Taking on Arab Crime Lords

For years criminal gangs operated freely in many Arab towns and villages. Now the police are fighting back.

The six cameras installed on the outer walls of a four-story home in Jaljulya document irregular traffic on the quiet street. The house's owner, the head of a dangerous crime family, sits in front of a screen and anxiously watches dozens of armed policemen making their way toward him, at this early evening hour. He tells his men to arm themselves with rifles and bullet-proof vests, and to take positions beside windows and wait for an order to open fire. A bloody battle is about to ensue.

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Ram Oren
Moti Milrod


But the police move faster than this gang lord. They rap on the large doors of the house; when nobody answers, they break in. They disarm members of the crime family before anyone has a chance to squeeze a trigger. "Do you know how much these doors cost me?" the homeowner complains. The unit commander, Superintendent Barak Mordechai, does not flinch. A former member of the Border Police, Mordechai currently serves as deputy commander of the police force in Rosh Ha'ayin. He orders his men to search the house thoroughly. After a few minutes some 30 back-up policemen arrive, along with detectives and officials from the tax authority and electric company. They confiscate firearms, hundreds of thousands of shekels in cash, and numerous documents which attest to assets owned by the head of the crime family. Officials cut off the home's electricity, after discovering that the home's owner connected the dwelling to the grid on the street, and never paid a single shekel to the electric company.Tow trucks take away the homeowner's BMW and Mercedes; a bulldozer plows through the yard, searching for weapons stashes. A quick perusal of the confiscated documents reveals that the head of the family laundered profits from gambling and drugs via straw companies which reported losses. A tax official on the scene estimates that the suspect will be required to pay NIS 10 million in tax debt.

About a hundred curious bystanders gather outside the house, trying to figure out what's going on. Up to this moment, they believe that the local crime families could do whatever they wanted to do. They are surprised that the police dared to carry out this raid. A doctor from Jaljulya watches contentedly as policemen haul away the handcuffed gang members. "At last, our children will be able to play outside without finding themselves in the middle of a firefight," he says. The doctor talks about street violence which has continued without end in the town. There have been pistol and knife fights, he claims. Whoever owns a gun has been able to do whatever he wants with it. A gang member, whose son received low marks at school, shot at the teacher. Another hoodlum who didn't like the dental care he received sprayed the professional's home with bullets. Week after week, there have been murderous hits carried out by one gang against the other. The audacity of gang members knew no limits. Once, the doctor recalls, gang members were killed exactly when police were nearby, investigating the murder of a member of the rival gang. For years, there has been close cooperation between Arab crime gangs and counterpart Jewish gangs that operate around the country. Among other things, this cooperation involved protection given to Jewish mobsters, and participation in revenge missions.

Some members of the Arab crime families have a reputation for having loose trigger fingers; their services have been appreciated by Jewish mobsters. For a long time, the Arab crime families have roamed the streets in their home towns as though they are the only empowered force in the area. Nobody filed a complaint against them with the police; nobody protested their actions. When they shot members of rival gangs, nobody dared take the wounded persons to a hospital. Usually, the gunned down hood was taken to the doorstep of the local doctor, and left lying in a puddle of blood and excruciating pain.

Escape to hiding places

The rising level of crime in Arab towns and villages in Israel has sparked criticism in the media, and started to engage the police force's top echelon. In May, the commander of the police's Central District, Maj. Gen. Bentzi Sau, decided to form a special task force to clean up crime in these Arab areas. The main focal points of the special force's work were Tira, Jaljulya and Taibeh. Police stations in these towns received reinforcements for the fight against Arab crime families, and commanders of the special forces were appointed. Before long, the special units were deployed in the towns; detectives joined and helped search for stashes of drugs and weapons. Police made their presence felt among the heads of the crime families.

Spooking the crime bosses

These continuing searches and interventions, sometimes conducted with the accompaniment of tax and electric company officials, made an impact. Just a month after the police initiated this special work, crime lords reportedly were on the run, looking to escape to hiding places in the West Bank. In Arab towns and villages opulent homes were left vacant; their owners and tenants had fled across the Green Line to hide in the West Bank.

Restoring law and order to the Arab communities is a round-the-clock job. Part of the time is devoted to strengthening cooperation with local populations. Police hold meetings for local residents, and deliver a simple message: "if you want quiet here, if you want to live with security, we will help you. Everything depends on you." As a result of these meetings, a solid intelligence network developed. For the first time, the police started to receive, in real time, reports about criminals carrying out acts of murder and other crimes.

Due to tremendous work load, Superintendent Mordechai manages to go home to his wife in Jerusalem just once a week. He spends most of his nights in a rented apartment near the Rosh Ha'ayin police station. Virtually every night his men call him to the scene of some suspected crime. Not so long ago, police and security authorities were wary of cracking down on Arab criminals, and their reticence helped turn Arab communities into autonomous crime zones. Today, things have changed. Police units can be found in every village or town where a gang operates. Police have shut down illegal gambling facilities and cracked down on local drug trafficking. They have confiscated large amounts of weapons, and summoned dozens of suspects for interrogation. In some instances, police have seized instruments used by gangs to listen to police communications.

Though the police have made great strides in this campaign, Superintendent Mordechai is cautious about declaring gang crime in the Arab towns a thing of the past. Drugs and arms remain. There are continued attempts to collect protection money, prostitution, gambling, and the seizure and illegal sale of lands.

It's 2:00 AM in Kafr Qasem. Streetlights from Kfar Sava can be seen in the distance, a five minute drive from here. Coffee houses here in Kafr Qasem remain open. Men are smoking water pipes, and conversing idly. Police patrol deserted alleyways, bypassing parked cars. A policeman reports the license number of one, a small Fiat, and is informed that it belongs to a woman from Kfar Sava. What would such a woman be doing here in the middle of the night? Purchasing drugs? Looking for a hired gun to kill her husband? Meeting a lover? Police manage to open the car's door and look inside the vehicle.

There are no documents or weapons. After clarifying, police learn that the woman came to Kafr Qasem to buy some food in the open market, and when she returned to her Fiat, she couldn't get the car started. So she left the car near the market and returned home by cab.

The night draws to an end. Rosh Ha'ayin's streets are still quiet. Superintendent Mordechai's phone rings. A policeman in Jaljulya has an urgent report: Just as two men who left a wedding party in Jaljulya got into their car, another vehicle zoomed by, and one of its passengers fired shots from an M-16. The two men were killed instantly. Their wives and children, sitting in the back, were unhurt.

Mordechai speeds to the scene of the crime, his insistence that much work remains to be done in these crime areas tragically confirmed.