Israel's Very Own Mafiosi

Open gang warfare between crime families shows the mob in Israel already feels comfortably dominant in major cities; how can Israel avoid becoming the next Naples or Sicily?

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Meir Abergil at the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court in 2008. Credit: Daniel Bar-On / Jini

The car bomb that killed a Jaffa man linked to a local crime family passed almost unnoticed last week, as the tragedy of the three youths kidnapped in the West Bank unfolded.

One could think that the country was justifiably distracted, had it not reacted with similar indifference to much of the brazen gang warfare Israel is experiencing.

In the last year there have been dozens of bombings and gangland shootings, which have largely stumped police and attracted little interest from the media and politicians. Even the February murder of Tha’ar Lala, 26 – shot by gunmen while driving along the tourist-packed Tel Aviv beachfront – quickly faded away and remains unsolved.

It seems easy to think that outside security threats deserve more attention, or dismiss the deadly feuding because so far only criminals have been killed.

But clearly a state cannot renounce the rule of law and its monopoly on violence even when it comes to score-settling among criminals, just as it is obvious that with bullets flying and cars exploding, sooner or later innocent bystanders will also lose their lives in the violence.

As other countries who deal with endemic organized crime have learned at their expense, Israel needs to act swiftly against this creeping threat.

How far has Israel already gone along the road to mafiadom? According to most estimates, there are half a dozen major criminal organizations in Israel, active in drug trafficking, prostitution, loan sharking, gambling and other fields. In recent years, many veteran bosses have been arrested or assassinated by rivals, but their clans survive under new leadership and continue to prosper both at home and abroad. Last year, The Guardian named the Abergil family as one of the world's largest drug cartels despite the imprisonment of the group's leaders, brothers Itzhak and Meir Abergil.

Already in 2009, Italian journalist and anti-mafia activist Roberto Saviano visited Israel and warned that the mob could pose the "ultimate danger" for the Jewish state.

Saviano has lived under police protection since 2006 following the success of "Gomorra," his book, later turned into a movie, on the Naples-based Camorra crime syndicate. Walking through south Tel Aviv, he said the area reminded him of his native neighborhood in the outskirts of Naples. He was not talking about the scenery, but of the mix of poverty, social neglect and lawlessness that allows mobsters to take control.

In his book, the 34-year-old journalist describes how the Camorra filled the social and economic void left by the state and took over most aspects of life in Naples and its surrounding region. "Il Sistema" – the System, as the syndicate is known locally – is no longer content with running drug trafficking and other underground operations. It has grown to control everything from clothing stores and pizzerias to waste disposal, medical supplies and public works contracts. The clans hold local politicians in their pockets and children in the suburbs are recruited as lookouts and drug runners, dreaming to grow up to become hit men or bosses.

Profits from the Camorra's activities are laundered and reinvested far from Naples, in legitimate businesses in northern Italy and abroad. Estimates of the yearly income of Italy's criminal organizations vary wildly, but all range in the tens of billions of Euros, or between 3 to 10 percent of the country's GDP. The largest share goes to the Camorra, which has become Italy's most powerful criminal syndicate, also thanks to the arrests that have weakened Cosa Nostra – the Sicilian Mafia.

The Camorra's "business model" has been replicated by other southern Italian mob groups, especially the 'Ndrangheta, based in the Calabria region, and Cosa Nostra itself. It would be foolish to think that Israel's homegrown mob, if left unchecked, will not go after similar results once the strongest and most vicious clans emerge victorious from the current gang war.

In Sicily, it was precisely a bloody feud between the clans in the 1980s that paved the way for the rise of Salvatore "Toto" Riina, arguably the most ruthless "capo di tutti i capi." Over the next decade, Riina launched an all-out attack on the Italian state, murdering top prosecutors and terrorizing Italy with bombs placed in major cities.

Imagine what a similar scenario would mean for the security and economy of the Jewish state.

Israel's mafiosi may not yet have the resources and manpower of their Italian counterparts, but the open way in which they have been feuding is a worrying sign.

Organized crime does not like to make headlines: It prefers to operate quietly and rely on intimidation to keep victims and witnesses silent.

Here, it is mainly the public's indifference that is allowing mobsters to kill in broad daylight in the heart of the country. They will continue to expand their reach until the potential for unwanted attention and a consequent crackdown remains low.

While Italy has largely failed to eradicate the poverty that plagues the south, it has had some success in fighting the mob, especially in Sicily, by passing laws that specifically target its members and establishing witness protection programs and incentives for turncoats. But first Italy had to bring the issue into the public discourse by learning to openly talk about and condemn the mafia. As part of this strategy, for example, last week Pope Francis travelled to Calabria, the stronghold of the 'Ndrangheta, and declared in front of thousands of faithful that all mafiosi are excommunicated in the eyes of God.

Only strong moral voices, like the pope's or Saviano's, and increased public awareness will put the issue on the agenda in Israel and force politicians to create the social, legislative and enforcement tools needed to target the mob in Israel before it is too late.

Ariel David is a Tel Aviv-based foreign correspondent for Italian and English-language publications. He was AP correspondent in Rome for five years, covering Italy and the Vatican. Follow him on Twitter: @arieldavid1980