Shai Bachar never had a chance.
The bomb that tore through his car on Friday left him sprawled on the asphalt near the Hod Hasharon railway station, with massive internal injuries and burns across his body. Luckily, his 17-year-old daughter sitting in the passenger seat was only lightly hurt by the shock wave, but her father would be ruled dead shortly after sundown.
One witness told Channel 2 that the car bomb which killed the produce vendor sounded like a rocket strike, as criminals settling accounts again shook an Israeli city with the sounds of war.
Bachar didn’t have to die – and his brutal end should only spell further headaches for the Israel Police, and their attempts to get more victims, witnesses and informants to come forward and testify against organized crime figures.
Bachar was the complainant in an extortion case against Avi Ruhan, the head of a Sharon-based crime family and one of the top targets of the Israel Police. Bachar’s story is a common one, and the terror that preceded his death is shared by countless people across the country.
He took out a loan he didn’t manage to pay off, the loan was “adopted” by Israeli loan sharks (in this case, Ruhan’s crew), and the debt grew and grew with extreme rates of interest.
Unable to pay, Bachar was subject to threats, bodily harm and terrible stress, eventually complaining to the police – though people close to him say he was pressured by detectives into doing so.
Due to Bachar’s testimony to investigators, Ruhan and one of his lieutenants were arrested on aggravated extortion charges in September, and the mob boss was ordered kept in custody until the end of his trial.
At this point, as the key witness in a case against a top Israeli mobster, Bachar should have been given the protection fitting an asset of his level. By no means should anyone have been able to put a bomb inside his car.
Bachar didn’t appear to be a man confident in his safety. Before his death he tried to recant his complaint repeatedly, saying he had no contact with Ruhan and that the case was all lies.
Since his death, relatives of Bachar’s have told the press that he was pushed into issuing the complaint, that he was promised protection and that all of his attempts to avoid becoming a marked man were ignored by police, looking to make the case against Ruhan at all costs – including Bachar’s life.
It’s still unclear what, if any, serious protection Bachar was afforded, but it was certainly nowhere near what the law allows in Israel.
In 2008, the Witness Protection Authority was created, under the management of the Public Security Ministry.
Witnesses placed under the authority’s protection are put into protective custody and are often moved abroad with their families, given new identities and residency permits in a number of countries which have reached agreements on the matter with Israel. Those same countries are also eligible to send witnesses to Israel for relocation.
The authority does not publicize how large its staff is or how many witnesses it is protecting at any given time.
Bachar technically wasn’t on the level of being a high-profile witness.
He wasn’t a mobster’s right-hand man turned informant, he wasn’t an underworld figure flipped by police and feeding investigators an inside line. He was simply a complainant. He was one of countless Israelis who are subject to the intimidation and extortion that goes on across the country every day, and almost never makes the news.
He joins a list of witnesses killed in recent years, each murder a scandal in its own right. One of the most infamous was Eyal Salhov, a top lieutenant of Ruhan’s who was turned by police and began feeding them information on the crime gang. His betrayal was discovered after several months, and in October 2006 his associates called him to a meeting at a vacant lot in Pardess Katz and shot him repeatedly in the head – a “Red Riding Hood murder,” in Israeli underworld slang.
All fingers point to Ruhan’s gang, but the killing remains unsolved and has remained a thorn in the side of the police, especially for the officer who served as the head of the Investigations and Intelligence Branch at the time – the current Israel Police chief, Insp.-Gen. Yohanan Danino.
If police can’t protect a major asset like Salhov, what are the chances they’ll protect a complainant in an extortion case? There are potentially far more witnesses and complainants in Israel like Bachar – everyday people in debt to the mob, especially small business owners paying “protection” money they can hardly afford. There is little if any reason for them to feel confident they will be protected if they come forward.
The murder of a witness, even a career criminal like Salhov turned informant, is a scandal, an outrage that cannot be allowed in a civil society. Every such murder is a no-confidence vote in the ability of police to protect informants and witnesses, and a message that violent criminals can act with relative impunity.
The culture of fear and silence is a crippling obstacle for the justice system.
Without witness testimony, criminal cases have to rely mainly on forensic evidence, paper trails, surveillance tactics and eavesdropping. With legal limits in place on the use of wiretapping and search warrants, human intel and sources are key, and so is protecting them.
Israel is both figuratively and literally an island in its region. There are few options for someone who is on the run.
While this helps police in the hunt for fugitives and missing persons, it can also put a stranglehold on people who are hounded by intimidation and the threat of bodily harm. Often, their only options are to pay up, leave the country or trust in the police.
Most people would be forgiven for believing there are only two options.
(This article was first published in the Jerusalem Post weekend magazine)