Mayors Tell MKs: Local Businessmen Are Threatening Us

Mayors lined up yesterday to tell the Knesset's Internal Affairs Committee about cases in which their lives were threatened, during a debate on a bill that would provide most such mayors with state-financed security. The committee approved the bill for a first reading.

"Just recently, [the municipality] issued a demolition order against a watermelon stand, and a criminal tried to run me over in response," said Yitzhak Golbari, mayor of Kadima-Tzoren. "I've been mayor for five years already, and for five years criminals have harassed me. They threw a grenade into my living room, slashed the tires in my car ... They killed my children's cats, desecrated my father's grave and cut the grounding cable of my house so that we would be electrocuted."

The police, he said, had given him round-the-clock protection, but "the municipality has to pay for it. It costs NIS 85,000 a month. To date, it has cost NIS 1.5 million, and we have no way of covering this."

Chief Superintendent Shmulik Barak of the police told the committee that 13 mayors are currently considered at serious risk, including those of Ramat Hasharon and Jerusalem (the latter due mainly to fears of terrorist rather than criminal assault). Of these, fully one-third head Arab townships.

In addition, Barak said, at least 15 senior municipal officials - primarily city managers and treasurers - have been threatened, mainly over tenders, demolition orders or applications for a business license.

Police sources said the threats come mainly from local businessmen who fear the municipality's decisions will harm their business.

"Most of those suspected of menacing mayors are not associated with organized crime," said one. "Generally, they are not known criminals, but people with interests - mainly economic interests - who will try anything, including use of threats and force, to bring about city council decisions that accede to their demands."

Anytime a mayor is threatened, police evaluate the threat and decide on appropriate countermeasures, which could range from full-time bodyguards (hired from a private company) to installation of a panic button. The municipality is required to comply with the police's decisions - but it has to bear the costs itself.

"In most cases, the local authorities are incapable of bearing this burden," said Avi Na'im, chairman of the Union of Local Authorities' security committee.

In the case of Tira Mayor Khalil Kassem, for instance, a government-appointed municipal accountant refused to approve the outlay. He thus has no protection at all - despite having been shot at four times and had grenades thrown at his house thrice.

The bill would solve this problem by requiring the Interior Ministry to finance security for any threatened mayor whose municipality is incapable, according to defined criteria, of doing so itself.

This year, the government actually budgeted NIS 1 million for this purpose, but because of a dispute between the finance and interior ministries, the money was never transferred.