Beware the New Kid on the Block

He drives around in a classy Range Rover 4X4 with hundreds of thousands of shekels within reach. He testifies that he "has no job," but when you press him he admits that he "works in money." Until recently his name hardly appeared at all in the crime reports, but on the gossip, sports and party pages he is considered a regular guest.

Recently, a serious indictment has been filed against him for extortion of the Subaru importers and throwing grenades at the Subaru agency on Hamasger Street in Tel Aviv, and the police are hoping that at long last they have succeeded in putting their hands on someone who by the age of 25 had already killed a criminal with his own hands.

Meet Ben Cohen, the rising power in the underworld of Tel Aviv and the Dan region. If the police were in need of proof of Cohen's increased muscle, they found it a few months ago in a chance meeting in the center of Tel Aviv between Cohen and one of the top people in the underworld that within minutes became a one-sided attack. Cohen lunged at the crime boss, beat him up thoroughly and even trampled on his head. No one, of course, filed a complaint with the police about this humiliating attack.

"He is one of the most dangerous criminals around today," says a senior official at the State Prosecutor's Office. "His involvement in 'the Subaru affair' and the fear his name arouses even among criminals in the gray market form a picture that has to worry many people in the law enforcement system."

Since he was arrested about a month ago on suspicion of involvement in the Subaru affair, Cohen has been behind bars, but usually he lives in the Sheraton City Tower apartment hotel in Ramat Gan. Every morning he makes himself comfortable at Ilan's Cafe across the street and from there he conducts his business, mainly by means of calls on five different cell phones. When detectives raided his apartment on the day he was arrested, along with four cell phones they confiscated NIS 300,000 in cash.

Induction to the underworld

Cohen made his start in the crime world under the wing of Yossi Harari. In the early 1990s, when Harari and his twin brother Ronny Amedi were suspected of heading the murderous "Ramat Amidar gang," Cohen began to serve as an "implementer" in the organization. Alongside him served Harari's right-hand man, Amir Zakaria and another youngster of Cohen's age called Amir Mulner, who was also destined to gather strength and prestige in the crime world. The two spent quite a lot of time in jail cells in those days, after being suspected of extortion under threat, exacting protection money and aggravated assaults.

According to an indictment filed against Mulner and Cohen in 1995, the pair, respectively 23 and 21 years old at the time, would accompany Zakaria to the office of Baruch Shmuel, a partner in a Tel Aviv travel agency, and extort money from him under harsh threats. On orders of Yossi Harari, who at the time was serving a prison term, they visited the office dozens of times and extorted sums of money from Shmuel. At Passover time of that year Mulner demanded of Shmuel that he provide him and his family with free plane tickets to Turkey, but Shmuel's partner in the agency, Benny Eilat, refused, thereby aggravating Mulner, who had already arrived at Ben-Gurion International Airport with his suitcases and had to turn tail and leave.

The gang's response was not long in coming. A few days later Mulner and Cohen walked into the travel agency and beat up Eilat. Mulner was also convicted for knifing Eilat during the attack.

On May 1, 1995, the gang suffered a harsh blow with the killing of Zakaria, who had led them while Harari was serving his prison sentence. Eight days later Mulner and Cohen were arrested, along with Tal Yosef and Eli Reuven, in the latter's home on Be'er Ora Street in Ramat Gan. Pistols were found in their possession and they were suspected of planning revenge.

Ironically, this was in the same house where in November 2008 Central Unit detectives raided a gathering of Mulner and his associates, arrested 17 people and found a pistol, a silencer and a cartridge of ammunition in the yard of the house - only a week after the murder of alleged crime boss Ya'akov Alperon.

A step up

A source who knows Cohen well relates that his step up in the crime world, in the wake of which "everyone knew who Ben Cohen is," came with with murder of Alon Giladi in Los Angeles in 1999, a murder for which Cohen and Hannan Natan, 37, were convicted and spent seven years in prison in the United States. In April 1999, Giladi was saved from an attempt to kill him, and seven months later he left Israel and settled into a spacious villa in Los Angeles. However, Giladi did not really have time to enjoy his new home: Ten days after he arrived in the United States, Natan and Cohen, who was 26 at the time, paid a visit. The two beat Giladi to death, rolled his body in a carpet and put him in the trunk of his car, which they abandoned near Los Angeles International Airport.

"They killed him with their bare hands, without a pistol, without a knife, nothing," related police Brig. Gen. (ret.) Moshe Levin, who investigated the murder together with the Los Angeles police.

Four months later, police detectives came for Cohen and Natan and arrested them on suspicion of murder. But there were difficulties with the evidence, and they eventually admitted to and were convicted for manslaughter only. "By then he was already an experienced criminal - a big, healthy fellow connected to a great many people," relates Levin. "He sat there in front of us for hours, and it didn't look like he was too upset by the fact that we had caught him."

In the police intelligence reports, Cohen was perceived mainly as someone who engaged in money-lending on the gray market and as a top person in the field of check-cashing in the center of the country, but at the Central Unit in Tel Aviv they were not really surprised to discover that he was behind the throwing of the grenades at the Subaru agency. A former high-ranking police officer notes that at the Central Unit they know that Cohen's status in the underworld has become much higher in recent years, in part because of his connections with Mulner and the brothers Gal and Tal Yosef, who are relatives of his.

However, despite a few intelligence reports, the police are finding it difficult to assess the extent of his criminal activity. "I work in money," he told police investigators under questioning after the grenades were thrown at the Subaru agency. "People borrow money from me. There are lots of people who call and ask for a loan. I don't always give one."

Along with his fondness for money, Cohen also devotes considerable time to soccer. He is a dedicated fan of Hapoel Ramat Gan of the second-tier National League, and a close friend of its owner, Yaron Kuris.

Cohen's picture appears frequently in the gossip column of the sports Web site "One," documented in attendance at parties of leading soccer players. On two separate occasions during the past two years fans were amazed to find the criminal alongside the team's players, dressed in a training suit with Hapoel's symbol on his chest, and taking active part in the team's training sessions.

"He's simply a very good friend of the owner and the coach, and he forces himself on the team only because he feels like playing soccer," a source close to Hapoel Ramat Gan has told Haaretz.

There are also those who say that Cohen clandestinely gives financial aid to the club. Last August, a few weeks before the league season began, a lawn at the Makhtesh Stadium in Givatayim, which is used for the team's practice and league games, was put at the disposal of Cohen, who celebrated his daughter's birthday there. "Show me anyone else they would let throw a birthday party in the middle of the stadium whose name isn't Cohen," said one team fan this week.

Cohen, who likes to spend time in nightclubs but also has no compunctions about attacking them if necessary, was arrested a few months ago on suspicion of involvement in the throwing of a fragmentation grenade at the Zizi Tripo club on Carlebach Street in Tel Aviv, after having quarreled with the club's owners. A few days later he was released for lack of evidence. Now that the police are hoping to tighten the rope around his neck.