The arrests came as part of a joint effort by Israeli police, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Health as reported by Ynet News.
The meat had been brought into Israel from South America through Haifa and was intended for distribution by the Palestinian Authority. Instead the meat was stored just outside Jerusalem and was smuggled through checkpoints via various methods, including trucks with hidden compartments. Once in Israel, the meat was taken to a storage area where it was repacked under the Black Angus label, bearing new expiration dates and forged kashrus certifications and was distributed to stores and well known restaurants all over Israel. During its journey, the meat was kept in substandard conditions that violated Ministry of Health regulations, creating an additional threat to public safety.
Approximately 20 tons of meat and tens of thousands of Israeli shekels were discovered by investigators who also seized vehicles used by the smugglers.
Chief Inspector Shmuel Jerbi, who is heading the joint investigation, said that some of those arrested have already confessed and that he expects additional arrests in the coming days. Jerbi also stated that he will be investigating if the restaurants were in any way involved in the plot.
The two main suspects have been identified as Bassam Zahada and Monir Salhav. Attorney David Halevei, who is representing both men, says that both of his clients are innocent and will be exonerated as the investigation progresses.
Among the restaurants that allegedly received the smuggled meat were Moses in Ramat Hachayal, Adom Bar in Jerusalem, Topolompo in Tel Aviv, Ad Haetzem in Hertzeliya, Dixie in Tel Aviv and The Red Chinese in Tel Aviv.
This is not the first time that suspicious has turned up in Israel just before Pesach, a time when demand for food rises steeply because of the upcoming holiday. A 2015 press release by the Ministry of Agriculture revealed that within one week, 488,790 eggs, 182,233 tons of chicken and meat and 676 tons of cheese had been seized, all of which had been smuggled in illegally through the Palestinian Authority.
One restaurateur who asked to remain anonymous expressed outrage in an interview with Israeli news site The Marker, saying that his business and the others who were named had all been irreparably harmed and that the damage to their establishments continues to grow.
“This afternoon, we received an email saying that Black Angus was suspecting of smuggling beef into Israel with forged veterinary certificates, expiration dates and kashrus certifications,” said the business owner. “Within half an hour, the news was all over the internet and Facebook. Black Angus, which works with hundreds of customers including restaurants, delicatessens and other establishments all over Israel, deceived us and sold us meat without telling us that it had been transported illegally and bore bogus certifications.”
Haim Cohen, owner of Dixie in Tel Aviv and a judge on Israel’s MasterChef program acknowledged that his restaurant had been offered meat from the shipment. While Dixie purchased a small quantity of the meat for sampling purposes, it was quickly found to be of substandard quality. Cohen stressed that the meat was never served to customers in his restaurant.
“I am very proud of my team for realizing that this meat was no good,” said Cohen, who called on police to make a quick distinction between restaurants that were participants in the scheme and those fell victim to the perpetrators.
Cohen said that the issue of the smuggled meat brought up an even larger issue.
“If this person was able to get meat from the Palestinian Authority into Israel so many times, transporting it in trucks with hidden panels, where have the police been?” asked Cohen. “They could have just as easily smuggled in terrorists, may Hashem watch over us. I have yet to hear a single person in the government say that this meat raises a much larger red flag from a security standpoint.”