Once-quiet Netanya turns into Mob town

NETANYA, Israel — Asked where gambling entrepreneur Alex Dubitsky was murdered, the owner of one of many outdoor restaurants in Netanya's Independence Square pointed to a side table at "David's," an adjacent eatery.

"Now don't ask me any more questions," he said.

Asked about the extortion, arsons and other murders connected to the local gambling wars, the owner of another restaurant in the Square said, "Nobody here will tell you about it. Only the police. You know how it is."

Netanya, a coastal city of 170,000 people located 20 miles north of Tel Aviv, has a new image. It used to be known as a working- and small-business-class town that catered to tourists, and as a cheaper and less crowded urban alternative to Tel Aviv, one which had grown fast in recent years with new immigrants.

Since May 26, though, Netanya has come to be thought of by Israelis as simply "Chicago." That image grows at a time when Israeli police are investigating alleged ties between Knesset members and alleged Russian Israeli mobster Gregory Lerner, also known as Zvi Ben-Ari.

On that afternoon, a young man on a motorcycle rode up to David's, shot Dubitsky twice in the head and sped off. It happened in the middle of the city's public square, in front of scores of people eating lunch or walking by.

Dubitsky's was the fifth gambling-related murder in Netanya in less than 18 months, and the 11th involving criminal disputes. Considering Netanya's size, and that Israel has a relatively modest history of crime executions, these statistics add up to a plague.

Dubitsky was murdered, police say, in a battle over control of the gambling parlors that dot Independence Square, the city's industrial zone and wholesale produce market.

He owned the Good Luck parlor, which, like others of its kind, has both legal video games and illegal slot machines.

This was the third attempt on Dubitsky's life. On two previous tries, an assassin sent from France had mistakenly killed Dubitsky's wife and stepson. Police say Dubitsky's competitors had the failed assassin, Shalom Abutbul, killed in Paris a month ago because his screw-ups humiliated them.

Many of Netanya's gambling operatives are of North African background, and have connections in France. As a result, French police are working with their Israeli counterparts on the Netanya file.

Dubitsky, 45, emigrated from Odessa seven years ago. Some reports have it that the gambling wars are being fought between the long-established local criminals and the Russian newcomers, but Netanya police officials maintained, "There's no ethnic element involved. [As a Russian immigrant,] Dubitsky was an aberration."

Some gambling parlors have been torched by competitors. So have some shops run by proprietors who refused to pay gangsters protection money. Most storeowners who get shaken down, however, prefer to pay. Few have the nerve to go to the police.

Netanya police, however, insisted that incidents of arson have been diminishing. As far as extortion goes, they said they can't gauge its extent because victims who remain silent.

The owner of a local Burger Ranch franchise says that one day a man came in and told him, "This is mine now," threatening that if he didn't turn over the business, he and his family would face the consequences.

The owner was one of the few local citizens who went to the police, and charges have been pressed against the assailant.

Police say that the level of organized crime, and related violence, is no higher in Netanya than in other towns — such as Jaffa, Beersheva and Ramle — with power struggles between criminal groups.

"In Tel Aviv it's much worse," officials said.

However, over 100 officers from the Israel Police national investigative unit have been sent to Netanya.

Right after the Dubitsky murder, regional police commander Ze'ev Even Chen told the local newspaper, Inside Netanya, that while the city remains basically safe to walk around in, "There is in Netanya a hard core of sophisticated crime which started a few years ago, and which recently went up sharply."

Before Dubitsky was murdered, he told Yediot Aharonot, Israel's largest daily newspaper, that he wasn't worried for his life. Yet in police and criminal circles in Netanya, it was understood that he wasn't long for this world.

Now rumors are circulating that two more criminal figures in Netanya have been targeted for death by their competitors. A recent headline blared, "Who's Next In Line?"