- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2003

TEL AVIV — Israel’s police force is gearing up for a nationwide crackdown on organized-crime networks, addressing a problem that has festered while law-enforcement agencies have been distracted by the threat of Palestinian suicide bombings.

When an explosion jolted the lunchtime bustle on Dec. 11 in central Tel Aviv, it seemed as if terrorists had succeeded yet again in destroying the veneer of normalcy in Israel’s largest cities.

But it turned out to be a botched attempt to kill Ze’ev Rosenstein, the reputed boss of one of six nationwide criminal networks, in a struggle over illegal casinos, drug trafficking, prostitution rings and protection money.

With three persons dead, the blast refocused Israel’s attention on whether the police could handle both organized crime and terrorist attacks.

Although the police say they need more money to do the job effectively, others say law enforcement officials have neglected the problem and are calling for a systemwide change in priorities.

Police Chief Shlomo Aharonishki said the attack was a wake-up call for the police in the same way that the Passover eve bombing of Netanya’s Park Hotel signaled a turning point in Israel’s war against Palestinian militants.

Speaking to Cabinet ministers shortly after the Tel Aviv blast, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon acknowledged that the police had diverted resources from fighting organized crime in recent years in order to better protect citizens from terrorist attacks.

“Organized crime has become a problem on a national level, and this thing must stop,” the prime minister said.

The Cabinet commissioned Israel’s Public Security Ministry to formulate a plan to combat organized crime within a month. At the same time, the national police force is asking for an extra $110 million so that it can devote more human and technological resources to fighting criminals.

“The Israel police wears two hats, and it’s difficult with the resources we have to fight a two-front war,” said police spokesman Gil Kleiman.

The spokesman denied that the criminal underworld has gained influence in the three years since the start of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada.

But, he said, the recklessness of mob violence has escalated. This year, eight bystanders have been killed in gangland violence, according to news reports.

In an initial attempt to crack down on criminals, police closed illegal gambling and prostitution operations throughout the country and arrested several prominent underworld members.

Bit Bar Ilan University criminology professor Giora Shoham said an unofficial quid pro quo has existed between the police and organized crime in which an overtaxed police left the underworld alone as long as it maintained a low profile. The bombing in Tel Aviv broke that understanding, he said.

“Organized crime in this country has hardly been touched,” said Mr. Shoham, a former winner of the Israel Prize for criminology.

Still, underworld organizations aren’t as powerful in Israel as in other countries. Although criminals have been known to blackmail lower-ranking police officers, they haven’t been able to penetrate the legal establishment, largely because judges and law enforcement officials aren’t elected, Mr. Shoham said.

Hezi Ledder, a former police official, told Israeli radio that winning the war on crime would require stepped-up coordination between the police, municipalities and tax authorities.


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