Doth Danino protest too much?

It was a hot mic moment, even if police did invite the reporter to the event to begin with.

On Tuesday, during a visit to the Ayalon subdistict headquarters in Holon, Israel Police Chief Inspector General Yochanan Danino started firing in all directions, mainly at the press and how they’ve handled the recent wave of underworld killings in Israel.

Police and ZAKA workers at the scene of a double murder drive-by in Petah Tikva in last June, which remains unsolved (Photo: Ben Hartman)

Police and ZAKA workers at the scene of a double murder drive-by in Petah Tikva in last June, which remains unsolved (Photo: Ben Hartman)

“You turn on the radio in the morning and you hear there’s an emergency situation and you have to head for the bomb shelter. This is called the reality as the media sees it. I would like to calm everyone down and tell you that the pubic believes you and the public is not afraid,” Danino said, adding that Israel has known worse periods of crime in the past.

Speaking of the country’s crime reporters, many of who have a less than loving relationship with Danino, he said “there are police reporters who are afraid that they wont have anything to write about anymore. They say the situation is an emergency but the facts are completely different.”

Further, Israel’s top cop said the real problem is that “people in this country talk like they’re experts when they don’t understand anything” and that “Israelis don’t know how to give credit where its due”.

He then mentioned the latest underworld killing, the murder of a 27-year-old Jaffa man known to police, who was gunned down on the Tel Aviv seafront just north of Jaffa, in front of hundreds of witnesses.

“If this had been 50 meters south [in Jaffa] no one would have cared but because it was next to the tahana center everyone was screaming to the high heavens.”

Now, what do you do in a situation like this? If you’re Danino, you just turn off the news, tune it out altogether.
“I already stopped listening to the radio, I suggest you do that same,” Danino told the cops at the Holon station.
All these gems were picked up by Azri Amram, a reporter for Ch. 2 who was invited to attend the visit and film it. According to police, Amram, one of the hardest-working reporters I’ve met in Israel, was told explicitly that the visit was to be off the record, no interviews, no quotes. They then sent out an announcement to all crime reporters and media outlets in Israel criticizing the report, saying it was out of context and accusing Amram of a grave violation of journalistic ethics.

Basically, we invited you to our party and you turned over the punch bowl and pissed in the mashed potatoes.
Within minutes, other outlets were running Ch. 2′s story, Danino took another black eye from the press, and his thorny relationship with Israel’s crime reporters took another hit to the gut.

On the other hand, is there something to what Danino is saying?

In terms of the killing on the seafront, there was definitely something to what he said. If that killing had been a few blocks south in Jaffa, chances are it wouldn’t have been a huge story. On a Sunday afternoon in Jaffa in November a young man was gunned down on Yehuda Hayamit street and it made barely blip in the national news. But Saturday’s killing was on the seafront just a bit too far north, across from the Tahana where hundreds of Israelis were visiting a chocolate festival.

It’s true that Israel has seen nearly a dozen car bombs in the past four months and almost two dozen underworld killings, as explosions and shootings have been seen in cities across the country. In addition, police have made a series of high-profile arrests of mafia figures large and small in the last few months, only to see almost all of them released a few days later due to lack of evidence.

That said, some of the panic is a bit out of proportion. No, Israel is not Chicago in the 20s and 30s nor does the level of violent crime or insecurity really compare to that of almost any major American city. Also, despite all the headlines about “criminal terrorism” and citizens afraid to leave their houses, Israel’s crime rate was worse in recent years and there have been other phases like this in the past, some that were arguably worse.

There was the war between the Abergil family and Ze’ev Rosenstein and his associates a decade ago that saw a bomb blast (meant for Rosenstein) kill four innocent bystanders outside a currency exchange on Yehuda Halevi in Tel Aviv. In the late 80s and early 90s there was the war between the Pardes Katz gang and the Ramat Amidar that saw a heap of bodies dropped on the streets of central Israel. Recently, there’s also been the brutal war waged between the gangs in East and West Rishon Letzion, a gang feud that has also taken a dozen victims.

Still, as any wise police officer will tell you, there’s statistic and there’s perception. And regardless of if police are able to statistically reduce the number of mob hits and murders, as long as the public feels that the situation is not under their control, they will continue to be criticized.

A day before the Ch 2 article came out I heard a crime reporter talking about how with all due respect to the Israeli mob, some of the panic is out of proportion, and the sensationalism is being flamed by editors looking either to sell papers or smear Netanyahu or both. One reporter joked about how after the arrest of 8 members of a southern Israel crime family last week a reporter at a rival paper already had written an article ready to publish for when the gangsters are released without charge due to a lack of evidence.

Are people out to get the police and Danino? Sure, some are. But the criticism is the symptom of the inability of police to win public trust, in a country where the Army and security services are sacred and the mob doesn’t seem to hesitate to settle accounts in broad daylight. It’s also indicative of the the inability of the top police brass to understand the media.

The day after Danino’s comments were published, Israel Radio crime reporter Adi Meiri dropped a bombshell scoop – the witness in the Bar Noar double murder case has been arrested and the indictment against Hagai Felician is on the verge of collapse. Also Wednesday, the High Court lifted the gag order on a decade old case revealing that Efraim Bracha, today the head of the “YAHA” anti-fraud unit burned a police agent for his own personal gain, after which the state lost a lawsuit to the informant. Despite the wrongdoing, Bracha continued to move up the ranks of the police.
Good thing Danino doesn’t listen to the radio.

A bomb every two weeks

(update: On Saturday night, February 8th, a man was killed in a car bomb in south Tel Aviv’s Kfar Shalem neighborhood, details to follow)

On Monday night the Israeli public was treated to amateur video of a car engulfed in 10-foot high flames, as a man screams out “Shema Yisrael” while he’s burned alive in the middle of a quiet suburban street.

Police crime scene investigators at the site of the car bombing in Petah Tikva on Monday morning. (Credit: Magen David Adom)

Police crime scene investigators at the site of the car bombing in Petah Tikva on Monday morning. (Credit: Magen David Adom)

The explosion that left two men dead in Petah Tikva on Monday morning was a familiar scene: a shattered and scorched car on a leafy suburban street, cops in white forensic jumpsuits picking up the pieces, neighborhood kids with iPhones taking pictures of the blast site.

The wording of the police statements was also familiar – the first one mentioned an “explosion inside of a car in Petah Tikva” (playing it safe and not calling it a bomb, even though cars don’t tend to spontaneously combust like Spinal Tap drummers), a later one read that the “background to the incident is criminal” and a third read that the men are “known to police”.

For those keeping score at home, Monday’s fatal blast was the eighth time that a car bomb exploded in an Israeli city in the 15 weeks since October 24th, when a remote-detonated bomb in Ashkelon left Jacky Benita dead and blew off the left leg of Avi Biton, a top associate of mobster Shalom Domrani. That blast brought the problem of underworld violence to the forefront (if temporarily), with the issue building at a steady pitch until two weeks later, when an explosion tore apart a jeep belonging to a Tel Aviv prosecutor known partly for working organized crime cases. The eight car bombs do not include the frag grenades and flashbangs thrown at houses or affixed to cars on a near-daily basis across Israel.

The Tel Aviv blast and the specter of organized crime targeting law enforcement (not a new thing, but still) led the police and the government to “declare war” on organized crime, vowing to stop at nothing. So far mainly language has felt the impact – mob violence is now often called “terror plili” (criminal terror) and police press releases begin with the words “the unyielding war against serious and organized crime.” Public Security Minister Yizhak Aharonovitch also stood meters from the charred jeep and called for the use of administrative detentions against organized crime figures, though where this stands today isn’t clear.

By any standard, today’s bombing, even if it was simply a “work accident” (the lukewarm term for people wounded or killed when the bomb they’re transporting goes off prematurely) and not a double murder it is still every bit as grave as the ones that caused such short-lived public outrage in the fall. Come to think of it, so was the car bomb at the Yarkonim junction in Petah Tikva in July 2013 that left two men dead and the drive-by shooting in the city in June in which two men were killed. In the latter incident, just like Monday’s, two men lost their lives in an act of brutal violence only meters away from two day-care centers. Actually, in almost all of these incidents there’s a school, a kindergarten, a synagogue or a bus stop nearby, and it’s typically a surprise that bystanders aren’t wounded or killed.

While it’s true that the men hurt in these acts of violence are typically low-lifes, criminals, or worse, the cruelty of these attacks should not be shrugged off.

On Tuesday, four men arrested in connection to Monday’s bombing will be brought to the Petah Tikva Magistrate’s Court for a remand hearing. If experience is any indication, they will remain in jail a few days and then be released without an indictment. Also, chances are in a few days or a couple weeks or so the scene will repeat itself again somewhere else in Israel.

Person of the Year for 2013 in Israeli Crime: The Felician Family

(Update: Yaakov Felician was remanded on January 7th, 2014 for allegedly threatening the witness in a [closed] rape case against him. The following post originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post)

Though they say it typically doesn’t happen twice in the same place, in 2013 lightning struck one small corner of Bnei Brak’s Pardes Katz neighborhood over and over, continuously bringing sorrow to a single Israeli family.

Hagai Felician, during a hearing in the Bar Noar case earlier this year. (Photo: Ben Hartman)

Hagai Felician, during a hearing in the Bar Noar case earlier this year. (Photo: Ben Hartman)

Few people had a worse year in 2013 than the Felician family.

In June, police announced the arrest of three suspects in the August 2009 Bar Noar LGBT center shooting, which for four years had been the flagship case for Tel Aviv police and had reportedly cost millions of shekels to investigate.

The three suspects included brothers Haggai and Benny Felician, the former the chief suspect and only man who would end up indicted in the case. According to police, the motive for the murder was the alleged sexual assault of the teenage Benny by the then-manager of the Bar Noar. Hagai, looking to avenge the assault of his brother, then went to the Bar Noar with a pistol and began firing in all directions, leaving 26-year-old Nir Katz of Givatayim and 17-year-old Liz Troubishi from Holon dead and injuring 11 others, according to police.

After the arrests in June, things only got worse for the Felicians.

Benny would end up beating the Bar Noar indictment, but would face a charge of trying to buy an illegal firearm, a case built by a conversation picked up on a wiretap on the state witness in the Bar Noar case. Older brother Yaakov Felician, a one-time top associate of the Avi Ruhan crime family, would later that month be arrested for the rape of a female attorney, though would later be released. Things hit rock bottom in July, when 15 year old Orr Felician, the youngest brother, fell to his death from a construction site where he was helping his father during the summer vacation.

Just when you thought things couldn’t get worse for the family, earlier this month the Channel 2 program “Uvda” aired an investigative report into the 2006 murder of Avi Ruhan (also from Pardes Katz) associate Ayal Salhov, who at the time was a police informant. The report implicated Yaakov Felician, then Salhov’s closest and oldest friend, as the trigger man in the killing.

What becomes of that last tragedy remains to be seen, but over just a few months in 2013 the Felician family was repeatedly touched by fire, becoming, as some joked, the Pardes Katz version of the Kennedys. The Felician curse and the Bar Noar arrests also brought renewed attention to Pardes Katz, long a poor, crime-ridden and forgotten corner of central Israel.

At around the same time that the Bar Noar arrests were made, police also arrested Yitzhak “Hishi” Hadif of Pardes Katz for the repeated bombing of a Tel Aviv Tiv Taam branch.

In the 80s and 90s Hishi was the leader of the “Pardes Katz gang”, which led a bloody war with the Ramat Amidar gang led by the Harari brothers, which left over a dozen people dead. Hadif was later arrested and released in 2011 for allegedly being involved in the shooting of two Pardes Katz men – Yaakov and Hagai Felician.

At one point in late 2013, a few crime reporters joked, it seemed that every major criminal case in central Israel was somehow related to the Felicians or Pardes Katz. Though it had largely changed its “crime neighborhood” image since the 90s, Pardes Katz now found itself again a byword for crime and despair.

The Felician family, on the other hand, was anonymous to most Israelis until 2013, the year in which the cruel hand of fate repeatedly found its way to their doorstep in a little forgotten corner of Israel, somewhere between Ramat Gan and Petah Tikva.

Reporting While Arab (RWA)

Sharon police Commander Kobi Shabtai had barely made his introduction to reporters at the sub-district headquarters in Kfar Saba on Monday morning, when he started to come under fire.

New Sharon sub-district Commander Kobi Shabtai at his headquarters on Monday, looking vaguely like a buff Robin Williams. (Photo: Ben Hartman)

New Sharon sub-district Commander Kobi Shabtai at his headquarters on Monday. (Photo: Ben Hartman)

“The police don’t pay any attention to us, you don’t give us access like the Hebrew press”, said a female reporter for a major Arabic radio station describing her inability to find police investigators or spokespeople to talk to at murder scenes or to get on the phone afterwards.

She mentioned an incident on the eve of the municipal elections in which two bodies were found murdered and torched in a car in Taibe, a crime that made waves in the Arab sector but was lightly reported in the Hebrew press.

She described being on the scene before the Hebrew press, and unable to find an officer willing to speak to her.

“Then Ch. 2 showed up with their crew and next thing I see the police are being interviewed and giving them information.”

An Arab-Israeli reporter for Ynet confirmed what she said, as did an Arab-Israeli reporter for Israel Radio. All three said they are often on the scene before the Hebrew press and at times police, but find themselves still unable to get nearly as much information from the cops as their Hebrew counterparts.

The reporters said they’re also not in the WhatsApp group run by the Sharon spokesperson, and not always invited to briefings with police commanders.

This is an old, familiar problem between police and the Arab sector.

In November, the National Police Headquarters held a rare briefing between the press and the head of the Police Intelligence and Investigations branch Meni Yitzhaki. The subject was the ongoing mob war in the south, which was making major headlines in Israel and even abroad following the car bombs in Ashkelon. All of the major outlets were there, except for the Arab press. This is despite the fact that gang warfare is a constant problem in the Arab sector, even if such killings are often described by police and the press as being “family-related”.

One reporter present on Monday told me last week about a conference he spoke at in an Arab village this month dealing with the relationship between police and the media. He said the event was attended by a wide array of media figures and community leaders from the Arab sectors, as well as Israeli journalists. Who wasn’t present? A representative of the police.

He also related how one of the Arab reporters told him how following a recent gangland killing in an Arab village he came to speak to police investigators about the crime and was invited into a side room, where detectives allegedly tried to turn him into a source, seeing him more as a local Arab with street level intelligence than a reporter with a readership to serve.

There is probably no other segment of society in which the relationship with police is more complicated, loaded, and important than that of the Arab sector. They are the victims of violent crime more than any other segment of society and their towns and villages are awash in illegal firearms and seriously under-policed. Nonetheless, they are not made part of the loop as much as the Hebrew press, and even, from personal experience, as much as the English press (in this case, the Jerusalem Post).

Very few Israeli police or Jewish Israelis read the Arab press, and have little concept of the influence it has on some 20% of the country’s population, especially news sites like Panet, which are widely read both inside and outside the borders of Israel.

With violent crime still a scourge of Arab communities in Israel, police must increase their efforts to reach out to the press that serves them, especially in places like the Sharon, which includes the crime-plagued towns of “the Triangle” region like Taibe, Kalansua, and Kfar Qassem.

There was a happy ending on Monday though – Leaving the police station my phone beeped a WhatsApp notification – the Arabic radio reporter had just been added to the Sharon sub-district group.

(Don’t) stop the wedding

If you were worried, Dror Alperon will be marrying his fiancée Tuesday night, less than a week after he was arrested in connection to a double murder in Petah Tikva in June.

The groom, Dror Alperon (far right) during a court hearing in Tel Aviv in April. (Photo: Ben Hartman)

The groom, Dror Alperon (far right) during a court hearing in Tel Aviv in April. (Photo: Ben Hartman)

Dror, his aunt Haya, and his cousin Reuben Partush have all been released, and by the end of the week the remaining two suspects Eli Partush and Asher Gini also stand to be set free.

The police case against the suspects is a convoluted story of revenge for a beat-down delivered over a small time debt. According to police, Partush owed money to Eli Reuben, who ran a “grey market” bank in Petah Tikvah, and was beaten by Reuben and his associates. Eli Reuben was later shot and wounded and not long after, both Eli Orkabi, an associate of Reuben, and Eran Fartush were shot dead in the drive-by shooting in Petah Tikva.

The double murder didn’t make nearly as much waves as the two recent car bombs directed at the Domrani organization or the bombing of a Tel Aviv prosecutor’s car last month. Nonetheless, it had all the right ingredients to stir public outrage: a gangland hit in broad daylight in a quiet suburban neighborhood, meters away from a kindergarten and a high school, that left an innocent bystander, Eran Fartush, dead at the scene for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

At the moment, it appears unlikely that any of the five suspects will be indicted, yet another highly-publicized arrest that yields nothing.

Since the gang war in southern Israel exploded in late October, the police have launched an all-out media campaign to show the public they are winning the battle against organized crime, come what may. They have rushed up cases against gangsters like Avi Ruhan (arrested last month for his alleged role in a car bombing that killed two in Petah Tikva in July, only to be released the next week) as well as a number of his associates and men linked to Amir Mulner, the Jawrushi family, and others. The case against Shalom Domrani also appears to some extent to be half-baked, an indictment against one of Israel’s most feared and powerful crime bosses for what amounts to a number of rather unclear threats that were not recorded.

Since late October, the National Police headquarters has sent out announcements on a daily basis with the headline “the battle against organized crime”, followed by news of arrests of suspects linked to crime families, usually for weapons or drug charges but also often for extortion. The time and location of the court hearings are given to the press, while the suspect’s release a week or so later is done without any police fanfare, like in the case of Dror Alperon on Monday. (for those joining the program late, Dror is the son of mobster Yaakov Alperon, murdered in a car bomb in Tel Aviv in 2008)

Along the way, the Police Commissioner Yochanan Danino and the Minister of Public Security Yitzhak Aharanovich have made statements about the need to wage a relentless war against organized crime with the resources to match. Those statements have tapered off since, but they’ll return if things heat up again.

The Israel Police are often maligned by the media and the public, but it’s worth noting that they include a high number of very-talented, highly-motivated individuals who have had a lot of success in fighting organized crime. They know very well that building strong cases that can secure indictments and win convictions takes time and patience.

Unfortunately, patience is rarely seen by the public or the media as a virtue when cars are exploding in Ashkelon and Tel Aviv and the higher-ups are calling for a war.

In the case of the Alperons, Mazel Tov to the happy couple.

Aharonovich’s Patriot Act?

Public Security Minister didn’t hide his grin on Saturday night. Speaking to Rina Matzliah on Ch 2 just before the 8pm news hour, he said police had arrested a top organized crime leader, and that more of the same was soon to follow.


Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich at the site of last week’s car bomb in Tel Aviv (photo: Ben Hartman)

He wouldn’t confirm that police had arrested Shalom Domrani, but it was already widely-known and by the time the papers closed Saturday night, the arrest of the southern mob boss was splashed across the front pages of the country’s papers.

Aharanovich said something else however that was lost in the fray – that he would use all tools at his disposal to fight organized crime, including the use of “administrative detentions”.

“In a war you use all of the tools. There are tools I have requested – budget increases and to allow the police to use administrative detentions.”

Administrative detention is the indefinite detention without formal trial or regular charges, used in Israel for terrorists considered security threats, with the argument that presenting them with the case against them could jeopardize state security. They have never been used to date to fight domestic crime, where suspects must be brought to trial and can only be detained for set periods of time determined by court. Administrative detention is controversial, and for good reason.

The statement came in the wake of a car bomb two days earlier that targeted a Tel Aviv prosecutor, who was not in the vehicle when the explosive was detonated. Like after the two recent car bombs in Ashkelon, public statements made by Aharonovich and other Israeli leaders described such acts as terrorism and the organizations responsible as “terror groups”, that must be dealt with as such.

Two days after his original statement, Aharonovich repeated his call for administrative detentions, saying at the Journalists Association’s conference in Eilat that our intention is to take them [criminals] off the street. I need to worry about the citizens and not about them [criminals].”

“This is a war and we will win this war,” he added.

During the same remarks he spoke about how he expects the prime minster to spur the Shin Bet to help investigate the Tel Aviv car bomb, and use the technology at their disposal, which they have so far been reluctant to do so as to not jeopardize exposing such technologies and methods in court.

Police Commissioner Yochanan Danino, for his part, spoke about how he hopes the Knesset will expand current regulations on search and seizure laws, in order to free up police operations from further legal constraints.

Even though the actual number of mob hits is lower so far this year (8) than the 12 that took place in 2012, its undeniable that there is a growing feeling in Israel that organized crime gangs are flexing their muscles, taking their battles to the streets with little concern for the law or innocent bystanders. The targeting of the Tel Aviv prosecutor was just the latest example of such brazenness.

Still, how’s the saying go, in war, you know where and how to start it, but not how it will end?

It’s easy for the public to support such strong-arm moves if they think they’ll only be used against guys like Domrani or Amir Mulner, but does it ever really stop there? Who’s to say that certain young men, maybe who’ve got priors, maybe who are in the wrong neighborhood with the wrong friends, might also find themselves scooped up without charge and locked up indefinitely, part of the new war on the new terror: organized crime. Furthermore, as much as they are a menace, is right for our police leaders to decide that people like Domrani don’t have rights in our society?

In all likelihood the Justice Ministry, the Attorney General, and the courts will not allow such legal changes to go into effect and what we are seeing is grand-standing by Israel’s top cops in the face of public distress, posturing that will most likely disappear if in the coming weeks organized crime is no longer a major part of the news cycle.

Still, the proposition is troubling, and the ease with which such proposals are made and fall on deaf ears, should be cause for concern.

Facebooking the underworld

Not long before his legs would be blown off in a car bomb in Ashkelon last night, Dror Damari took to Facebook to wish his friends a good week. Over the course of the next day, around a dozen people left condolence notes on the post, most wishing the newly paraplegic young man a healthy recovery, as he lay in the trauma ward of Ashkelon’s Barzilay Hospital.

Avi Biton (far left), Jacky Benita, and Dror Damari, in a picture Damari posted to his Facebook.

Avi Biton (far left), Jacky Benita, and Dror Damari, in a picture Damari posted to his Facebook after the October 24th car bombing in Ashkelon.

Damari, reportedly an associate of mobster Shalom Domrani, did not have a locked Facebook page, and on Sunday a photo he posted less than 10 days earlier showed him and the victims of the October 24th bombing in happier times, under the caption “so much sorrow” was picked up by the Israeli media.

In that pic, Avi Biton, a senior associate of Domrani can be seen along with Jacky Benita, who would be killed in the blast that blew off both of Biton’s legs.

Fishing around Damari’s Facebook page leads to pages belonging to Benita and his family, and their posts from the day after his death, where they uploaded unfiltered notes of pain and lamentation about their murdered loved one. It also leads to one apparently belonging to Avi Biton, where in his last posts he called on friends to support Ashkelon Mayor Benny Vatkin for re-election.

Damari’s page also includes potentially incriminating pics of him waving around stacks of dollars and 200 shekel bills, as well as photos from his most recent birthday and an apparent trip to Uman, Ukraine this past Rosh Hashanah, to take part in the mass pilgrimage to the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslev.

Facebook voyeurism is something that most of us do, probably more than we’d like to admit. In the case of the Israeli crime world, it’s remarkable sometimes how many people with criminal records who are subject to ongoing police investigations maintain open Facebook pages using their real names. To any cop, reporter, or potential enemy they project a glimpse if not more of their personal lives open to the entire internet. It could be an indication that like social networking has made people live their lives out in the open, the same is true for many criminals as well, something that their counterparts from a previous generation would have found unthinkable.

Facebooking murder victims and murder suspects has been a frequent habit of mine, and is something that most Israeli crime reporters also take part in to some degree. It’s how some of their pictures make their way to the press, and affords an easy to access if rather shallow window into their personal lives.

On the one hand it makes for easy, if morbid viewing, the subjects at times fitting many of the stereotypes of Israeli arsim – they love Hugo Boss shirts, drinking Grey Goose out the bottle in the VIP section, ATVs on the beach, and posing next to BMWs. They also seem so very normal in a way, the type of guys or girls who wouldn’t stick out necessarily at a club or the beach in Tel Aviv, showing that really you never know who you’re waiting in line next to in this country, even if they aren’t the type to wait in line.

While such online carelessness by today’s criminals surely makes police and journalistic work a bit easier, it also gives a glimpse of how even people living far outside the boundaries of the law have family members who send them candy crush invites on Facebook, and words of prayer and heartfelt concern posted to their wall in a time of need.

Terror in Avihayil?

Yitzhak Algabry didn’t know his life was about to end when he walked into his backyard in Moshav Avihayil in the Sharon one night in October 2012 to grab some bread for a family dinner that was taking place inside the house.

Yitzhak Algabry, murdered in his back yard in Moshav Avihayil in October 2012. (courtesy)

Yitzhak Algabry, murdered in his back yard in Moshav Avihayil in October 2012. (courtesy)

Instead, Algabry surprised three burglars from Tulkarm who were hiding in the apartment unit in the back yard. The men began to fight with him, with one bludgeoning him in the head before another stabbed him in the chest with a screwdriver, mortally wounding the 62-year-old man. By the time his family noticed his body lying dead in the apartment unit, the killers were long gone, and according to an indictment issued in August of this year, they were already on their way to a shwarma restaurant in Jaljulya, where they would stop for dinner before heading home to the West Bank.

The Moshav Avihayil case came to mind earlier this month, when retired IDF Colonel Sraya Ofer was murdered late at night by three men wielding sticks and axes in the backyard of his house on the small vacation village of Brosh Habika in the northern Jordan Valley. In the coming days three Hebron men were arrested and allegedly confessed to the crime, which was quickly seized upon by politicians and the media as a terror attack, even as police said they were unsure the motive behind the killing. The killers later admitted that they had been at the house in the weeks earlier, apparently casing it out.

To me the killing bore many signs of a botched robbery. It took place late at night, when burglars arrived at an appealing target – a large spread in a secluded area – where a man lived with his wife. That man was widely known to be a member of Israel’s Ofer family, one of the country’s wealthiest, though I don’t know if there’s any indication the perpetrators knew that. Nonetheless, the fact that police were not able to say what the motive was without a shadow of a doubt was telling, just like it was in another case a week earlier, when a nine-year-old girl was attacked by an intruder in the backyard of her house in Psagot. Within minutes reports began circulating that she was shot in the chest at point blank range, and that the incident was a failed terror attack. Just like a week later in Brosh Habika, politicians jumped on the incident, blaming incitement in the Palestinian Authority, even though the motive of the crime not be determined and in the days to come police and the army were unable to give a clear answer about whether or not the girl was shot or stabbed.

Despite the many layers of fog and uncertainty circling the two cases, they were both pounced upon by certain MKs who never miss an opportunity to exploit an opportunity to blame an act of violence on Palestinian incitement against Jews.

On Wednesday, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon referred to both incidents, as part of comments made to the Knesset Foreign Affairs committee on recent violence in the West Bank, saying “also when the motive is personal or sometimes criminal it becomes nationalist, the ease with which a robbery ends in the murder of a Jew or certainly the act of using a knife to steal a girl’s bike, is unacceptable.”

He then said that the basis for such attacks and others are “the incitement in the Palestinian Authority which we have pointed out for some time.”

The way I read between those lines is that because of the pervasive level of anti-Semitism in Palestinian society, which is stoked by PA propaganda, any act of violence by a Palestinian towards a Jew is by definition nationalist even if the act started out as a simple crime. At some point, when Palestinians come to rob you, when it gets violent, a switch goes off and the act is now nationalist, now its terror, not simply crime, according to this rationale.

By this standard, not only were Psagot and Brosh Habika terror attacks, but so was Moshav Avihayil. Come to think of it, why was that act of violence considered purely criminal? The men who killed Yitzhak Agabry were from Tulkarm, do they not have access to Palestinian Authority TV there? Or, is it purely because of the location of the incident? In other words, if you’re killed by a Palestinian in the course of a crime within the Green Line it’s considered criminal, but if you’re killed by a Palestinian in the West Bank in the course of a robbery it’s terrorism?

On the other hand, there is certain logic to his remarks – the conflict and the hatred that Arabs and Jews have been raised with in these parts do permeate relationships and interaction between the two peoples, both the criminal and the mundane. By Ya’alon’s notion, if you are raised to hate another people, how hard is it to then victimize them?

Though there is certainly logic to his approach, it ignores not only that such hatred is a two-way street, but also the ease with which Jewish and Arab criminals murder their own people, completely devoid of the framework of the conflict. Not only is Arab on Arab crime well out of control within the Green Line, but Ya’alon’s comments came the same day that two Arab men from Lod were arrested for the shooting of an Arab city council member at an open house in the city, and the same week that there were a number of gangland hits and attempted hits by Jewish mobsters on other Jews with little concern for the safety of bystanders, Jewish or otherwise.

An easy trigger finger and a casual dismissal of societal norms and concern for innocent bystanders are things that neither people has a monopoly one, and are typically displayed in this country in a fashion that is outside of the prism of nationalism and the conflict.

For the victims – particularly the ones who are killed – it’s of little consequence. For the perpetrators though, it means being immediately branded terrorists based on their ethnicity and that of their victim, something that makes all violent crime terrorism, depending on who’s killing who.

The spy in short shorts came to court

“Did you see the picture he took at Natbag (Ben Gurion International Airport)”, one of the photographers outside the court-room on Monday morning asked, before another answered “it looks like he took that with a Nokia phone, and it’s not even in focus”.

The press scrum was waiting at the Petah Tikvah Magistrate’s Court on Monday morning for the remand hearing for Iranian-Belgian businessman Ali Mansouri, whose arrest earlier this month on a series of espionage charges was reported to the press a day earlier by the Shin Bet.

As the hearing was delayed, they joked about the pictures the Shin Bet says they confiscated from Mansouri (who entered Israel on a Belgian passport with the name “Alex Mans”), and the baby blue short shorts Mansouri was wearing in a picture he posed for at the Tel Aviv boardwalk earlier in September.

Mansouri on the Tel Aviv beachfront, in a picture released by the Shin Bet.

Mansouri on the Tel Aviv beachfront, in a picture released by the Shin Bet.

Mansouri leaned in as an interpreter in a faded pink t-shirt – listed on the court document as having a classic Moroccan Jewish name – translated the proceedings into French. The courthouse guards had instructed the press that they could take pictures of Mansouri as he was led in, but could not ask him any questions – a restriction that was followed for a few seconds before Ali was asked in English about the allegations. He didn’t answer, but after the photographers left, one reporter from Channel 2 waved at Ali from the gallery and said “Shalom” to which Mansouri said “Shalom”, clasped his hands together as if in prayer, and nodded.

For a case involving a man described by the Shin Bet as a well-trained operative for a regional power involved in a shadow war with Israel, the proceedings were decidedly low-key, and also something of a sideshow. One middle-aged woman in a halter top awaiting a hearing in the same courtroom kept ducking in to the proceedings in order to avoid a man she was arguing with outside, while a relative of a close friend of mine sat outside waiting for the hearing to end so that he could face a domestic violence complaint charge issued by his wife in the same court-room, to begin once Mansouri’s appearance was over. The hearing was not closed to the press or to the public, and as it proceeded the reporters present furiously texted the comments of the attorney and the police officer to their respective outlets.

Like most other Shin Bet investigations of foreign or domestic spies operating in Israel, the case first broke following a press release by the security organization, sent out to Israeli media outlets Sunday morning. This release included the pictures Mansouri (spelled by the court as “Mansour”) allegedly took as well as a map tracing what the Shin Bet said was the trail he took from Iran, where he was recruited by the Quds force, to Turkey, Belgium, and then Israel.

Unlike in most such cases, the gag order was lifted before an indictment was issued, with the investigation still ongoing. Such a move raises questions, including the obvious one about who gave the order to expose the story and why, a question that led the articles on the hearing in Ynet and Walla. Such questions arose in part when the police representative said that he was told to ask for the gag order to be lifted on Sunday and that he believes the order came from senior police officials or “other higher-ups”.

It’s not clear why the security services had the order lifted only to then ask for a further 10 days to continue the investigation. If the man potentially had other accomplices in Israel or in Europe or elsewhere they now know he is in custody (if they didn’t before), while going to the press with the case before an indictment bears the risk that the case makes headlines before its solid enough to go to court.

At the end of the day, the proceedings, wide-open and well-covered by the press, did not give the impression of a dark new chapter in Israel and Iran’s shadow war, rather that of a quiet, somewhat strange foreign man brought for his day in court.

This used to be my synagogue

Few pilgrimage sites have seen more Israeli politicians and journalists over the past year than a two room African migrant bar on Rosh Pina street next to the Neve Shaanan pedestrian walkway in south Tel Aviv. They come in groups on guided tours, and as they stand in the first room, the guide will point to the doors leading to the second room – aged, solid wood, with two large Stars of David set at eye level.

A synagogue undergoing renovations in Neve Shaanan in south Tel Aviv. (Photo: Ben Hartman)

A synagogue undergoing renovations in Neve Shaanan in south Tel Aviv. (Photo: Ben Hartman)

The message is clear – this was once hallowed ground, a Jewish house of worship defiled in the first Hebrew city.

The last one of these tours I tagged along for was last week, when the deputy head of the Religious Services Ministry Eli Ben-Dahan (of the Jewish Home party) was taken around the area to see South Tel Aviv synagogues that have fallen into disrepair or have become abandoned in recent years, as the older Jewish population has moved out and more and more foreign workers and in particular African migrants have moved in.

Ben-Dahan was taken to the Rosh Pina synagogue along with an aide and a few activists from Jewish Home, who said they are working on “Jewish renewal” projects in south Tel Aviv, largely because of what they said is the ever diminishing Jewish character of the neighborhoods in recent years, as the majority of Israel’s more than 60,000 African migrants have made the city’s southern neighborhoods home. He was also taken to a synagogue around the corner on Ein Hakore street, where renovations were underway to repair the building so it could house the worshipers who used to pray at the Rosh Pina synagogue. A veteran parishioner said that the Rosh Pina synagogue wasn’t illegally overrun by African migrants, rather that a few years earlier the landlord decided it would be more profitable to rent it out to a privately-run business, and that after a legal struggle, he paid the parishioners damages which were used to renovate the synagogue on Ein Hakore street to host the congregants from now on.

The tour then made its way to the former site of the Beit Yeshayahu synagogue on Chelnov street, which after it went abandoned years earlier, became the site of a soup kitchen that serves the needy from the neighborhood – from Jewish and Arab drug addicts and street walkers, to African migrants and their families. The transformation of this synagogue as well – from deserted former house of worship to active soup kitchen, was also a subject of lamentations on the trip.

The Rosh Pina synagogue was in the news again on Tuesday, albeit briefly, when it was mentioned by Tel Aviv city councilman and Hatikva neighborhood activist Shlomo Masslawi during remarks made to an urgent meeting of the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee. During the meeting, held to discuss the Supreme Court’s decision to cancel the anti-infiltration amendment, Masslawi mentioned the synagogue, saying “if we had heard about a synagogue in Europe that was turned into a pub we’d all be up in arms, but here in the heart of Tel Aviv it’s allowed.”

It makes sense why the issue is emotional, few things could be more emblematic of the changes in the neighborhood than the transformation of a synagogue into an African migrant pub. The issue has been viewed as a microcosm of the changes in the neighborhood, or, in the popular sentiment “the takeover of the neighborhood as the residents flee in terror.”

Nonetheless, it’s not something that’s unique to Israel. Every time I’ve heard about one of these tours it brings to mind articles in the American press about Jews from Newark who go on annual, police-escorted visits to the abandoned and derelict Jewish cemeteries and formerly Jewish neighborhoods of the city center, which changed dramatically when the Jews began to move to the suburbs in the post-war years.

It also hits a bit closer to home. My childhood synagogue, Congregation Agudas Achim, was founded by a group of orthodox Jews in Austin, Texas in 1914, leasing different spots in town before building a small brick synagogue on San Jacinto Street in downtown Austin 1934, which later became a government building. CAA became a conservative shul years later, and in 1963, the new building was dedicated on Bull Creek street in north Austin. Then Prime Minister Lyndon Baines Johnson was supposed to dedicate the building during a visit by he and President Kennedy to Texas on November 24, 1963, but the day before JFK was assassinated in Dallas, and the dedication was postponed until December. LBJ was a close personal friend of the synagogue’s long-time president Jim Novy, and a framed black and white photo of the president with his dedication to the new house of worship held a place of honor at the Bull Creek synagogue.

It was a local institution for decades in Austin, and expanded into a soaring new building at the site in 1989, an event I remember fondly. The congregation remained at the location until it relocated to the Austin Jewish Community Center where it’s new building was dedicated in 2001. The move was made as the Jewish community became more and more centered in northwest Austin, around the anchor of the JCC.

Not long after, the building on Bull Creek was taken over by a church, one called “Gateway Community Church” that by outside appearances looked evangelical. I found that a bit annoying, but as far as I remember, there was no scandal or community outrage, and my annoyance was more about the fact that a fixture of my childhood was gone, regardless of what came in its place. Last time I was in Austin a year and a half ago, the entire building had been torn down, after it was sold to the Westminster Senior Living Center to expand their facilities.

Surely this is not an exact comparison to the situation in south Tel Aviv. There was no influx of tens of thousands of African migrants to north central Austin in the course of a few years, it was never in a state of decay or rising crime, and a culture of fear was never spoken of by residents of the area. Nonetheless, at Agudas Achim or in those once-Jewish neighborhoods of Newark, the old institutions became abandoned or went through radical transformations because the former population moved on and moved out.

For the foreseeable future, the decrepit synagogues will remain a poignant bone of contention, and more than anything else, a great photo-op for politicians brought to gain a specific perspective of the issues facing the neighborhoods, without a nuanced view of a phenomenon that is by no means unique to south Tel Aviv.