The Israel Police yesterday confiscated the five casino boats docked in Eilat and arrested 19 individuals suspected of organizing illegal gambling, money laundering and tax offenses. The raid came as part of the law enforcement authorities' nationwide "Baywatch" campaign against illegal gambling operations.
The central suspects in the affair are Charlie and Francois Abutbul, members of a Netanya-based family defined by police as a local organized crime network. During the course of the raid yesterday, police also seized millions of dollars and equipment valued at millions more.
The operation was led by the police's International Crimes Unit, headed by Brigadier General Yohanan Danino, and involved large forces from the police's Southern and Central Districts and the Border Police. The raid yesterday followed some 18 months of undercover police work carried out by the International Crimes Unit.
After completing the initial stage of their investigation into the embezzlement at Trade Bank, police investigators continued to try to trace the route of the money stolen from the bank, revealing, among other things, that members of the Abutbul family, one of the principal beneficiaries from the embezzlement, had invested the money in three casino boats in Eilat.
For some time now, the operators of the casino boats have been organizing illegal gambling cruises in broad daylight, responding when questioned on the legality of their activities that the gambling operations are legal as they are taking place outside Israel territorial waters.
In this regard, Deputy State Attorney Nava Ben-Or determined that all gambling operations in the Red Sea were illegal as both Egypt and Jordan did not allow gambling. Ben-Or's opinion, which was supported by former attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein, became a directive and was published in the press; hence, the casino boat operators could not argue that they were unaware of them.
For some 18 months, investigators from the International Crimes Unit tracked the route of the money and monitored the operations of the casino boats. As part of their activities, police investigators impersonated gamblers and collected intelligence in various other ways. Toward the end of the undercover operation, the police had a clear picture of the manner in which the casino boats activities were controlled, and the way the money generated by the boats was laundered.
The investigators revealed that one of the families in control of the casinos was the Abutbul family. The most infamous of the family members was Felix Abutbul, who was murdered some 18 months ago in Prague; his son, Assi, fled the country, but his whereabouts are known to the police. The Abutbuls in control of the three of the five casino boats confiscated yesterday are Charlie (Felix's son) and his son, Francois.
The Abutbul family was one of Ofer Maximov's toughest creditors, and Maximov was forced to pay his debts to them, together with huge interest, from money embezzled by his sister, Etti Alon, at Trade Bank. The police investigation also revealed fictitious bank accounts owned by the Abutbuls in various locations around Israel and the world.
To examine the affair from all angles, the police decided to look into the ownership of the two other casino boats in Eilat, revealing that one of them is owned by Gal Hananya, a businessman from the center of the country who was also arrested yesterday. The fifth boat is owned by Eli Ovadia, who operates casinos in the Tel Aviv area and was also taken into custody yesterday.
The undercover operation led the police to decide to conduct a nationwide raid during which all five boats would be seized, and all the boat owners would be arrested. Those arrested yesterday also included other individuals involved in the gambling industry - owners of bus companies that transported the gamblers to Eilat, advertisers and sponsors, and ticket sellers.
The money generated from the casinos was transferred to bank accounts in, among other locations, the Marshall Islands, Gibraltar, the Cayman Islands and Martinique.
Also arrested yesterday were gamblers, who were subsequently released following questioning.
"Gambling offenses and money laundering ... facilitate the existence and activities of the crime organizations," Israel Police Commissioner Shlomo Aharonishki said yesterday. "We will continue to work to eradicate and shut off the oxygen to these organizations."