It's been a so-so January for Zvi Gov-Ari, mayor of the Israeli city of Yavne. On the good side, the 18-year-old boy who torched Gov-Ari's car with two Molotov cocktails was convicted and sentenced, albeit very lightly -- 20 months imprisonment, suspended. On the bad side, the mayor opened his front door one morning and found a grenade lying in his yard. Since taking office a little over three years ago, a stun grenade has been thrown at his home and his front gate burned.
In Kfar Saba this month, a bomb blew up the car of Mayor Yitzhak Wald as it was parked outside his home. About 10 years ago, there were two attempts to burn down his office.
The start of 2002 also finds Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai walking around with a bodyguard since being threatened by a well-known Jaffa criminal family that became incensed when the city tore down the illegally built perimeter wall of their home.
Adi Eldar, mayor of Tiberias and head of the Union of Local Authorities in Israel, counts 140 acts of violence against Israeli mayors in the last five years. "And these are only the ones reported to police. We believe most attacks go unreported -- one, because it's not good for a mayor's image for it to be known that he was slapped or shot at, and two, because the mayors see that the police aren't doing anything about it," Eldar said.
Two former mayors, Yermi Olmert of Givat Shmuel and Zvi Poleg of Netanya, are commonly believed to have left office in mid-term because of violence against them. Olmert, brother of Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, had shots fired at him and dead animals left at his door before he threw in the towel. Poleg's car was blown up. Nobody was ever caught in these assaults, but Olmert had tried to enforce building codes against some unscrupulous contractors, and Poleg had tried to crack down on Netanya's gambling underworld.
Ezra Binyamini, longtime mayor of Hod Hasharon, said, "A few years ago, my cars were burned, and my house was nearly burned down with my little daughter inside. I got letters saying, 'Binyamini, your end is near.' My son's real estate office was burned out. But this is not just my problem, it's a national problem. What's going on in Israel is like what happens in a Third World country."
Few of the assailants are ever caught. Police say they don't have the manpower to protect mayors. About a year ago, Netanya Mayor Miriam Fireburg began receiving threatening letters, and when police couldn't find who was sending them she hired a private detective, who traced the threats to a city employee Fireburg had dismissed.
Economic reasons evidently lie behind most of the attacks against mayors, Eldar said. A mayor's decision on zoning or on granting building permits can be worth a fortune to local residents involved, and violence may be employed to influence a mayor or to express displeasure over a decision already made.
Political rivalries fueled by economic interests can also be the source of violence. Gov-Ari pointed the finger at a local weekly newspaper owned by Yavne economic players and backed by opposition political figures. "The paper has engaged in constant incitement against me, printing a photomontage of myself and Arafat, saying we both 'harm the children of Yavne.' They've compared me to Saddam Hussein, to Hitler. Some lunatic can read this stuff and decide to settle up with me," Gov-Ari said.
Other mayors have been shot at, stabbed, beaten up, and had grenades thrown at their cars. Ezra Levy, mayor of Kadima, had his living room burned down when a bomb was thrown onto his balcony. His life and home insurance were soon canceled. Avishai Levine, mayor of Ganei Tikva, was hospitalized after being stabbed in the leg by a local welfare recipient; two weeks later he saw his attacker walking freely around town.
"The mayors don't admit it -- they play the macho role -- but a lot of them are afraid for their lives," Binyamini said. Asked if the violence was working -- if it was intimidating mayors into making the "right" decisions -- he replied, "I won't name any specific cases, but I know of more than one."
The Union of Local Authorities and various mayors have turned repeatedly to police, the Shin Bet, the Defense Ministry and other security agencies to protect them, but have been turned down. "It is not the police's job, nor does it have the ability, to guard mayors 24 hours a day," a spokesman for Israel Police maintained. In a Knesset debate on the subject, the idea was raised to give threatened mayors money to hire private bodyguards and to set up some sort of national police unit to tackle the problem. Knesset Member Yair Peretz noted, "The local police stations are not succeeding in dealing with this epidemic, which is becoming more widespread and severe."