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Saturday, 21 November, 1998, 09:00 GMT
How Russia's mafia is taking over Israel's underworld
Russian immigrant to Israel
The Israeli authorities grant citizenship to anyone who can prove Jewish ancestry
The BBC's Kevin Connolly investigates the Russian mafia's covert invasion of Israeli society.

There are alarming signs that the Russian mafia has taken over the Israeli underworld and is using the country to launder its vast profits.

A wave of mass immigration from the former Soviet Union has brought 750,000 newcomers to the Jewish state in the last decade.

Amid the innocent exodus were Russian gangsters, many of whom are believed to have produced bogus proof of Jewish ancestry to enter the country.

Police in Israel have been keeping around 30 organised key crime suspects under surveillance.

Billions invested in Israel

Former police chief Asaf Hefetz says 2.5bn ($4bn) of organised crime money from the former Soviet Union has been invested in Israeli real estate, businesses and banks in the past seven years.

Gregory Lerner, who was arrested in 1997 for defrauding four Russian banks of 70m ($106m), was reputedly sent to Israel to head up one of the money laundering operations.

Gregory Lerner
Gregory Lerner is under police guard in Israel
Lerner, 47, will serve six years in jail after reaching a plea bargain with Israeli prosecutors.

Detectives claim two Russian mafia groups are plotting to "spring" him from an Israeli jail.

Increasing Russian activity

Commander Meir Gilboa, chief of the Israeli Serious Crime Unit, has noticed the increasing activity of Russian gangsters.

He says: "They come here because in Israel it's easy to carry out their illegal activities.

"There is no law against money laundering or belonging to an illegal organisation.

"It's easy for Jews to receive Israeli citizenship. If they are not Jews they are smart enough to forge documents in order to become citizens. They feel much safer here than in Russia."

Russian prostitutes
Prostitutes from Eastern Europe often end up in Israel
Threat to Israeli society

Commander Gilboa says Russian criminal organisations pose a threat to Israeli society: "They have the means at their disposal to corrupt government and economic systems.

"The other danger is that they will also increase crime here because they need a lot of money to support their luxurious lifestyles."

One highly profitable area in which they are thriving is prostitution.

Dozens of brothels and peepshows have sprung up in Tel Aviv and Haifa in the last few years.

Modern form of slavery

Many are controlled by Russian mobsters who recruit Eastern European women who then become trapped and subservient.

Rita Rasnic, of the Israeli Women's Aid Centre, describes it as "modern day white slavery".

Peepshow in Israel
The Russian mafia is making a fortune in Israel
Women are often traded between gangsters for 6,000 ($10,000) to 9,000 ($15,000) and routinely have their passports taken away by their pimps.

Detective Toni Haddad of the Haifa vice squad says: "They are sold like slaves.

"Nobody cares. I don't think it's life for them," as the prostitutes have to do whatever their bosses want. The woman are "not free to do anything."

You can see more of Kevin Connolly's investigation into the Russian mafia in Correspondent on BBC2 at 20:15 BST (1915 GMT) on Saturday, April 4.

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