operation Defensive Shield. The deaths of bystanders led to a broad public outcry and calls for a crackdown. Politicians spoke of “criminal terrorism.” Significant government funding was shifted to the police to boost the organized crime division.

The results, however, are still unclear. It is obvious from the Prague assassination attempt that the Israeli underworld is hardly considering altering its ways.

What are they fighting about? As far as anybody can tell, what’s at stake is mainly gambling interests combined with family feuds. In the past, those interests mainly involved illegal gambling in Israel itself, where legal gambling is restricted to the state lottery and the popular Toto, a state-sponsored soccer betting game. But in the mid-1990s, following the fall of the Soviet Union, Rosenstein, Felix Abutbul and a few others turned their sights toward Europe. Together they opened casinos in Turkey and Eastern Europe, and hordes of eager Israelis were flown over in charter planes for gambling weekends. When Turkey’s Islamic government banned gambling, the Israeli entrepreneurs narrowed their focus to a few places, including Prague and Budapest, where it is legitimate.

In short order, other families reportedly began demanding a cut. The fiercest rivalry that emerged was with the Aberjil family, whose base is in the Ramleh-Lod area in central Israel. The Aberjils are widely believed to be behind the recent attempt on Assi Abutbul’s life, as well as repeated attacks against Rosenstein. By last count, Rosenstein has escaped at least six assassination attempts. Police sources say they believe that another family, the Alperon family of Givat Shmuel outside Tel Aviv, long suspected of running extortion and strong-arm businesses, has joined with the Aberjils against Rosenstein and the Abutbuls.

As the gang war has escalated in the past year, tactics have escalated to include the importing of hit men from abroad, including four from Belarus who were arrested in January, while on a mission whose target remains unclear. According to police, one of the intended targets was Tel Aviv restaurateur Ezra “Shuni” Gavrieli, father of a freshman Likud Knesset member, Inbal Gavrieli, whose election to the Likud Knesset slate last year prompted a public outcry over alleged criminal penetration of the party’s central committee.

The police have never alleged openly that Gavrieli, who has shares in casinos abroad, is associated with organized crime. But they claim that an explosive charge found in the parking garage of Tel Aviv’s tallest building, the Azrieli Towers, was intended for Gavrieli’s car. Gavrieli was questioned about the suspicions last March and denied being targeted, but admitted that he had once been associated with the Aberjils in a gambling venture, according to news reports.

Fighting organized crime may be the highest-profile item on Karadi’s new agenda, but it is hardly the only one. Since the mid-1970s the national police force has been heavily occupied with domestic security: Whenever there is a terrorism alert — and for the past four years not a day has gone by without one — the police throw up roadblocks and take part in stopping would-be bombers.

Anti-terrorism duties take a heavy toll on regular, day-to-day police work. As a consequence, breaking and entering, auto thefts and “regular” street violence have risen sharply, according to academic and some government studies. Victims frequently complain that police officers do nothing but fill out reports for insurance purposes. Car accident fatalities are up, and the image of the police as a faithful, effective servant of the public is way below that of the army.

The man in charge of balancing these priorities, Karadi, age 44, is a little-known police veteran whose appointment last May by Internal Security Minister Tsahi Hanegbi, bypassing better-known and more senior candidates, took the brass and the public by surprise. On top of everything else, Karadi now takes over the hot potato of high-profile corruption and campaign finance investigations against the prime minister and other politicians. The newest scandal, which erupted last month, involves allegations that the minister of national infrastructures, Yosef Paritzky, hired a private detective to plant evidence against a rival within the Shinui Party; the investigation has been broadened to include suspicions of rigged bidding on a lucrative natural gas contract under Paritzky’s control. Sharon fired Paritzky in mid-July. Since then new probes have been launched against the mayors of Tel Aviv and Haifa, after it was alleged that parking lot kingpin Reuven Gross funneled money into their political campaigns illegally. And the list goes on and on.

Small wonder that Karadi was welcomed with heartfelt wishes for his success, but little belief that he, or anybody else, really could succeed. One of his first fights is with the Ministry of Finance, where officials are preparing proposed cuts in the police budget that may force Karadi to lay off no fewer than 1,500 police officers in the months ahead. The Aberjils and Abutbuls face no such budget woes.

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