Leadership Vacuum Behind Spate of Israel Gangland Slayings

The struggle for underworld supremacy has resulted in the deaths of 10 criminals since October 2011, and there’s no end in sight.

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On February 24, 1993, at around 1:30 a.m., Yehezkel Aslan, then one of Israel’s top underworld figures, stepped out of a restaurant on Hahashmona’im Street in Tel Aviv and, together with a woman friend, got into a waiting car. The moment the car door closed, an armed man swooped past and fired several bullets into Aslan’s upper body. The woman was wounded and Aslan later died of his wounds.

Police believe that this gangland slaying was a significant turning point for Israeli crime. Until then, while there had been assassinations of lower-level criminals, those at the head of the crime organizations were considered untouchable. Aslan’s murder changed the rules of the game: Since then, anything goes, and everyone is a target.

Twenty years later, there has been another no less dramatic turning point in the world of gangland assassinations: Anarchy reigns. Whereas in the past, targeted killings were ordered solely by the head of the crime organization and were planned by the organizational hierarchy, now the dam has burst. Both crime figures and police officials agree that assassinations are now being carried out on the spur of the moment by young gunmen settling scores with rivals. The crime bosses have lost nearly all their authority, even if their spirit still infuses the violent gangs that seem to be sprouting up almost daily.

A series of recent shooting deaths in Holon, Bat Yam, and Rishon Letzion are the best possible example of this new era in Israeli crime. The struggles for power and honor between the underlings of two jailed crime bosses has led to the deaths of 10 young criminals and the disappearance of at least two others. These battles, complete with shootings and car bombs in crowded places, threaten public safety.

One-man bank

The Holon, Bat Yam and Rishon areas were until recently considered the territory of Yitzhak Abergil, who was the Israel Police’s most wanted man since the arrest of Ze’ev Rosenstein. He controlled the areas’ gambling, extortion and protection rackets, loan sharking and essentially every profitable criminal field. Abergil had underlings in all the regions he controlled, who took care to remind anyone and everyone who was boss on his turf.

One of Abergil’s most senior deputies was Dudu Moyal, a resident of western Rishon, who had assembled a coterie of dozens of young loyalists who worked for him. They dealt primarily in loan sharking.

Senior people like Moyal, who had illegally acquired huge sums of money, would give their underlings hundreds of thousands of shekels and order them to find people who would borrow their money at very high interest rates. Every young crook was assigned a territory and was required to provide his superior with interest on the money he’d been allotted. That’s how Abergil and Moyal managed to create a network of “branches” of a one-man bank in Rishon, Holon and Bat Yam.

The network’s true power, however, was only expressed when a borrower couldn’t make his payments. The high interest would quickly cause the sum owed to double or triple, until the borrower was rendered incapable of repaying the loan at all. That’s when the organization would send out the young thugs to collect the debt, often getting violent with the debtor and threatening his family. Once in a while a debtor would end up dead, or narrowly escaping an attempt on his life.

These successful networks of young brutes would bring the crime organizations profits of tens and hundreds of millions of shekels, all under the tax man’s radar, of course. This was the underworld’s gold mine, and it only became more profitable over the years as these three cities doubled in population, offering even more opportunities for loan sharking, gambling, and extortion.

All this changed in May 2011, when Yitzhak Abergil was extradited to the United States in an operation dubbed “the Last Dice,” meaning the last large crime organization that was left to break up. But when this last die disappeared, it left a vacuum in the underworld. The younger generation of criminals wasn’t sure to whom they owed their loyalty. Slowly but surely, the various branches of the network began to operate independently, at least until it would be clear who was taking command while the boss was in prison.

Inheritance wars

This independence had consequences. It wasn’t long before the various deputies began to have serious arguments with one another, and these disputes set off the round of violence that these three cities have suffered over the past two years.

The most prominent of these disputes broke out between Moyal and Yaniv Ben-Shushan, who had been a Moyal confidant for many years. To this day police don’t know what sparked the argument, but the results are being seen in the field. Ben-Shushan, who lives in eastern Rishon, set up his own gang to rival that of Moyal’s, which is based in western Rishon. The city was split.

Ben-Shushan succeeded in recruiting some of Moyal’s employees to his ranks, which Moyal, naturally saw as a declaration of war. Ben-Shushan and many of his men were severely beaten.

Yossi Mosli was convicted in 2007 in a plea agreement, along with another nine members of the crime organization he headed. He was jailed, but his subordinates and brothers continued to run his businesses and sought additional turf for expansion. The fights that had broken out in Rishon intrigued them, and they offered Ben-Shushan help in his confrontations with Moyal and his men. The Mosli gang was interested in taking control of the area’s loan sharking activity, but at least at first, they entered the fray as sponsors from a distance.

Very soon after that, however, both Ben-Shushan and Moyal found themselves in jail. Moyal was taken into custody for possession of an explosive device in a multi-story building, while Ben-Shushan violated the terms of a house arrest that had been imposed on him to attend a family event, and when he was arrested he was found to be carrying a loaded gun with eight bullets. The Central District Police was thrilled to nail two of their targets on charges back by unassailable evidence and both were imprisoned after reaching plea bargains.

The underlings of both gangs were in distress, and the Moslis wasted no time. One by one younger members of both organizations deserted to join the ranks of the Mosli group, helping it launch its own loan-sharking operations. Meanwhile, those who were still loyal to Abergil in one form or another saw their livelihood being threatened. This set the stage for the recent series of inter-gang assassinations in Rishon, Holon and Bat Yam.

The killing season

Avi David, one of the senior members of the Abergil organization, was once convicted of trying to knock off rival gang leader Assi Abutbul by firing a LAW missile at him. In 2011 he began to work for the Mosli crime organization, which was seen by the Abergil people as a gross betrayal. David was gunned down in October of that year when he was sitting in a restaurant, conversing with Motty Hassin, a member of the Abergil gang.

Hassin fled the scene but he was later arrested and is currently on trial for alleged involvement in the murders of both David and Yitzhak Gefen, who had also been working for Mosli in the months preceding his murder.

Another hit took place in February 2012, when Daniel Samara and Ohad Franco were murdered in Rishon Letzion. The two had worked for Moyal, but during the weeks before they were killed they had apparently started to work with the Moslis. They were found shot in the chest in their car, in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

Beyond the city limits

The police say that even if the power struggles are over in Rishon, Holon and Bat Yam, they can’t be confined to these areas alone. Assassinations take place beyond the city limits, and officers in the Central District are working continuously with their colleagues in other parts of the country. Even the attempted murder of brothers Shaul and Yaniv Peretz in Tel Aviv this past Saturday night is suspected of being indirectly linked to these crime organizations, police say, although they are also investigating whether the car bomb that nearly killed the two was actually a “work accident,” that occurred as they were planting the bomb in the car of another criminal.

The two brothers who were wounded are known to police. They were recently in a dispute with two other brothers who are known criminals, Yossi and Elazar Danus.

Several years ago, Yossi Danus was imprisoned in Rimonim Prison, where he had an argument with a young prisoner named Ben Tzaban. The latter, together with two others, stabbed Danus in the shower, and Tzaban’s fate was sealed.  In October 2010, a criminal named Samhayev was waiting for Tzaban outside the Coliseum Club in Tel Aviv; as Tzaban emerged, Samhayev fired a bullet into his head at point-blank range.

Amazingly enough, Tzaban did not die in the attack; he recovered and is suspected of having returned to a life of crime. He is now in custody on suspicion of involvement in the murder of Sharon Mizrahi in September 2012. Mizrahi, police believe, belonged to the Abergil gang and was a close friend of Dudu Moyal until he decided to start working with the Mosli group.

Tzaban is also a suspect in the murder of Jordan Azoulai, who disappeared two years ago and whose body was never found. The Tel Aviv Police Central Unit believes that he was murdered in a dispute with members of the gangs who deserted Abergil for Mosli.

Sources involved with these investigations say that although these acts are in the spirit of Abergil and Mosli, it isn’t clear how much the two are actually involved in them, if at all. It’s doubtful that either of them was personally acquainted with the young thugs who have been murdered over the past two years.

It doesn’t look as if there’s any quiet in the offing. Both Moyal and Ben-Shushan are due to be released from prison in the coming months since their respective plea bargains got them fairly good terms. The ground is likely to burn even more, and the gunfire may not be directed solely at fellow criminals.  

While he was in police custody, Ben-Shushan told one of the policemen guarding him, “When I get out of here, you’re finished, you don’t understand, you’re going to end up under the ground. You don’t know who you’ve started up with.”

Image from a gangland car bomb in Tel Aviv in February 2013.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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