Colombia in Israel: Shomrim exposes the cannabis map of Israel’s Wild South

Endless fields of weed: Across the Negev, even in the shadow of some of the largest IDF bases, Bedouin criminals are making the desert bloom with hundreds of cannabis greenhouses – and the money they raise is funding a rampant crime wave in southern Israel. Shomrim joined a Green Patrol operation to document the daily helplessness and powerlessness. A special Shomrim report.

Endless fields of weed: Across the Negev, even in the shadow of some of the largest IDF bases, Bedouin criminals are making the desert bloom with hundreds of cannabis greenhouses – and the money they raise is funding a rampant crime wave in southern Israel. Shomrim joined a Green Patrol operation to document the daily helplessness and powerlessness. A special Shomrim report.

Endless fields of weed: Across the Negev, even in the shadow of some of the largest IDF bases, Bedouin criminals are making the desert bloom with hundreds of cannabis greenhouses – and the money they raise is funding a rampant crime wave in southern Israel. Shomrim joined a Green Patrol operation to document the daily helplessness and powerlessness. A special Shomrim report.

Roni Singer

Map and Photos: The Green Patrol, Roni Singer

December 12, 2021

Summary

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What do you think of that?” the Green Patrol inspector asks me, as he uproots dozens of marijuana plants in the hot desert sun. “Just look how the Negev is blooming!”

Along with his colleagues, many of whom are kibbutzniks with experience of cultivating very different kinds of crop, he throws kilograms of the cannabis plant onto wooden pallets, douses them in benzine and starts the fire. The sweet aroma of the cannabis, mixed with smell of scorched earth, is replaced by the powerful odor of this unusual bonfire.

In a week when images from Be’er Sheva gave the Israeli public a glimpse into the state’s helplessness and inability to enforce the law in the South of the country – which seems to have become a state-within-a-state, where police cannot combat crime – a trip to the desert that surrounds the capital of the Negev shows where a large proportion of the huge sums of money that allow crime to flourish comes from.

In ‘Apocalypse Now,’ Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore says that he loves the smell of napalm in the morning. On that morning in the Negev, our nostrils were filled with the smell of cannabis burning in the morning – but maybe what were we really smelling was money. On what was described to us as a relatively slow day, when “only” 6,500 plants were destroyed, some 2 million shekels also went up in smoke.

Cannabis greenhouses in Be'er Sheva area. Map: The Green Patrol
A map drawn by the Green Patrol over the past two years, a copy of which was shown to Shomrim, shows an overall picture that highlights the scale of the phenomenon
Cannabis greenhouses in Mitzpe Ramon area. Map: The Green Patrol

The Green Patrol’s new mission

“We call it ‘Little Colombia,’ because it’s a forgotten and neglected area, in which crime has taken control,” says the director of the Green Patrol, Ori Malka. In retrospect, it’s ironic that years ago someone gave the small unit that Malka heads a nickname that includes the color green: until three years ago, no one imagined that green would be the predominant color defining the work of the unit today – destroying the cannabis greenhouses that started springing up across the Negev.

The official name of the Green Patrol is the National Unit for Supervision of Open Spaces and it has a workforce of around 70 inspectors across the country, protecting Israel’s open spaces. Officially, it is part of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, but it takes its orders from a forum of senior civil servants representing several government ministries. When it comes to agricultural land, it answers to the Ministry of Agriculture, the Interior Ministry, the Environmental Protection Ministry, the National Roads Authority, the Mekorot water authority – and, of course, the IDF and the Defense Ministry, to ensure that military firing grounds are kept clean and safe. The unit’s activities don’t usually make the headlines, apart from those occasions when it is accused of using excessive violence in its dealings with Bedouin in southern Israel. That may be why the unit’s commanders had refrained from inviting journalists to see their operations up close. Until now.

Over the past year, however, something changed. Once a week – and sometimes as often as three times a week – Green Patrol inspectors come from all over the country, as far away as the Golan Heights and the Lebanon border, and gather in the South. From there, they launch operations to locate and dismantle cannabis greenhouses, which, it is believed, are planted by people from the Bedouin communities dotted across the Negev.

Last month, a team from Shomrim was allowed, for the first time, to accompany the unit and see its operations first-hand.

Photo: The Green Patrol
Until three years ago, no one imagined that green would be the predominant color defining the work of the unit today – destroying the cannabis greenhouses that started springing up across the Negev
Photo: The Green Patrol

It’s harder to smuggle from Egypt

When it comes to drug smuggling, Israel’s borders have always been porous. War is one thing, but drugs are something else entirely: drugs – mainly marijuana and hashish, have always and continue to flow over Israel’s borders with Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. Harder drugs, such as cocaine, heroin and MDMA are usually sent in containers and suitcases via the airport and seaports. For many years, the IDF’s radars have documented drug dealers in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt throwing packages of drugs over the border into Israel.

In recent years, it has become harder to smuggle via land borders. When Israel tightened patrols along the border with Egypt, to halt the flow of migrants and refugees, it also made life harder for the drug smugglers to get their marijuana into Israel.

“That’s what has been happening over the past three years,” says Malka, “especially in the last 12 months. Once the border fence was erected and smuggling became much harder, they needed to find new ways to get marijuana into the country. So, instead of smuggling it from abroad, they simply started growing it.” Malka says that while this is far from advanced agriculture, “it’s professional and it’s getting better. We have seen an entire industry develop around the cultivation of cannabis.”

According to Malka, growers have laid networks of waterpipes – illegally taking from the main water source – to irrigate their crops. It is also believed that they employ Palestinians from the West Bank to do the physical labor for the Bedouin growers.

A map drawn by the Green Patrol over the past two years, a copy of which was shown to Shomrim, shows an overall picture that highlights the scale of the phenomenon. This is not a case of a small marijuana patch here and a few plants there. From near the Ze’elim army base, via Wadi Mashash and the Secher stream, all the way to the outskirts of Be’er Sheva – as well as at Ramat Hovav and near the Ramon base – the desert is dotted with greenhouses of all sizes, all of which are growing marijuana.

The number of raids speaks for itself. From the start of this year, the Green Patrol alone has nabbed more than 700,000 marijuana plants and more than a ton of the plant that had been dried, packaged and was ready for distribution. The street value of the confiscated drug is believed to be more than 1 billion shekels.

Even though many law enforcement bodies are involved in the work, Ehud Yahalomi, the southern commander of the Green Patrol, is convinced that “we’re only catching a fraction of the drugs. This is a drop in the ocean compared to what’s going on out there.”

Photo: The Green Patrol
With 5,000 police officers and a population of 1.5 million, it’s clear that the police force’s resources are insufficient, but any talk of manpower is secondary when one discusses the issue with the officers themselves
Photo: The Green Patrol

Crime pays in the South

Preparations for the operation look like military in every respect. Yishai, the commander of the unit, reels off a list of “targets” provided by the Israel Air Force – the coordinates of marijuana patches that have been identified from their air. The mission for the inspectors we have joined is to destroy those marijuana greenhouses, which prevent the IDF from conducting training exercises. “Every time there’s an activity in the field, the IDF has to stop training,” Malka explains. Other missions will include targets in nature reserves.

The inspectors are armed with benzine and industrial hedge trimmers and are accompanied by a team of six police officers. In the field, the officers will take video footage documenting that, indeed, they have found an illegal substance, and will give the Green Patrol permission to destroy them.

“I would like to see more operations and more police officers involved,” says Malka. “If we don’t pick up this gauntlet and keep pestering the police, no one really cares. What you see here are greenhouses that bring in huge sums of money. It’s a serious generator of crime. They can do whatever they like with the money from the marijuana and out here in the field, we run into young Bedouins who are drawn into the industry and plant their own greenhouses. I want there to be more partners in this struggle and I want to see an iron fist. At first, it was a very sexy phenomenon, and everybody was talking about it, but, over time, investment in fighting it has dwindled and, as you can see, there are just 25 inspectors in the field and a handful of cops.”

The police’s Southern District is the largest in the country. Much of the 14,000 square kilometers under its jurisdiction – from Eilat on the Red Sea to Gadera – is wilderness. Most of its activity naturally focuses on the urban area of Be’er Sheva.

The number of criminal cases opened in the South increases every year. The police would have us believe that this reflects more activity on their part. However, last year’s figures, paint a different picture: almost 60,000 criminal files opened, more than 10,000 arrests and more than 33,000 active criminals with whom police had at least one encounter during that 12-month period. These figures are higher than any other police district, even though the Southern District has the lowest population density. All of this provides an unequivocal answer to the question of why the region has become known as the Wild South – where crime is rampant and personal safety is low.

In an interview with Shomrim earlier this year, former police chief Moshe Karadi said that “80 percent of the Southern Command’s work is in the Bedouin sector, but it’s important to stress that this is not a community of criminals; it’s a community in which there is a lot of crime. We have to understand what created it and the problems they are facing.” The illegal cultivation of cannabis is pinned firmly on the Bedouin. “When we conducted raids in Ze’elim, not only did they keep us under surveillance – they rode along beside us in their vehicles, and tried to intimidate us,” says Malka.

In his briefing before their operation, Malka tells his inspectors: “Anyone who needs me to explain yet again why destroying these crops is our job and where there aren’t more cops here is invited to come and talk to me afterward.” The inspectors, whose usual job is to evacuate illegal structures and to keep an eye on agricultural lands, can’t help but wonder why they are burning illegal drugs – something they feel the police should handle. Some understand why more police officers aren’t there and one of them explains: “I don’t want to criticize them. I know there aren’t enough resources. Right now, while we’re out here, I know that 400 cops are conducting a raid in Tel Sheva.”

Photo: The Green Patrol
“I would like to see more operations and more police officers involved,” says Malka. “If we don’t pick up this gauntlet and keep pestering the police, no one really cares
Ori Malka. The director of the Green Patrol. Photo: Shomrim

Crime feeds on the profits

That raid in Tel Sheva, and another raid in northern Israel the following day, which grabbed a lot of headlines and was perhaps the first police operation in response to the growing crime wave in the Arab sector, proved yet again that the huge sums of money generated by marijuana cultivation fuels crime across the country: weapons worth hundreds of thousands of shekels and piles of cash have been found in suspects’ homes.

Identifying the source of this funding is not an easy task, but just looking at the lush, green plants swaying in the gentle desert breeze is more than a hint. “The millions of shekels raised by growing and dealing drugs do not go into anyone’s bank account,” one of the inspectors says. “It’s hidden away in the villages. I saw with my own two eyes the piles of cash on one of our raids.”

The Green Patrol jeeps dash across the desert landscape, looking for the telltale water tanks that can be spotted from afar. A water tank – or even a children’s swimming pool – can be a sign that there’s a marijuana patch nearby, connected via illegal water pipes.

The operation is accompanied by the din of the Apache helicopters training in the area; one can clearly hear them firing shots. This does not seem to bother the cannabis growers. On a nearby ridge, inspectors with binoculars spot a Toyota Land Cruiser. The people in the vehicle are looking back at them through their own binoculars. According to Yahalomi, “from the moment we arrive in the field, they have eyes on us the whole time. The growers check to see where we are going and sometimes, they’ll try to rescue as many plants as they can.” Just a few days previously, inspectors had an unsettling experience. On their way to a raid, close to the Egyptian border, they were passed by several jeeps speeding in the opposite direction. “When we got to the location of the marijuana patch, everything had been harvested. They managed to fill their jeeps and flee,” says Malka.

The day’s operation ended with a slight sense of disappointment. “We only got 6,500 plants,” says Yishai, who had taken command of the raid. Yahalomi says that “just last week, in a single day we busted 70 greenhouses – each of them with 500 to 800 plants as tall as a man.” Each plant yields 300 grams of marijuana. According to estimates, each kilogram of marijuana sells for up to 5,000 shekels, depending on the market. If what the Green Patrol destroys is, as Yahalomi claims, a drop in the ocean, one can only imagine how much money this industry generates.

“What we destroyed today is worth at least one Land Cruiser – and that satisfies me,” Yahalomi says, perhaps to console himself. He lives in the South and is very concerned by the situation he is exposed to every day. “Children who grow up in the Bedouin communities and see how their neighbor is getting rich will be tempted into cannabis cultivation too.”

Proving anything is impossible

Despite the huge quantities of marijuana that have been destroyed, the number of prosecutions is close to zero. “It’s almost impossible to gather evidence to prosecute an individual for a specific marijuana patch,” says Malka. “You’d need surveillance and resources – and we don’t have that.”

And when there are no prosecutions, there is no deterrence. The inspectors say how the growers drove alongside them in jeeps when they went to destroy plants near Ze’elim. According to Malka, “we encountered ninja caltrops that they had left on the road to puncture our tires. I’ve warned my people to be on the lookout for wires connected to anything suspicious. It won’t be long before someone fires in our direction. After all, we’re harming their income. For now, we’re a drop in the ocean – they earn billions even with our raids. But when it starts to hurt them, they will escalate things.”

Malka, like every other law enforcement officer, inspector or civil servant who works in the South, stresses that the region needs thorough treatment, especially among the Bedouin population. “It’s a matter of policy. The state must decide that it wants to deal with the problem on every level,” he says.

With 5,000 police officers and a population of 1.5 million, it’s clear that the police force’s resources are insufficient, but any talk of manpower is secondary when one discusses the issue with the officers themselves. One senior officer, who served in the South and knows it well, believes that the lawlessness there must force the state fundamentally to change its policies. He says that destroying cannabis plants won’t solve the problem. “We destroy and leave as if we’re performing some kind of magic trick. Enforcement is just one element in a whole range of activities that need to be undertaken in the South, and in the Arab sector especially, but in order to push for this, people need to see the whole picture and not just the enforcement. The situation in the Bedouin communities has blown up in our faces: just look at the education system, the healthcare system and the rate of recruitment for the army and the police. Everything has been neglected.”

Another senior officer, also familiar with the South, told Shomrim that, “the situation on the ground won’t change as long as the Southern District is so huge, has so few officers on patrol and doesn’t get the support of the state. Without helping the disadvantaged population, the situation will drag on like this for many more years. It could be marijuana plants one day and the next day guns. I have been involved in a lot of raids, a lot of burning plants – but nothing’s changed. We need a profound change here.”

Photo: The Green Patrol
“Two years ago, I proposed to the Ministry of Public Security that we formulate a policy vis-à-vis marijuana cultivation, which would allow anyone – Bedouin or Jews – to grow the plant in a supervised manner,” says Eran Doron, the head of the Ramat Negev Regional Council

Medical marijuana: A Jews-only success story

The cannabis industry, which has been attracting many enterprising Israelis in the past decade – some of whom have companies that are now traded on the stock exchange and who hope to become international players – has also attracted the attention of people eager to take advantage of the open spaces in southern Israel, far from the prying eyes of the police. And this, perhaps, is the whole story in a nutshell: for years, Israel’s Bedouin citizens have seen their neighbors building fancy homes and benefiting from the most advanced infrastructure, and they want the same things. Now, with legal greenhouses growing medical marijuana across the South – in places like Neot Hakikar, a moshav close to the Dead Sea – the Bedouin want to get in on the act.

Once an industry that was spoken about in hushed tones, lest it lead to a knock on the door from the police, the cannabis cultivation now has its spokespeople former generals and politicians, whose backing can help the medical marijuana companies capture international markets. Israel’s agriculture industry, which had been in the doldrums, jumped on the bandwagon and several kibbutzim and moshavim have started growing marijuana or are in the process of setting up greenhouses. In Neot Hakikar, there are more than 3 acres of greenhouses. The Bedouin, however, are not involved. Ori Malka and his inspectors are now going after the pirate version of these legal greenhouses, with its huge sums of untraceable income. In the end, these plants are supposed to be for the Israeli market, where people want to smoke a joint at the end of a hard day’s work, but who can’t get a costly license to buy the medical marijuana that is produced by companies which invest in facilities across the country.

“Two years ago, I proposed to the Ministry of Public Security that we formulate a policy vis-à-vis marijuana cultivation, which would allow anyone – Bedouin or Jews – to grow the plant in a supervised manner,” says Eran Doron, the head of the Ramat Negev Regional Council. On a personal level, Doron supports the legalization of cannabis, but while the state dallies over its handling of the problem, his council’s land is home to most of the illegal cultivation.

“I spoke to a grower who also smuggles,” Doron told Shomrim. “He told me that, if he were an engineer or working in high-tech, he could earn 50,000 shekels a month. Now, he told me, he makes that much in a single night. The problem is with the ramifications of this cultivation – and the crime it generates. The police are barely tackling the issue and, truth be told, when one thinks about it, cannabis isn’t the main problem facing residents. If doesn’t affect us and we might even be glad that there’s some weed to smoke. Our biggest problem is with the number of police officers on the roads and the fact that we are on their radar.”

The South, at least when it comes to economic crime, is not even on the radar of the tax authorities. The huge sums of money that are generated can be seen in the luxury cars that cruise the roads, but the owners of these expensive vehicles are not asked to prove the source of the money.

Sharon Kohane, a lawyer who used to work for the Taxation and Economics Division in the District Attorney’s Office and now heads the White Collar Department at AYR, a prestigious Israeli law firm, had this to say: “Money is the fuel which drives criminal enterprises. If there was no money, there wouldn’t be anyone to pull the trigger. So, in criminal investigations, looking at possible money laundering – which demands special investigative skills – is significant.”

Kohane, who mentions investigations which have seen luxury cars and duffle bags stuffed with cash confiscated, stresses that “in the end, somebody needs to go to these criminal organizations and demand a tax assessment. It’s always been hard to find someone with the guts to do it – to actually knock on the door.”

In response to a question from Shomrim as to whether is it looking at cannabis growers in the Bedouin sector, the Tax Authority said that “the Israel Tax Authority is active everywhere in Israel and in every sector of Israeli society, in collaboration with the police and other bodies. That includes the illegal cultivation of cannabis.”

“Everyone knows the police do nothing”

At the end of the day, a quad bike driven by two youngsters from a nearby village drives past us. Although they claim to be out for an innocent drive, the inspectors are sure that they were sent by one of the growers to find out what was happening.

Mohammed (not his real name), who lives in a village adjacent to Be’er Sheva, tells us that, “these are the kids who will be blamed and arrested if there’s an investigation. That’s the way it works and it’s very simple. The grower himself sits at home, while, out in the field, someone else is doing the hard work and looking out for his interests. When we try to get to the growers, the kids tell us, in no uncertain terms, that no one will talk to them and that the growers are always on the lookout for snitches.”

Mohammed is well aware, like everyone, of just how the greenhouses are flourishing. “The area is full of them,” he says. “Take a drive around and you’ll see them. Everyone here knows about them and knows that the police won’t do anything. So, they burn a few plants every now and again, but that doesn’t really do any damage.” When I ask about the fancy cars in the South, he replies: “You and police think that all the cars here were bought with the proceeds of drugs and crime, but there are also good people here who work very hard. Not everything comes from drugs.”

Malka sounds a warning: “You simply don’t understand the importance of this phenomenon – which we are handling almost single-handedly. I want to see the state take a much stronger stance. Right now, it just isn’t doing enough.”

Response

Israel Police: In 2021, we destroyed more than 1,175 cannabis greenhouses

The Israel Police issued the following response: “The Israel Police, in conjunction with the IDF and the Green Patrol, is conducting a constant battle against the blight of dangerous drugs in military training zones and across the Negev. Since the start of 2021, more than 1,175 cannabis greenhouses have been destroyed – most of them in IDF training areas. We have nabbed more than 1,961 kilograms of marijuana ready for distribution and more than 786,979 marijuana plants.

“The police currently operate according to a unique model, whereby the drugs are destroyed on the spot – which improves the efficiency of the ongoing struggle. This is part of a variety of actions we are taking, including intercepting the transportation of drugs from the South to the center of the country, thwarting cross-border smuggling and domestic cultivation. We call on the public to call the police if they spot any kind of cultivation that looks suspicious.”

This is a summary of shomrim's story published in Hebrew.
To read the full story click here.