Married to the mob

The recent death of Chen Benayahu didn’t mean much. Not on its own, at least. At first, the discovery of
the 23-year-old’s bloody body behind the wheel of a crashed car in Holon was little more than a mystery.
Before long it took on much larger proportions – but to understand the significance of that killing, you
have to go back to 2003, to a murder that didn’t happen.

Bullets hadn’t killed him. LAW rockets hadn’t killed him. Maybe, the assassins hoped, a really big bomb
would do the trick.

This one was definitely a doozy. When it exploded, on a clear December day in Tel Aviv, the professionally
designed explosive pack tore apart a money changer’s office on Rehov Yehuda Halevy. Three passersby never stood a chance; they were killed instantly. Eighteen others were wounded. But somehow the target of the bombing survived, walking away with hardly a scratch. Ze’ev Rosenstein, ‘The Wolf,’ had managed to dodge at least the seventh attempt on his life.

Rosenstein’s knack for cheating fate was not something his rival mob bosses shared. While Rosenstein spent much of 2002 narrowly avoiding death at the hands of his enemies – including three attempts on his life in a single day in October – fellow underworld leaders Ya’acov Abergil and Felix Abutbul were gunned down in public by hit men.

The other trap that ‘The Wolf’ avoided was prison. Outside of a few arrests in the 1970s for break-ins
and robberies during the early part of his career, Rosenstein went 25 years without a conviction,
allowing him to grow into a major player in Israel’s vice rackets.

Then came the Yehuda Halevy bombing, with its ‘civilian’ casualties, and something changed. At a
weekly cabinet meeting shortly after the audacious attack, prime minister Ariel Sharon turned to the
police and demanded it wipe out organized crime.

‘Our purpose is crystal clear,’ said Sharon’s internal security minister, Tzahi Hanegbi, ‘to root out this
unprecedented phenomenon of organized crime from the state, where innocent people are being massacred in the streets of Israel by criminals.’

Suddenly, Rosenstein was Public Enemy No. 1 (and a sensation with the news media to boot). For a number
of reasons, though, police could not bring him in. Although they suspected him of ordering contract
killings and running illegal gambling and prostitution rings, they had to rely on an American warrant on
charges of conspiring to distribute close to one million Ecstasy pills. (The Drug Enforcement
Administration included Rosenstein on its list of the 44 biggest global drug traffickers, claiming his
network spanned four continents.) The state’s rare agreement to extradite Rosenstein sent the crime boss
to Miami, where he signed a plea bargain on a grand jury indictment that allowed him to serve out his
12-year prison sentence back home.

The arrangement was not perfect. It left unanswered the question of whether the state could convict top
mobsters in its own courts. Also, there was the question of whether the Prisons Service could protect
Rosenstein inside his cell. Mafia members had already been killed inside prison (one was poisoned covertly
the day before he was to testify as a witness for the state), and the stocky kingpin with bloodthirsty
enemies would make a prime target.

Those questions were swirling in the air on March 28, when ‘The Wolf’ made his much-anticipated return,
stepping off an El Al plane at Ben-Gurion Airport, wearing a bulletproof vest and escorted by elite police guards. Only hours earlier, his cousin had been shot dead in Holon. His name was Chen Benayahu.

If there is a deeper meaning to the kid’s death, then, it is this: that Rosenstein’s arrest, although hailed
at the time as a turning point in the fight against Israel’s mafia, has not led to anything like the rooting out of organized crime. Now that Public Enemy No. 1 is back, in fact, the stakes are higher than ever.

At the same time, Israel has more weapons in its crime fighting arsenal than ever before. If the country is
to stand a chance, it’ll need to use every one of those weapons. And it will need Dudi Cohen, the
tough-on-the-mob cop installed this week as inspector-general of a police force in turmoil, to lead the charge in a war that has until now gone wrong more often than right.


Rosenstein’s rise to prominence as a media icon marked the culmination of years of efforts by the authorities to sweep the problem of organized crime under the rug. Despite well-known local mafias like the Pardess Katz Gang and the Ramat Amidar Gang, successive governments tried to treat them as isolated cases.

‘The government admitted in private that there was organized crime, but it didn’t want to admit it in
public, because it was embarrassing,’ says Hebrew University criminology professor Menahem Amir. ‘When
something grows right under your nose, it’s obvious that you either didn’t know about it or you were inept
in fighting it.’

Embarrassing or not, the underworld is impossible to hide. Today, there is no denying the intimidation and
influence wielded by the Abergils, Abutbuls, Alperons, Ohanas, Jarushis, Khariris and others. But long before
crime families’ wars over the collection of plastic bottles became the stuff of nightly newscasts, the public became familiar with so-called white-collar crime figures through the political exploits of some
colorful characters.

There was Polish-born Frenchman Shmuel Flatto-Sharon, who tried to escape charges of defrauding French
citizens of some $60 million by running for the Knesset. Though he had just arrived and hardly spoke a
word of Hebrew, in 1977 Flatto-Sharon improbably won election, gave his support to Likud and promptly voted for a law that prohibited the extradition of Israeli citizens.

Although he never was extradited to France, Flatto-Sharon did have his parliamentary immunity lifted in
1979, and he was imprisoned in 1981 for election bribery.

Another villain-turned-hero was Gregory Lerner – or, in his Hebrew incarnation, Zvi Ben-Ari. Part of the
massive Russian aliya, he left in a hurry in 1990… leaving behind a $20 million grand larceny case. The
former journalism student lived a lavish, even flamboyant lifestyle here, buying up businesses and
beachfront villas with relish. While Ben-Ari credited hard work for his millions, Russian authorities
claimed otherwise. (The mysterious bombing death of a Moscow bank manager on his way to brief Israeli
officials on Ben-Ari’s dealings in his home country certainly suggested something untoward.)

In 1998, a Jerusalem court sentenced Ben-Ari to six years in prison and a NIS 5 million fine for fraud and
bribery in connection with an attempt to defraud banks in Israel, Russia and Europe of some $100 million,
while allegedly attempting to set up a bank to launder Russian mafia money in Israel. Shortly after his
release, Ben-Ari was again convicted of fraud, this time for a bogus deal to supply natural gas. In both
cases, he tried to bribe senior government officials.

Despite the seriousness of the charges against them, Flatto-Sharon and Ben-Ari managed to find sympathizers here who defended them as benefactors of the poor, unjustly pursued by the establishment for being outsiders. Few people, if any, associated such men with mobsters of the hardened killer variety.

That’s part of a common misperception about the scope and severity of organized crime, says G. Robert
Blakey, who has been at the forefront of fighting the Mafia in the United States.

‘What you don’t realize,’ he says, ‘is that with organized crime, you have another government in your
midst, imposing its own sovereignty.’ First of all, Blakey says, ‘gangsters are murderers – killing not
just each other, but anyone who gets in their way. So the mob has capital punishment. It has the power to
execute people without going through legal procedures.’

While Rosenstein and the Abutbuls try to assassinate the Abergils and Alperons (and vice versa), they claim
scores of innocent victims as well. In 2005, a Ramle woman and her three-year-old niece were killed in a
hail of gunfire meant for crime boss Itzik Abergil. A car bomb that killed an Abergil associate last October
also wounded a 10- year-old and an infant.

When they’re not killing or maiming civilians, mobsters hurt citizens’ pockets. ‘When they infiltrate
legitimate businesses, they establish a monopoly price,’ Blakey continues. ‘When they organize an
industry, it’s like a tax.’

Residents and small business owners in the Negev, for example, have complained of the financial ruin and
terror that Beduin ‘protection’ rackets have caused them. On a larger scale, any compromise of labor
unions, ports and various industries would cost the average citizen untold millions – possibly billions –
of shekels over time.

Even indirectly, the mafia costs Israelis. The Trade Bank, for example, collapsed under the weight of a
massive embezzlement scandal that was triggered by one man’s debts to loan sharks and the operators of
illegal casinos.

Plainly put, a mafia has implications for nearly every level of society. As Blakey says, ‘When you pass your
statutes, you are saying that you want to have a drug-free society, a gun-free society, a prostitution-free society. A mob undermines your laws by the very fact that it deals in drugs, guns, prostitution, what-have-you. It undermines what you say you want to be like.’


Finally, in the 1990s, the state began to wake up to the enormity of its mafia problem, with successive
heads of the police – Hezi Leder, Assaf Hefetz and Ya’acov Terner – all warning that organized crime was
spiraling out of control.

After years in which Israel rejected claims that it was a haven for international criminals looking to
launder their money, senior police commanders told the Knesset that money laundering was a fact – to the tune of more than $4 billion per year.

‘Israel is a promised land for money laundering,’ police investigations chief Yossi Sedbon said in 1999,
while the Knesset was considering a law to ban the phenomenon.

The lack of any such ban made that kind of thing inevitable. There was so little fear of prosecution
that certain Russian crime bosses, an American underworld figure would testify, freely exchanged
suitcases full of cash at the swimming pool of a major Tel Aviv hotel. The Law of Return had opened the gates to thousands of Russian mobsters of Jewish descent, but there was no law to allow anyone even to ask where their conspicuously large bank deposits came from.

While some bristled at the thought that imposing strict supervision over the banks would scare away
investors, Sedbon warned: ‘Laundering is the basis for more severe offenses. It’s a lever for other crimes.
It helps [criminals] to penetrate various sectors of the economy and positions of power.’

Indeed, laundered money was funding an expanding drug empire that grew into a global enterprise. One Israeli was convicted in Florida on 146 counts of conspiracy and money laundering for attempting to disguise $43 million in proceeds from the Cali, Colombia, cocaine cartel. Another was convicted in Tokyo of attempting to smuggle 25,000 tablets of Ecstasy into Japan. Las Vegas attracted several Israelis suspected of drug trafficking and other mob activity. At home, Israel developed burgeoning stolen car rings, underground casinos, illegal arms sales and extortion rackets that police are still struggling to fight.

For years, preventing those crimes was nearly impossible because of numerous shortcomings in the
penal code.

In one high-profile case in 1992, the eccentric American electronics peddler ‘Crazy Eddie’ Antar was
found in Israel after two years on the lam from fraud charges in the States. The court hearing his case
nearly denied his extradition, though, because it didn’t understand America’s racketeering laws.

‘Israel had no idea of how to deal with RICO,’ the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act,
said the federal prosecutor who worked the Antar case. ‘It wasn’t on their books.’

RICO – a law that had by then already brought down the heads of the most powerful mob families in America and in Sicily – had no likeness in Israel’s law books. Actually, the country didn’t have any of the elements
of a proven array of laws aimed at organized crime that were already in place in the US, Italy, Japan and
Hong Kong: an anti- racketeering law, an anti-money laundering law, a law allowing the state to seize
property used in the commission of a crime and a witness protection program.

Legally speaking, Israel was fighting organized crime with its hands tied.


Ultimately, it was foreign pressure that got things moving in the right direction here.

America’s Financial Action Task Force put Israel on its blacklist of money laundering havens. More than
just a black eye, it endangered the country’s ‘qualified intermediary status.’ Losing this status
would make it almost impossible for Israeli banks to conduct business with American businesses. (The G8 had Israel on a similar blacklist.)

With a January 1, 2001, deadline from the Americans looming, the Knesset passed a law in late 2000 that
established the Israel Money Laundering Prohibition Authority. It started operating in 2002, receiving and
reviewing information from the private sector – mostly banks, but also insurance companies, money changers and other financial entities – regarding suspicious transactions.

‘Today, the banking sector realizes that… complying with international standards is the only way to
survive in the civilized world. Nobody’s going to invest in a place where dirty money can control the
market,’ says Yehuda Shaffer, who helped found the authority and now heads it.

‘We receive 400,000 reports per year of all transactions of NIS 50,000 or more, whether deposited or withdrawn. We also receive reports of transactions of NIS 1 million or more from abroad. And, as of July,
we will begin receiving reports of NIS 5,000 transactions and higher from our neighboring countries, which should help track the financial movements of terrorist organizations.’

The results are starting to show.

Of the 400,000 reports the authority receives each year, it refers about 200 to the police, Shaffer says.
Of those, a few dozen go to indictment.

‘As for prevention, I believe we have been very successful,’ he says. ‘There has been a serious change
in the way banks and other companies in the financial sector apply these laws… But the effectiveness of
the battle against organized crime should be measured in three ways: prevention, criminal convictions and
amount of money confiscated… To date, some NIS 140 million has been seized, and there is much more money currently being held in temporary seizures.’

For a country with billions in illegal money floating around, that’s just the tip of the iceberg, Shaffer
says. Agreeing with other experts interviewed for this article, he says the country still lacks an efficient
mechanism for seizing criminals’ ill-gotten gains.

‘The Ze’ev Rosenstein extradition is a prime example of the problem we face,’ he says. ‘We can thank the
Israel Police and the American police for taking down one of the biggest drug dealers in the world, but the
sad fact is they didn’t manage to seize any of his money.’

Almost a decade ago, the police’s Sedbon made an identical complaint about Ben-Ari and his luxury
villas, which the state failed to liquidate.

‘This is something that is changing,’ says Shaffer, ‘where the emphasis is not only on indicting people,
but also confiscating their property… but the truth is that we are still at the beginning of this fight.’

Other vital changes still in their beginning phases are expanded cooperation between various government
agencies and a witness protection program to encourage criminals to testify against each other.

A Joint Intelligence Center was inaugurated in March for mutual cooperation and intelligence sharing
between the police, Justice Ministry, Tax Authority and Securities Authority.

A witness protection program is also slowly coming to fruition. The government voted last year to establish
a Witness Protection Authority, and a director was named in January. The program itself, however, is
still in its infancy.

In 2001, Israel signed onto the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime,
which is built on the same aforementioned framework of laws that was pioneered in the US.

In 2002, the Knesset passed an anti-organized crime law that called for stiffer penalties and allowed the
state to seize criminals’ property – albeit in limited cases.

Police have stepped up their efforts, too, especially since the Rosenstein arrest.

The second half of 2004 was particularly successful, with arrests of the Ohana crime family of Kfar Saba,
senior crime boss Itzik Abergil of Lod and a NIS 1 billion-a-year money laundering and loan sharking ring
in Jaffa.

Last year, a task force comprised of police, border police and Tax Authority officials teamed up in a
series of raids on homes and banks along the Kinneret that netted 24 members of a Tiberias gang suspected of extorting local vendors, laundering money in local banks and even attempted murder.

‘This is the solution,’ a beaming Ch.-Supt. Ami Mualem, head of the Central Investigations Unit of the
Amakim District police station, said after the arrest, ‘to use all of our tools, all of our resources and
combine forces to arrest the criminals.’ Mualem, flush with excitement from the bust, could have been
parroting Kofi Annan as he announced the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime in Salerno,
Italy, six years before.

‘[Mafias] are ruthless and the very antithesis of all that we regard as civil. They are powerful, represent
an entrenched interest and the clout of a global enterprise worth billions of dollars,’ said then-secretary-general Annan. ‘But, my friends, they are not invincible. I repeat, they are not invincible!’


Sometimes, however, the gangster life is too tempting. Twice in March, the Justice Ministry’s Police
Investigative Division announced it had caught a cop in the pocket of organized crime.

Veteran officer Tiran Zalai stands accused of a litany of charges, including owning a brothel. He is also
alleged to have informed criminals in advance of police raids on underground casinos and brothels in
exchange for bribes and favors, helping to defraud the Tax Authority and revealing classified information to
a crime family.

Another, as yet unnamed officer was arrested on suspicion of tipping off members of a local crime
family ahead of raids on their casinos in exchange for large sums of money.

The arrests came just two months after the Zeiler Report warned that crime syndicates had worked to
ensure that people on their payroll were ‘placed at critical junctions’ inside the police to advance the
gangsters’ interests.

The report of the Zeiler Commission was in itself an earthquake that shook the entire police force.
Originally intended to probe the alleged bungling of a murder investigation against Negev-area gangsters
Sharon and Oded Perinian, who were accused of having a part in the murder of known underworld figure Pinhas Buhbout in 1999, it quickly blew up into an expose of police corruption and incompetence of the highest order.

In what was called ‘the biggest foul-up in police history,’ the murder investigation dragged on for six years in the Southern District, under the supervision of Asst.- Cmdr. Yoram Levy – who was alleged to have close ties with the Perinian brothers. Inexplicably, one of the men suspected of the Buhbout murder was able to slip from the grasp of police and make his way to Mexico – where, just as he was about to testify in the case on behalf of the state, he was killed.

Within six months of being transferred to a different unit, the Buhbout murder case was solved. But
disturbing suspicions that a larger problem of police collusion with organized crime remain. Cmdr. Moshe
Mizrahi told the Zeiler Commission that the Perinian affair was not unique, and that ‘there are examples
that are no less troubling than this case.’

The fallout of the Perinian case and the Zeiler Commission’s findings has rocked the police. Levy and
another senior officer found complicit in the affair were just dismissed from duty by Internal Security
Minister Avi Dichter. Insp.-Gen. Moshe Karadi resigned upon the release of the Zeiler Report, and a series of
would-be replacements for the position turned it down or were invalidated due to concerns about their own
past behavior.

How can police fight organized crime now, when the stain of the Zeiler Report has undermined the public’s
faith in the force? The police refused to comment for this article.

However, Dichter, and observers like Hebrew University’s Amir, have placed their trust in the new police chief. The appointment of 52-year-old Dudi Cohen, who this week took over as chief of police after heading a special anti-organized crime unit born of the unification of the investigations and intelligence divisions, is seen as a positive step.

‘Cohen is worth his salt,’ says Amir, who has advised police on numerous aspects of crime. Furthermore, he
says, ‘I think we can give the police a pretty high grade for their efforts in fighting organized crime. The findings of the Zeiler Commission cast some doubt on that… but it’s not as if the police are super corrupt.’

Amir sees reason for optimism in the adoption of laws and mechanisms that have proven effective in fighting organized crime. He also notes the savvy of the police intelligence unit, whose covert listening devices, he says, are gathering more evidence than ever before and far more than the public knows.

‘The most guarded place in the whole police is the electronic surveillance department. They have cameras
in eyeglasses, voice recorders in the soles of shoes, all kinds of things you wouldn’t believe.’

In addition, Amir says police are succeeding in turning criminals facing lengthy prison terms against
their own organizations.

‘In the end, the crime bosses will fall,’ he says. Then, he adds ominously, ‘someone else will take their


For most of the 20th century, New York was so full of mobsters, and was such a hotbed of mob activity, that
it came to be known as ‘the volcano.’ Everyone knew the legends like Lucky Luciano, who organized the five
ruling families and their associates into a crime ‘Commission’ in 1931. Meanwhile, just about everything
of value in the city was tied to the mob.

Jumping beyond its Italian-American roots, the Mafia went mainstream once The Godfather hit theaters in
1972, as millions repeated lines like ‘I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse’ and ‘Luca Brasi sleeps with
the fishes.’ Wiseguys grew to feel so comfortable – that is to say, invincible – that they started writing
books about their crimes.

That’s when Rudolph Giuliani, a rising star in the Attorney-General’s Office, stepped in. Utilizing a
revolutionary but still misunderstood law from 1970 known as the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt
Organization Law, Giuliani orchestrated the highest-profile case against the Mafia in four
decades. His goal, he boldly stated, was ‘to wipe out the five families.’

By convicting the heads and top advisers of the Gambino, Genovese, Colombo, Lucchese and Bonanno
families, he nearly did.

During a 20-year period starting in the early 1980s, federal prosecutors put close to 1,000 mafiosi behind
bars. They did it using a clear formula – which would be copied almost immediately in Italy and, later,
Japan and Hong Kong, and ultimately the UN – that included extensive electronic surveillance of
suspects, an expansive witness protection program for snitches and government seizures of criminals’ assets.

But it all started with RICO.

Under the law, a person or group who commits any two of dozens of crimes – any act or threat involving
gambling, murder, kidnapping, arson, robbery, bribery, extortion, drug dealing, arms dealing, counterfeiting,
embezzling, money laundering, etc. – within a 10-year period and as part of a pattern of crime can be
charged with racketeering. In addition, sentences were increased, and the government was entitled to seize
all ill-gotten gains and interest in any business gained through racketeering.

To be sure, RICO was a formidable tool. But it was also complicated, required a totally different view of the nature of organized crime and had the potential for numerous far-reaching, unintended consequences. It
went unapplied for a decade.

‘It took a long time for the prosecutors and the FBI to understand RICO. They were afraid to use it,’ recalls Selwyn Raab, who covered organized crime for The New York Times for nearly three decades and is the author of Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires.

‘Before, it was very complicated to get a conviction. It was very difficult to pin a crime on a major figure
because he never pulled a trigger, never demanded protection money himself. But RICO made it very
difficult to even be a mobster. What was accomplished in New York proved how you could use RICO.’

G. Robert Blakey, who took the lead in drafting the RICO law and several other anti-crime laws, explains
the idea that changed the way America fought organized crime.

‘Organized crime is usually centered around money and power, therefore it is distinguished in common law
from murder, rape and robbery. Those are prosecuted one by one, not as part of a process,’ he says.

‘Now, the criminal code is a way of looking at the world and defining human action. And our law cared only about what you did, not who you were. That meant that when we tried crimes, we only wanted to look at
individuals: one crime, committed one time, on one day. But everybody is a part of an organization… By
selling money through loansharking or usury, criminals are in a business. They’re not just drug dealers, for
example, they’re criminal entrepreneurs whose enterprise happens to be drugs.

‘Then think about this,’ Blakey continues. ‘They are committing the crimes as part of an organization. Some
people are on the streets, some are in trials, some are in jail, etc. The organization is just like a
merry-go-round, running those people through that cycle. So the impact of individual prosecutions is
zero, because the wheel turns and there’s always a new person out there on the street committing crimes.
Which means that you have to think about the organization, not just the crimes.’

Once the justice system adapted to that kind of thinking, the Mafia’s fortunes changed dramatically.

Another important development was that the witness protection program, also set up in 1970, was put into
high gear and became a very attractive option for mobsters looking for a way out.

‘That was terrific – one of Blakey’s brilliant stratagems,’ says Raab. ‘It beat omerta [the Mafia code of silence]… because he understood that if people were threatened with going away for life, or even for 30 years, they might crack. Then you get them another identity.’

Thousands chose the refuge of the witness protection program. And what turncoats didn’t provide for the
prosecution, extraordinary levels of wiretaps and other methods of electronic surveillance did. The magic formula was working.

‘Not long ago,’ says Blakey, now a law professor at Notre Dame, ‘one of my students and I put together a
master list of everybody who has been identified by the Justice Department or the FBI as a member of the
mob. We looked for name, date of birth, when and how he died.

‘Then we looked up indictments, prosecutions and sentences. We had all the data separated into categories – prosecutions and sentences before RICO, expanded wiretaps and witness protection, and after them. What this did was gather the empirical data that confirmed what everybody already knew: [This combination] has been a very powerful tool in prosecuting organized crime.’

From the beginning, the effects were sudden. Convictions came so quickly that, in 1987, Giuliani predicted the American Mafia would cease to be a major threat in just another decade. Blakey, slightly more cautious, said, ‘It’s the twilight of the mob. It’s not dark yet for them, but the sun is going down.’

That’s certainly the way things looked – for a while.

‘At one point,’ says Raab, ‘the FBI declared two families – the Bonannos and the Colombos – dead or
moribund, and had taken their squads off them. But 10 years later, the Bonannos had come back to life.’

What happened, essentially, was that the September 11 attacks stopped everything, forcing America to shift
its energies toward terrorism like never before.

‘For about 20 years, the FBI had two missions: counter-espionage and the Mafia,’ says Raab. ‘But from
2001, the FBI reordered its priorities. In New York, until about 2000, it had about 450-500 agents and
investigators working full-time on organized crime. Now, it’s down to less than 100, and the police are
doing practically nothing. It’s given a breathing spell to the Mafia.’

The mob, which had proven to be both highly adaptive and highly resilient, had been crippled. But it began
to regenerate as soon as the pressure abated. That’s why, in Raab’s estimation, fighting the Mafia is a
constant battle.

‘Look, the FBI got a game plan together on how to do this,’ he says. ‘But you need a lot of people. You’ve
got to do it full-time. And you’ve got to be fully committed.’ Otherwise, he concludes, the mob ‘is like
Dracula. He’s dead, and he’s in his coffin. But if you’re not careful, he’s going to rise every sunset. If there’s darkness, he’ll thrive… unless you put a stake through his heart.’


One Response

  1. […] wrote over a year ago, though, Israel has still has a long way to go when it comes to fighting organized crime. It has adopted the methods and acquired the tools necessary to cripple the mafia only very […]

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