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Last Updated: Monday, 7 June, 2004, 08:33 GMT 09:33 UK
Israel struggles to keep lid on crime
by Chris Summers and Jennifer Quinn
BBC News Online

In the last four years the Israeli police, struggling to stem the wave of Palestinian suicide bombings, have lost control of the country's organised criminals, who are making millions from gambling, prostitution and drugs.

But the deaths of nine innocent civilians in crossfire between gangsters over the last year has forced the fight against organised crime back on the political agenda.

Organised crime has become a booming industry in Israel in the last decade.

Guns and ammunition seized from Israeli gangsters
These guns and ammunition were seized by Israeli police in March 2004
One former Israeli police chief, Asaf Heretz, claimed recently $2.5bn in "dirty money" had been invested in Israel in recent years.

Israeli gangsters have also spread their tentacles far and wide, with interests in the United States, Russia, South Africa and the Netherlands. A recent murder in London suggests they are also moving into the UK.

In March an Israeli criminal who had absconded from jail was found murdered in a London hotel room.

The body of Simon Turkov, who used the alias Yermia Yunataev, was discovered in a room at the Marriott Hotel in central London.

He was last seen leaving a casino in South Kensington with another man. Both were caught on CCTV camera but Scotland Yard have so far been unable to trace the other man.

Simon Turkov aka Yermia Yunataev
Simon Turkov was known by a number of aliases
Detectives believe Turkov's killer fled the country almost immediately on a Eurostar train.

Turkov had served two years in Israel's Solomon prison for attempting to smuggle 100,000 ecstasy tablets into the country from Egypt but he vanished while on weekend leave and came to Britain on false documents.

As police in London try to work out the motive for Turkov's murder, their colleagues in Israel are struggling to keep a lid on the growing vice in their country.

A gangland war in Israel last year culminated in December when three people were killed by a bomb in Tel Aviv.

Sixth assassination attempt

The explosion was initially thought to be the work of Palestinians but it soon emerged the target was in fact a leading figure in the Israeli underworld, who we can only refer to as Mr Z for legal reasons.

It was the sixth unsuccessful attempt on his life.

Israeli mafia incidents
May 2004: Former Energy Minister Gonen Segev charged with trafficking 30,000 ecstasy tablets
Apr 2004: DEA charges several Israelis with drug trafficking and money laundering
March 2004: Drug trafficker Simon Turkov murdered in London
Dec 2003: Three killed in Tel Aviv bombing but alleged gang boss Mr Z survives
Nov 2003: Belfast-born Hazel Crane shot dead in South Africa as she prepared to give evidence against alleged mafia boss Lior Saat
Jun 2003: Former Jerusalem underworld boss Micha Aslan shot dead in the resort of Eilat
Feb 2000: Body of Shai Avissar, head of Israeli mafia in South Africa, found in a shallow grave.
One of Mr Z's friends is a former Israeli Energy Minister, Gonen Segev, who is awaiting trial accused of trying to smuggle 32,000 ecstasy tablets disguised as M&M chocolates into Israel from the Netherlands.

Mr Z's group, based in Tel Aviv, is understood to be involved in a war with a rival crime family, based in Jerusalem and led by Mr X and his brother.

The dispute is said to be over the lucrative trade in flying gamblers from Israel - where gambling is illegal - to casinos in Eastern Europe.

Mr X is reportedly supported by two brothers, while Mr Z has the implicit support of a crime family from Netanya.

Earlier this week police arrested four suspects for the December 2003 bombing, one of whom, Golan Avitan, was reportedly "one of the most senior figures in the Israeli underworld".

Guns seized in Tel Aviv
There is no question that when (the intifada) began in September 2000 a lot of police manpower and resources was diverted to saving lives from terrorism
Gil Kleiman
Israeli national police spokesman
Mr Z's lawyer told BBC News Online her client had gone straight since leaving prison in 1982 and was nowadays a legitimate businessman.

She said: "He knows he was the target of the December bombing but he doesn't know who was behind it or why anyone would want to kill him. He is just trying to live his life as well as he can."

Illegal gambling is widespread in Israel. Until a recent clampdown gambling boats used to sail out into the Red Sea from Eilat.

In August 2002 Israeli gang boss Felix Abutbul was gunned down outside a casino he owned in Prague.

Israeli National Police spokesman Gil Kleiman said organised criminals were also heavily involved in loan sharking, extortion, money laundering, prostitution and drug smuggling.

'Attempts to infiltrate establishment'

He said: "We do not have organised crime in Israel. We have criminals who are organised."

"The difference is that with organised crime there is an infiltration of the establishment. There have been attempts to gain control of politicians in Israel but so far they have been unsuccessful."

Mr Kleiman said: "There is no question that when (the intifada) began in September 2000 a lot of police manpower and resources was diverted to saving lives from terrorism.

Police officer at blast scene in Tel Aviv
Three people were killed in Tel Aviv in December in a gangland bombing
"Detectives who would have been following up crime files were taken off to investigate the suicide bombings, which were happening almost daily."

But he said December's bomb attack in Tel Aviv was a "watershed" and the Interior Minister, Tzahi Hanegbi, and Police Commissioner, Shlomo Aharonishki, declared war on the organised criminals.

Mr Kleiman said new legislation has been introduced in the last two years to crack down on money laundering and the trafficking of people, especially women from Eastern Europe who are sent to work in Israeli brothels.

But as the heat builds up back home, there are indications Israeli gangsters are becoming more and more involved in trafficking drugs - especially ecstasy and amphetamines - abroad, especially to the United States.

Israeli organised crime syndicates have reportedly set their sights on Las Vegas, where there is a high demand for drugs such as ecstasy and cocaine.

Ecstasy smuggling

Last month the US Drug Enforcement Administration in Los Angeles charged several alleged members of the so-called Jerusalem Network with laundering money from the proceeds of smuggling millions of dollars worth of ecstasy into the US.

Gabriel Ben Harosh, 39, allegedly Mr X's right-hand man, was recently arrested in Toronto, Canada, and is now awaiting extradition to the US.

Mr X was named in a DEA affidavit, which BBC News Online has obtained, as having met Ben Harosh and others at a meeting in Florida which ended with a man being ordered to sign over his house as collateral for an unpaid drug debt.

Man injured in Tel Aviv blast
Eighteen people were injured in December's bomb attack
The DEA affidavit also names 47-year-old Sasson Barashy, who is in custody in Israel in connection with the alleged embezzlement of $60m from an Israeli bank.

The affidavit claims Ben Harosh used another Israeli, Hai Waknine, to launder money through a car dealership.

The money was allegedly the proceeds of ecstasy trafficking, illegal gambling and embezzlement.

DEA agents tapped phone calls which were made in English, French, Hebrew and Arabic (many of those involved being Moroccan-born Sephardic Jews).

One of Ben Harosh's alleged accomplices, Micha Aslan, was murdered in Israel in June last year when he went to collect a debt.

Police in London are wondering whether Turkov's death was also related to his drug smuggling activities.

Simon Turkov on CCTV
Simon Turkov (right) was last seen on CCTV as he left the casino
Detective Chief Inspector Julian Worker, who is leading the inquiry into the murder of Simon Turkov, told BBC News Online: "His antecedents and his connections to organised crime in Israel are at the forefront of my mind but I am keeping an open mind as to the motive for his murder."

He said: "It may have been a settling of scores, or it may have related to a new deal he was working on. We just don't know. But I am getting a much better picture about the events on the day he died."

If the answer to Turkov's killing lies in Israel then the chances of solving the case may be slim.

Hotel murder man had 'two names'
08 Apr 04  |  London
Explosion kills three in Tel Aviv
11 Dec 03  |  Middle East

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