Israeli Underworld Surfaces as Gang Warfare Hits Street
JERUSALEM — Despite the shaky cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel’s streets are stained with blood this summer, due to an explosion of gang warfare that has police baffled.
One of Israel’s most feared mobsters, Yisrael “Alice” Mizrahi, 58, was killed last week when his Mercedes jeep was blown up near his south Tel Aviv office in what police called a “super-professional” job. He was killed by a remote-controlled bomb underneath the driver’s seat that sheared off the steering wheel while leaving the wheels and underbody intact. Two other passengers, including his wife, Esther, were lightly injured.
Police say they are uncertain who killed “Alice.” His death would be just the latest in a series of unsolved attacks during the last six weeks that one detective called “a world war” among rival gangs, for reasons that remain unclear:
• August 5: A 16-year-old Acre boy, the son of a police officer, is arrested on suspicion of trying to assassinate a suspected underworld figure as a part of an ongoing gang war in the northern port city.
• August 2: The body of David Amar, 40, is found on the Nofshonit beach near Caesarea. Police say Amar, who had a record of drug-related offenses, had been shot in what appears to be an underworld killing.
• July 31: Aharon Masika, 53, known by the nickname “The Assassin,” is killed when a man dressed as an ultra-Orthodox Jew approaches him in the middle of the street and fires one shot between the eyes from point-blank range.
• July 26: The body of Muhammad Khaled Armush, 30, is found in an apartment in Haifa’s Hadar district. Police believe Armush, a familiar figure, was killed in a criminal feud. His death brings the number of people murdered in the Haifa area this year to 16, compared with eight in all of 2002.
• July 13: Alex Barak, known as “The Mystery Man,” is shot and seriously wounded leaving his Tel Aviv home after receiving a phone call from a supposed buyer of a bar he owned. Barak was known to be a close friend of the late Felix Abutbul, considered by police to be the boss of the underworld in the coastal city of Netanya. Abutbul was gunned down outside one of his Prague casinos in August 2002. Barak spent nine years in a British prison during the 1970s and 1980s for his role in the attempted kidnap-for-ransom of a Nigerian minister.
• July 9: “Nikita,” a 17-year-old girl from Beersheva, is arrested with three men believed to be en route to a shooting. “I was supposed to get the gun and shoot him,” she tells interrogators.
• July 3: Reuven “Banjo” Adazhshvili, 42, known to police as “Assassin No. 1,” is found shot to death in his car in a parking lot near Yarkonim Junction outside Tel Aviv.
• June 30: Reputed Tel Aviv mob kingpin Ze’ev “Zevik” Rosenstein and three bodyguards are lightly injured by shrapnel when a bomb is set off by remote control outside his Tel Aviv office. It is the fourth attempt on Rosenstein in the last year. Police say he leads a charmed life.
• June 27: Micha Aslan, 47, a head of the Jerusalem underworld during the 1970s and 1980s, is shot in the back by an unknown assailant in Eilat while on vacation. Aslan had served time in prison for murder during the 1980s and 1990s, and was widely thought to have gone straight after his release.
• June 19: Georgi Gilashvili, 40, a Georgian citizen, is stopped by police for speeding on a stolen motorcycle, and is charged with speeding, entering the country illegally and possessing forged identification documents. A reputed professional assassin, he is later charged with conspiracy to assassinate two leading mob bosses, Itzik and Meir Abergil, reputed kingpins in Israel’s gambling and protection rackets, whose photographs were on him when he was arrested.
A police report on organized crime, released July 9, describes six main crime groups operating in Israel, including gangs headed by “Zevik” Rosenstein and Itzik Abergil as well as a Bedouin ring from the Negev and three others. Each family specializes in a different area of business.
Why the gangs are killing each other now is unclear. Police sources say their organized crime division was decimated during the last three years as massive resources were shifted to fighting terrorism and policing the so-called seam line between Israel and the territories, leaving the gang-busters badly outmanned.
According to some experts, this summer’s gang war results from attempts by a few families to muscle in on other families’ businesses, upending decades-old understandings. “This is a war between groups fighting over who will control illegal gambling, extortion and drugs,” said Hebrew University criminologist Menachem Amir, who received the Israel Prize this year for his role in founding the science of criminology in Israel.
Amir said that besides the six main crime families, there are also local groups fighting turf wars over control of hometown operations. “They picked up only on those six that committed extortion or killings beyond their territory, but there are other groups who are murderers within their territory — like in Pardes Katz, or Netanya.”
Moreover, he said, “These six groups don’t include the Russians. The Russians operate not so much in gambling but mainly in prostitution and extortion — although some of the Israeli groups also specialize in extortion of houses of prostitution.”
It was the killing of Mizrahi last week that shone the spotlight on the gang wars. Described as one of the most wanted and colorful figures in the Israeli underworld, Mizrahi was a leader of the so-called “Israeli Mafia” operating in Brooklyn during the late 1980s. He moved to New York after serving five years in Israel for armed robbery, and became the right-hand man of Yehuda “Johnny” Attias, who headed a gang of former Israelis specializing in heroin and cocaine smuggling, gasoline racketeering and extortion.
When he returned to Israel in the early 1990s, Mizrahi was under suspicion in two murder cases. He was suspected of kidnapping and murdering fellow Israeli émigré Albert “Babar” Shushan on the way to New York’s Kennedy Airport in March 1988 in what was believed to be a drug dispute.
A year later, Michael Markowitz, a Romanian-born Israeli-American and suspected FBI informant, was found dead with three bullets in his head in his car in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn. Though Israeli, Markowitz was described by New York police as a significant figure in the “Russian Mafia” in Brooklyn. They said the Israeli mob in New York did not accept him because he was an Ashkenazic Jew and the Israeli mob was exclusively Sephardic. New York police suspected Mizrahi and Attias of his murder, though the motive was unclear.
Attias was killed in 1990. Mizrahi fled to Israel after his white Lincoln was blown up outside an Israeli-owned nightclub. He was arrested two years later, based on evidence sent to Israel by American authorities. After Israel refused to extradite him, he was put on trial in Tel Aviv. The FBI sent dozens of agents to assist in the months-long trial, but he was acquitted in 1996 on the two murder charges. However, he was convicted of smuggling four kilograms of heroin from Holland to New York and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
After his release on parole in 2001, police say he returned to illegal gambling operations, loan sharking and liquor smuggling. Police said his death was probably due to a falling out with gambling associates and was not connected to the broader gang wars.
Other observers say it is not clear which killings are related to which. Amir said the bloodshed was likely to grow, though he sees a ray of light.
“In the near future, yes, it will grow, because they are strong, and there is not enough police manpower, not enough of a budget, to fight it,” he said. “But eventually the police will get a bigger budget for organized crime, and there will be more intensive, pro-active policing. This is what is likely to happen.”