Beyond the public eye, a new mafia killing season may be brewing

On Saturday night in Ashkelon, locals were evacuated from their homes in fear – for the first time since the end of Operation Protective Edge in late August.

Cops clear bystanders from the scene of a deadly car bomb in Jaffa last June. (Ben Hartman)

Cops clear bystanders from the scene of a deadly car bomb in Jaffa last June. (Ben Hartman)

The reason wasn’t a long-range rocket fired from Gaza, but an improvised explosive device found inside a city apartment building.

The bomb was left outside the house of the daughter of Eli Elezra, a powerful local businessman and contractor. No stranger to threats and extortion attempts by organized crime figures, his home was the target of grenade attacks on a couple of occasions in recent years.

Across the country, countless contractors and other businessmen are subjected to daily intimidation from Israeli roughnecks, even as these crimes have rarely made the news amid the relative quiet on the crime front.

Just a few hours after the bomb was found, further south, the gates of Ramon Prison opened and mobster Shalom Domrani, the one-time “King of the South,” walked out a free man. He had just finished a 15-month sentence for tampering with the Netivot municipal elections and he left prison with a motorcade of associates, back to reclaim his crown.

For the past several months things have been relatively quiet in the Ashkelon area, which in late 2013 and early 2014 was at the center of a wave of organized crime violence that gripped the Israeli media and public. Since then, there was the June kidnapping and murder of three yeshiva students, the killing of Palestinian teen Muhammad Abu Khdeir, a 50-day war over the summer, a wave of “lone wolf” terror attacks in Jerusalem, and now, elections.

There is little space for the gangland power struggles to seize headlines, but they continue beneath and above the surface, and could very well explode again in the coming months.

Domrani’s return to civilian life came as his arch-rival Benny Shlomo, the one with whom he has waged a deadly war in recent years, is set to be released this month after serving a year in prison for extortion. That feud is one of several that could ignite in the coming months, as a series of mob rivals are set to be released from prison.

In February, Jerusalem mobster Eli “Hakosem” (The Magician) Naim will finish a term for extortion, just after his blood rival Yaakov “Aka” Shimon will finish a three-year sentence for a weapons charge. In Beersheba, organized crime figure Niv Zaguri will be released after serving time on a series of charges, as well as for arranging a hit on a journalist – Artzi Halfon – who wrote for a local Negev newspaper and covered the Zaguris.

It’s a safe assumption that all of these men will waste little time returning to their old ways. Whenever a big player like Domrani or Aka is put away, the vacuum left at the top tends to create chaos. The top lieutenants still on the street want to keep working, and in the absence of their leader they often flip-flop, joining up with rival organizations.

This creates the drive for crime bosses to try and “rehabilitate” their organizations when they get out. Those who ran things in their absence must be set straight, and must learn to take no for an answer.

This is what we’ve seen over the past several years with the “change stores war,” during which associates of the Abergil and Avi Ruhan organizations fought their rivals from the Musli family and Eli Naim’s gang. The war kicked off in 2010, after Abergil crime family heads Yitzhak and Meir were arrested and extradited to the US, leaving a power vacuum. Former soldiers started changing sides or setting up their own side hustles, and the Musli family began gobbling up Abergil interests in the Rishon Lezion-Holon-Bat Yam area, especially change stores. In the war that erupted, at least 14 underworld figures have been killed in recent years.

Could we see such a scenario erupt in the South, as Domrani and Shlomo return to the streets? It’s certainly possible, maybe even likely. Neither man is likely to go straight and unless they move abroad and set up illicit or quasi-illicit businesses, they’ll both still be in southern Israel, two big fish in a small pond, fighting for scraps with car bombs and hand grenades.

A new gang war on the streets of Israel is something neither the police nor the government need. Other than a few incidents of late, police and security services have largely succeeded in restoring quiet to Jerusalem, where the lone wolf attacks and palpable tension had all but destroyed the feeling of personal safety in the city. They are now in the midst of investigating the “Yisrael Beytenu scandal,” one of the biggest public corruption cases in the country’s history – which has also seen public security minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch step down, as the organization he is appointed to supervise (the police) carries out its flagship investigation against officials from his own party.

A new mob war would diminish public faith in the police and divert police resources needed elsewhere, but it could have a potentially more adverse effect on the prime minister. Though it is unlikely crime will be a campaign issue in this election, if there is again a gangland bloodletting on the streets it will serve as perfect ammunition for Benjamin Netanyahu’s opponents, who will paint him as a man who abandoned domestic issues like crime; and who with all his talk about Iran, Hamas and Islamic State, is not able to provide Israelis with security from other Israelis.

More than anything else, though, the people of Israel don’t need the crime war of last year to return.

This is possibly even more true in places like Ashkelon, where after a summer of running to bomb shelters, the last thing they need is explosions in the streets of their city – and the awareness that they still may not be safe in their own neighborhoods.

(This article was originally published in the Jerusalem Post weekend magazine on January 15th 2015)

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