Police: Israeli Criminals Are Getting More Violent, but Punishment Remains Lenient

The law allows for severe penalties on assailants but many are given suspended sentences and ordered to pay of compensation, often due to plea bargains with the police prosecution

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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The police at the scene of a murder-suicide in Israel, March 2016.
The police at the scene of a murder-suicide in Israel, March 2016.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

The stabbing death of Yuri Volkov last week by a motorcyclist who confronted the victim at a crosswalk, renewed discussion of incidents of violence in public places. According to the police, the number of such incidents has not grown, but the assaults are more severe, and include physical attacks and use of weapons.

In an attempt to fight the trend, the police have recently ordered more confiscations of vehicles of perpetrators of road-rage violence. However, penalties remain lenient, often because indictments are amended in plea bargains with the police prosecutor.

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“We have become a more violent society,” says police prosecutions chief Brig. Gen. Dado Zamir. According to Zamir, the violence is worse and includes victims being struck by “helmets, knives and guns.” Zamir also said the police have seen a drop in the age of the offenders. “Today I see 13- and 14-year-olds involved in very violent incidents,” he says. According to one senior police officer, “knives weren’t drawn in the past as quickly as they are today.”

Despite the increased severity of the incidents, punishments remain light – including suspended sentences even annulling the conviction, although the law allows for harsher penalties. The police often agree to a lighter punishment in exchange for a confession by the offender.

In one case six months ago, a driver in Bat Yam, 32, blocked another driver from going around his car as they were exiting a parking lot on Yarkon Street in Tel Aviv. The driver blocking the car got out of his vehicle, opened the other driver’s car door and head-butted him and broke his jaw, according to the complainant’s testimony. The assailant fled the scene. The victim subsequently needed surgery for his injuries. The police reached a plea bargain with the assailant and he served seven months’ community service.

In another case, a 50-year-old resident of Be’er Ya’akov in central Israel assaulted a driver he believed to be blocking his parking spot. The assailant choked the victim, beat him in the face and threatened him, putting him in the hospital, where he underwent surgery for his injuries. The police reached a plea bargain with the assailant, dropping the charge of threats from the indictment. The Ramle Magistrate’s Court handed down a suspended sentence of 10 months and 200 hours of community service. In explaining the sentence, Judge Rivka Galt said: “Imposing a sentence that would keep [the offender] from working would hurt his livelihood and his image as a normative person. The public interest requires according real importance to his rehabilitation.”

The scene of Thursday night's attack, in HolonCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

In yet another altercation that began over parking, in Kfar Sava, a 50-year-old man attacked a woman at a shopping center. He got out of his car, closed the woman’s car door on her and pushed her down on her head. He then threatened to kill her, as she protected her face from his blows with her cane. The Kfar Sava Magistrate’s Court sentenced the man to a suspended sentence and to compensate the complainant in the amount of 750 shekels ($221).

Assaults on medical personnel are also apparently treated with kid gloves. For example, a 23-year-old from Kiryat Gat attacked a doctor in a local clinic. He was tried for assault on a public servant and disorderly conduct in a public place. According to the original indictment, he struck the doctor with his fists on all parts of his body and choked him. After the doctor managed to get away from him, the attacker shouted: “This won’t end here.” But in the indictment, the word “choked” was replaced with the word “grabbed” and the strikes with his fist were reduced to a single blow. The Kiryat Gat Magistrate’s Court sentenced the offender to six months of community service. Judge Meital Halfon explained the verdict in terms of “accepting responsibility, saving the court’s time, regret and the fact that the accused has not committed further offenses.”

A 34-year-old Tel Aviv resident was charged, together with his father, of a series of offenses including threats, injury and assault. The original indictment stated that the men attacked a furniture store owner in Bat Yam with motorcycle helmets and their fists, bruising the victim’s eye and giving him a bloody nose. The also attacked and injured another man who entered the shop. But the indictment was amended to show that only one count of assault between the two perpetrators. The younger man had five previous convictions on his record and had served prison time. In this case, the prosecution asked for a 12-month prison sentence, but Magistrate’s Court Judge Anat Yahav handed down a sentence of only four months’ community service, stating that there had been “full acceptance of responsibility and expression of remorse.”

‘A necessary evil’

“I can say clearly that I’m not happy with the threshold of punishment, says prosecution chief Zamir. “I have no doubt that deterrence has been somewhat compromised because of this but we can’t appeal every case where we don’t get what we ask for.” Zamir called the amendments of the indictments “a necessary evil,” saying that if they did not exist, “the courts would be backed up and we wouldn’t be able to move ahead on any case. Sometimes there’s an advantage to striking while the iron is hot, and not necessarily [remaining on a case] until the process is completed in three years.”

Lena Volkov (left), who witnessed her husband's stabbing on Wednesday night.

As part of deterrence efforts, the police have ordered their prosecutors to submit applications to confiscate more vehicles that have been involved in road-rage violent incidents, in cases when the vehicle was involved in the offense. For example, if a car is pursued by the police, before or after an incident. “This will be the tie-breaker,” a senior police officer said. However, only three such applications have been submitted since the order came down to make great use of this tool.

The police say discourse on social media has also contributed to increased violence in public spaces. “From the moment talk on social media becomes violent, the road to actual violent acts is very short,” says a senior police official. But, he adds: “Even if we flood the streets with two thousand police officers, in the end you can’t put a police officer in every clinic, emergency room or intersection. What we see in the street is a reflection of education, or welfare, and of social media. It seeps out from there to the street.” According to the senior officer, he himself avoids getting into altercations on the road. “When I’m with my car, not on duty, and I see an argument on the road, I myself prefer not to intervene. At most, I’ll call a patrol car,” he says.

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