City of palm trees and white beaches becomes Israeli crime capital
Jun. 11, 1997
NETANYA, Israel (AP) _ A man on a motorcycle pulled up to an outdoor cafe on the tourist-packed main square, raised his gun and fired two shots that killed gambling entrepreneur Alex Dubitsky.
The May 26 slaying was the seventh such hit in 18 months in Netanya, a Mediterranean resort of 170,000 that is Israel's new crime capital.
Its white beaches once a quiet haven for retirees, mobsters drive through Netanya in Mercedes limousines, gold chains dangling from their wrists and necks. Local police _ used to handing out traffic tickets and settling domestic disputes _ are turning over cases of illegal gambling operations, extortion and Mafia-style killings to regional police.
``Unfortunately, this is a really beautiful city that's rotten to the core,'' said Ilana Goren, who has covered crime for the local newspaper for four years.
While Netanya has been particularly troubled, crime is rising throughout Israel. A 6.5 percent jump in crime from 1995 to 1996 is attributed mainly to mass immigration and rapid economic growth. Police say a murder is committed every 75 minutes and a car stolen every 14 minutes.
Such numbers pose a new reality for Israelis, who expect political violence but have prided themselves on relative safety from random crime.
``People lock their doors more than they used to, because they see crime and violence have become more brutal,'' said Simcha Landau, a criminology professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
``As the economy grows, there are more valuables to steal and destroy, more money floating around and more people who want to be the `haves' and not the `have nots','' Landau said.
Goren, the crime reporter, said Netanya is ``crawling with Mafioso who have the city in their pockets.''
Members of Netanya's crime families are native Israelis and immigrants who have arrived from the former Soviet Union in the past five years. Israel, a country of 4 million, has absorbed about 1 million immigrants in recent years, many from former Soviet republics.
Goren estimated there are about a dozen illegal gambling operations in the city, mostly running slot machines and back room card games. Police closed two rival casinos when the killings began, but often are stymied by silence.
``People fear that if the wise guys find out they talked, they'll take revenge and that the police aren't strong enough to protect them if they are threatened,'' Goren said.
Amir Badatzi, a gas station and restaurant owner, is an exception. The Yediot Ahronot newspaper, called him ``The bravest man in Netanya'' for going to police after a man showed up demanding protection money.
Police made an arrest and provided Badatzi with protection. A day before he was to testify, a smoke bomb was thrown through his restaurant window.
``Now I understand why people are afraid,'' Badatzi said. He testified anyway; the trial is continuing.
Shlomo, a vegetable wholesaler in his early 30s, said most businesses are forced to pay protection money. He said a man named Moshe Damari came to his office six months ago and demanded $2,000 a week.
``Anyone who is making money and says he isn't paying protection or hasn't before, is lying,'' said Shlomo, who refused to give his last name.
Damari was shot dead in a friend's home a week after Shlomo said he was approached for money.
``When Damari was hit, no one in Netanya cried,'' Shlomo said, ``My own family celebrated.''
Following the killing of Dubitsky, a native Israeli, 100 additional police officers were sent to Netanya, and a suspect was arrested last week in one of the seven suspected mob hits. For many, it provides little reassurance.
Sarah Cohen, 78, said she hardly recognizes the city she has called home since moving from Johannesburg, South Africa, 20 years ago.
``When I saw the murders on TV, I thought I was watching a movie, and when they said Netanya over and over again I thought they made a mistake,'' she said. ``I can't believe pretty little Netanya has come to this.''