Israel’s 'Prohibition' Law, Three Years On: The Black Market Is Thriving

Bars on wheels, deceptive bottling - with big money to be made, greed is mother of invention.

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Three years ago, when the law banning kiosks from selling alcohol between 11 P.M. and 6 A.M. took effect, some were quick to compare it to America’s prohibition law in the 1920s. And indeed, just like the black market that arose in America back then, a thriving black market for booze has arisen at Israel’s kiosks.

The alcohol market is worth an estimated NIS 400 million per year, and the law doesn’t seem to have reduced demand any. In one recent poll, 65 percent of adults said they sometimes drink, 22 percent said they had gotten drunk at least once in the last year, and 18 percent said they had drunk five glasses or more of hard liquor at one sitting at least once in the last month. The poll also found substantial demand among minors, to whom selling alcohol is forbidden ‘round the clock: Some 25 percent reported getting drunk at least once in the last year, and 19 percent said they had recently drunk at least five glasses of hard liquor at one sitting.

When demand is that high, someone will supply it – even if it could result in being fined thousands of shekels or having one’s business closed for 30 days. And while adults can legally buy alcohol after 11 P.M. at places of entertainment, it’s much cheaper at kiosks. Thus even though most kiosk owners obey the law, the minority of scofflaws have developed numerous tricks aimed at circumventing it.

Sometime after midnight last Thursday, for instance, a police patrol in Rishon Letzion reported seeing something unusual near the reservoir in the western part of the city: a car filled with bottles of vodka, wine, whiskey and cocktail liqueurs. It turned out to be a regular bar on wheels, which went to all the places where teens hung out and sold them drinks, thereby sparing them the trouble of finding a kiosk willing to break the law. Police said that was a new tactic for Rishon Letzion, but in Tel Aviv, it’s already old hat.

Other tactics abound, and the police’s Central District recently issued a booklet to its patrolmen detailing all the ones discovered so far. For instance, Tel Aviv police reported encountering kiosk owners who poured a shot of alcohol into a paper cup and gave it to customers who just bought a pack of a gum as a “friendly gesture” – which doesn’t make it any less illegal.

In Rishon Letzion, police said they recently spotted many people entering a kiosk in an industrial zone in the city’s east, paying for a bar of chocolate or a package of cookies with hundred-shekel bills, and leaving with a receipt. They decided to investigate, and soon came across a van in the nearby parking lot where an employee of the kiosk was handing out bottles of alcohol to anyone who could show the proper receipt.

Revolving door

“There are kiosks that I shut down, and by the time the [owner’s] trial comes around, we’ve caught him again selling during hours when it’s forbidden,” one policeman said. “It’s a long-term war, because there’s a lot of money in it.”

At a police stake-out in the Central District, policemen recently spotted several customers leaving a kiosk with large bottles of mineral water. True, it’s high summer, but even so, the volume seemed suspicious. So they took a bottle from one customer and tasted it, only to discover that it had been emptied of water and refilled with vodka.

Policemen in Kfar Sava said they have similarly found coke cans filled with whiskey.

Yet another tactic involves buying a cup of coffee. The kiosk employee then appears to fill the cup with coffee, but in reality fills it from a bottle of alcohol kept near the coffee machine. In many kiosks, this enables the drinks to be poured in an area not covered by the security cameras, thereby denying the police evidence in the form of footage that could be seized during a raid.

Today, it’s even possible to order after-hours alcohol on Facebook, with the kiosks delivering it straight to your house.

Since the law took effect in 2010, police have shut down some 500 kiosks for violating it. But that hasn’t deterred those who want the money.

Nevertheless, police have also gotten more creative in fighting this war. Among other things, they have begun using teenage volunteers to catch kiosk owners willing to sell alcohol to minors. Several dozen teens have been employed in this way, with permission from the Attorney General’s Office and the requisite police officials.

Last year, police opened more than 1,000 cases against people for selling alcohol to minors. Of these, several hundred were filed thanks to the teenage volunteers.

An illustrative image of young people partaking in debauchery in Tel Aviv.Credit: Tali Mayer

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