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Israel's Nightmare: Mobsters Trained by Country's Own Military

Israelis are discovering the drawbacks of a society where everyone serves in the army: a whole lot of citizens know how to use explosives.
Israeli soldiers sit on top of amobile artillery canon unit near the Israel-Gaza Strip border.
Israeli soldiers sit on top of amobile artillery canon unit near the Israel-Gaza Strip border on November 20, 2012. JACK GUEZ / AFP - Getty Images, file

JERUSALEM — In the last year, fewer Israelis were killed by terrorist attacks than at any point since the outbreak of the second intifada. But as Palestinian terrorism has receded, bombings haven’t stopped. In fact, they may be increasing. This time the perpetrators aren’t jihadists, but rather much more technologically advanced organized crime groups. Israelis are discovering the drawbacks of a society where everyone serves in the army: a whole lot of citizens know how to use explosives.

In October of last year, a known criminal living in the northern Israeli city of Haifa was gunned down in an underground parking garage. Three days later in Ashkelon, in the south, a powerful car bomb shook the buildings downtown, gravely injuring two alleged associates of the Domrani crime family who were inside the vehicle. One later died of his wounds.

These were the opening shots fired in a mob war that has been raging throughout Israel for much of the last six months. There have been at least twenty assassinations and attempted assassinations of organized crime figures since October — many of them using powerful explosives and carried out in major cities in broad daylight. The attacks have included motorcycle hitmen gunning down a rival on the Tel Aviv beachfront and a grenade thrown into a busy market in Petach Tikvah, east of Tel Aviv. And mafiosos haven’t been the only victims — a city councilman in Lod, a Tel Aviv district prosecutor and the deputy mayor of Petach Tikvah have all been targeted, as well.

In February, Chief of Police Yohanan Danino said he considers the underworld hits a form of “terrorism,” and called for the same tools employed by the Shin Bet (the unit responsible for dealing with Arab terrorism) to be used against organized crime. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the incidents “a threat to the rule of law.”

The ebb of terrorist attacks and rise of organized crime in recent years has sparked drastic changes in police enforcement. “In 2001 we were dealing with 80 percent terrorism and 20 percent criminal and now it’s the opposite,” national police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld says. “In 2014 the police deal with 80 percent criminal and organized crime and only 20 percent terrorism.”

"Now it’s trendy, it’s easier to get a bomb … they’re using them on guys that are nobodies."

According to Rosenfeld, the police arrested roughly 500 people connected to the major Israeli organized crime families in 2013, but their job has been made more difficult by the frequent use of targeted explosives. These devices leave no fingerprints and are easy to acquire — partly because the entire population serves in the army, so there are a large number of civilians capable of building precision detonators.

Ben Hartman, veteran crime reporter for Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post, says that the bombs are “stolen from IDF depots, or they’re actual IDF munitions, mines and amateur pipe bombs. And there are a ton of grenades.” Hartman estimates that the street price for one is about 1,000 shekels, roughly the cost of a low-end washing machine.

He says it’s not just the explosives that are raising alarm, but also their targets. “They’ve always had bombings in the [criminal] underworld, but to get blown up you had to be a big guy. Now it’s trendy, it’s easier to get a bomb … they’re using them on guys that are nobodies.”

The criminals have other tools at their disposal as well. When a well-timed police raid in February caught a crime family safe house by surprise, officers were shocked to find equipment for tracking the cellphones of rivals, sophisticated devices for hi-resolution mapping of their movements, and screens showing footage of the targets under surveillance by the gang’s field operatives. Officers on the scene compared the technology to that used by an intelligence agency and had to call in the cyber crime unit for advice.

The police have had a few successes in addition to the safe house. In October they managed to arrest and charge six members of the Domrani family plotting a hit as revenge for a bombing targeting two of their operatives. Officers in Jaffa succeeded in intercepting three relatives of a man killed in Tel Aviv who were on their way to avenge his death.

But Hartman and others have also called out a worrisome trend in the past six months. Though the police are making a lot of arrests for organized crime, many of the suspects go free days later when it becomes clear that the authorities don't have the evidence to make a case against them. Hartman and other observers speculate that some of the arrests may be more for show than anything else.

"That theory — it's inaccurate and misleading," responded Rosenfeld, when asked about Hartman's analysis. He stressed that the police were working not only to make cases but also to prevent the crimes from happening in the first place, often by catching suspects in the planning stages and on their way to commit the act. Rosenfeld declined to compare conviction rates in Israel to those of other countries, saying that "you can't compare" Israel's data sets to those of the US, for example: "The scale is much smaller."

He added, however, that "the Israeli police commissioner has told the 433 unit [police intelligence] that organized crime should be their main emphasis."

Israel's police force should not operate by the same rules as the military, a former police officer says — but they do deserve more funding.

Avi Dawidowicz, who served in the Israeli police for more than thirty years — including as head of investigations in the unit responsible for pursuing international organized crime — believes that the police are doing the best they can under the circumstances. He pointed to the drop in murder rates Danino presented at a Knesset hearing on organized crime in March as an example of improvement.

Dawidowicz cites budgetary constraints as the main impediment to further progress. “Only the army, without the Shin Bet or the Mossad, spends 62 billion shekels a year. The police spend only 9 billion,” he says. “The police want more authority, more money.”

However, Dawidowicz doesn’t think the police should be operating in the style of those fighting terrorism. “I don’t agree with the comparison to terror that Danino and the politicians have been making,” he says. “There are a lot of similarities, but we don’t want the police to use the tools the Shin Bet does.” It’s not appropriate for a country’s police to operate by the same rules as its military, he adds.

According to a document recently released by the Ministry of Public Security, the police force has big plans for 2014. They are cooperating with the US Department of Homeland Security to increase the use of DNA databases, smart street cameras that flag dangerous behavior, and other advanced crime-fighting tools.

This past weekend, police capped off a two-month undercover investigation by arresting eight individuals involved in plans to steal IDF materials from bases and sell them to organized crime groups. Among those arrested were an IDF serviceman and three non-commissioned officers. A vehicle the police confiscated, according to the Times of Israel, was carrying 10 shoulder-fired anti-tank rockets, 30 shrapnel grenades and 50 explosive bricks.

It’s a big victory for the police, who say these eight had long been shuttling IDF arms to criminal groups. Reading like a conspiracy out of an Ian Fleming novel, however, the case also reveals the sophistication of the network the police are up against.

When asked about the arrests and the ongoing issue of army weapons and techniques showing up in the criminal underworld, an IDF spokesman declined to give specifics.

"Because the incident ... is currently under both Israel Police and Military Police investigations we unfortunately cannot comment about the case," the spokesman said by email.

"We can however say that the IDF views any illegal and criminal activity involving IDF soldiers and/or property with the utmost seriousness."

This story originally appeared on GlobalPost.

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