How to Keep Them Alive: A Look Into Israel's Witness Protection Program

David Hakak, who was gunned down last week in Jaffa, might be walking around today − with a different face and zip code − if he had been part of the country’s revamped witness protection program.

When the door opened to the Tel Aviv district police headquarters interrogation room late one night last March, Aizat Hamad’s face fell. A police investigator, who had left the room a few minutes earlier, reappeared at the doorway with a close associate of Hamad’s. “The end of the world has come,” said the police interrogator to Hamad, who saw before him the man who had been closer to him than anyone, and understood in that instant that the police had nailed him.

The Tel Aviv district police managed to make this major catch − Hamad was their top target − by turning his right-hand man into a state witness.

“You ate from my hand; I gave half of everything I had to you,” Hamad said pleading to his former associate. “Just don’t frame me for things I never did.” The state witness lit one cigarette after another, and asked Hamad for forgiveness, telling him that he had no choice. Hamad asked for permission to stand up and embrace the state witness, and received authorization. For hours he had invoked his right to remain silent; now finally he broke his silence.

The use of state witnesses has been, and remains, the police force’s best weapon in the fight against crime kingpins in Israel. No technological device can replace a criminal’s right-hand man; only a kingpin’s deputy has the knowledge to testify in court about all his boss’ doings. The state witness’ efficacy depends on the relationship he had with his boss − the closer he was to the underworld king, the higher the quality of his testimony.

Yet an incident like last week’s murder of state witness David Hakak ‏(see box‏), who was gunned down in Jaffa by two motorcyclists, deters many potential state witnesses from taking the step. “The phenomenon of threats posed to witnesses, their fear of testifying, and the consequent difficulty of dealing with organized crime constitute imposing obstacles to Israeli society’s desire to prosecute criminals,” says State Prosecutor Moshe Lador, who headed a committee formed in 2002 to formulate proposals for the protection of threatened state witnesses.

The committee’s findings led in 2008 to the establishment of the authority for the protection of witnesses. A Shin Bet security agency official, Aryeh Livne, who had in the past directed the rehabilitation of agents who worked with Israeli security forces, was appointed to head this new agency. Entrusted with responsibility for protecting state witnesses, Livne was asked to establish a model similar to the one he had deployed in his former position. He grasped that Israel is too small and porous a country to serve as a safe permanent home for threatened state witnesses. For that reason a sweeping decision was reached to relocate Israeli state witnesses overseas. “We cooperate with countries to which our witnesses are sent by absorbing their witnesses,” says a top official in the authority for witness protection. “Witnesses who join the program are generally prominent criminals who cannot be hidden in Israel, and so they go to other lands.”

Do you really know your neighbor?

The authority has two main branches. One is responsible for the safety of witnesses for as long as they remain in Israel, whereas the other accompanies and prepares the witnesses for a new life overseas. The process begins once a person is considered suitable for the program and signs an agreement with the authority to serve as a state witness. The witness and his family members receive training and resources useful for life in the new country; among other things, they learn the country’s language and receive professional training. Their identities are changed, as are, on occasion, their physical appearances. In tandem, the absorbing country is brought into the picture.

To date, six countries have signed witness protection agreements with Israel, and this number is expected to soon double to 12. The new host country provides citizenship and work authorization to the state witness and his family. Israel follows the same procedure when it absorbs witnesses relocated from the other six countries. So, possibly, your new immigrant neighbor from Paris or Denver might actually be a gangster relocated to Israel under such state witness reciprocal agreements. Very few people in Israel know about the actual identities of such relocated persons, former state witnesses from other countries. The process is expensive and complicated. The cost of entering a state witness in the authority’s program in Israel and then moving him or her to another country can approach NIS 1 million.

An exclusive program

“This demands much from the state and the authority, and so not everyone is admitted to the program,” explains Livne, the authority’s founder.

A state witness who serves a real underworld kingpin to the police on a silver platter is instantly admitted to the program to ensure his physical and economic security. On the other hand, a witness who brings the police a “middle level” hoodlum is not entitled to the same conditions; under law, such a witness remains the police force’s responsibility. Yet these distinctions are not absolute. A state witness who knows how to drive a hard bargain, or who employs a successful lawyer who has negotiation savvy, will attain terms preferable to those hammered out by a state witness who is less assertive.

Moreover, many state witnesses who may have been eligible for the program were never admitted to it because agreements were forged with them before the authority began operation. For instance, Hakak, the former witness who was murdered last week in Jaffa, signed a state witness agreement in 2007, just a year before the authority went into operation. He signed with the central district police, the same force that interrogated Avi Ruhan, the kingpin against whom Hakak testified.

Under the agreement disclosed by Channel 2 news, all that Hakak managed to wrest from the authorities, in exchange for his service as a state witness, were suitable detention conditions until the end of the Ruhan trial, NIS 3000 a month and protection for family members until the end of the trial. After the trial, Hakak received, under these terms, $20,000 and a plane ticket for an overseas country, where he was expected to begin a new life without any professional assistance. Hakak did not adjust to life overseas, returned to a life of crime in Israel, where he ended up being murdered. Had he become a state witness a year later, and received more generous terms, Hakak’s life course might have been very different.

Hakak is not the only state witness whom police were unable to protect. In 2004, the criminal Nissim Yamin was gunned down in his home. Yamin’s testimony as state witness led to the arrest of underworld leader Yossi Harari. Also, in 2005, the criminal Yoni Elzam was found dead in his cell at Ashmoret prison just a few hours before he was set to testify against Shimon Zarihan, who had been charged with murder. Cyanide traces were found in Elzam’s body.

During a recent court hearing, a police investigator admitted on the stand that a team of policemen deployed to guard a key state witness had acted negligently. They made so much noise and left such a mess around the house that it soon became obvious that the resident was a person under protection.

“The police are responsible for state witnesses,” says Livne. “The police have to evaluate the risks faced by a particular witness.”

Livne praises the work done by the state witness authority. “Until now we are not aware of any problem encountered by state witnesses who left Israel ‏(in the framework of the program‏). There hasn’t been a single instance of a witness who had to deal with threats to his life after joining the authority’s program.”

A death foreseen

Early Thursday morning David Hakak, a 42-year-old resident of Givatayim, was murdered on the Jaffa beach promenade. Hakak had served in the past as a state witness who testified against major underworld figures involved in gambling. His testimony was used in the prosecution of 14 people, among them, the Ruhan crime family.

The murder was committed shortly after midnight, between Wednesday and Thursday last week. Hakak was driving his car along a main street in Jaffa, when two motorcyclists approached him and opened fire.

Top police investigators arrived on the scene; at the police’s request, a gag order was issued, banning disclosure of details from the scene of the crime.

This wasn’t the first attempt on Hakak’s life. On an earlier occasion, a motorcycle with a shoulder-fired missile was discovered close to his home. Police concluded that that attempted hit was in retaliation for Hakak’s service as a state witness.