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Holy Land Gangland, Part II

A Tablet investigative series looks inside the world of the Israeli mafia

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Police inspect the scene of an explosion that killed crime figure Yaacov Alperon in 2008. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images.)

THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS STRONG LANGUAGE AND GRAPHIC DEPICTIONS OF VIOLENCE. READER DISCRETION IS ADVISED.

This is the second installment in a five-part series about organized crime in Israel. Click here to read Part I.

Just before noon on November 17, 2008, a deafening explosion rocked Namir Boulevard in the heart of northern Tel Aviv.  The chassis of a rented white Volkswagen was ripped open by a sophisticated remote-controlled bomb, and the car’s sole occupant, 53-year-old mob boss Ya’akov Alperon, was killed instantly, his mangled body tumbling from the fractured door.  Two bystanders, including a 13-year-old boy, were injured.

Within hours, the Israeli media was abuzz with predictions of a bloody chain-reaction—a full-scale mob war to avenge the assassination of Alperon, patriarch of “the last of the old Sicilian-style Israeli families,” as one crime expert described him.  A thick-necked ex-boxer and feared extortionist who’d risen from poverty in Givat Shmuel, an impoverished suburb of Tel Aviv, Alperon had just finished visiting his son, Dror, currently serving a prison sentence for extortion. Despite a well-documented list of enemies, and repeated assassination attempts against him and his brothers, Alperon had taken none of the security measures typical of the new breed of Israeli crime lords, eschewing bodyguards and bullet-proofed vehicles.  By all accounts, he was a ruffian of the old-school; in 2006, at a “mafia summit” held at the Daniel Hotel in Herzliya, sources say it was Ya’akov Alperon who personally stabbed one of his most bitter rivals, Amir Mulner, in the neck.

Law enforcement officials immediately painted Mulner, a young but fast-rising mobster known for his ruthlessness and explosives expertise, as the most likely culprit in Alperon’s murder.

A day after the car bombing, during a highly charged funeral at the Ra’anana Cemetery, one of Alperon’s sons was heard shouting his vow of revenge.  “I will send back that person to God,” he screamed. “He won’t have a grave because I’ll cut off his hands, head, and body.”

Meanwhile, outside the cemetery, scenes straight from The Godfather unfolded, as photojournalists were threatened and beaten by Alperon associates for daring to aim their cameras at the gathering mourners.

But the assassination was more than just a juicy tabloid story. Most Israelis realized that the bomb that offed Alperon had turned a page in the history of organized crime in their country, ushering in an era of unbridled violence.  A powerful explosion, in broad daylight, in the center of town, with no regard for innocent bystanders—this was new and shocking by the relatively tame standards of the Israeli mob.

For experts tracking the crime wave currently washing over Israel, the escalation in violence seemed nearly inevitable, the result of complex economic forces. Once a socialist country, Israel is experiencing the turbulent aftershocks of a rapid process of privatization, orchestrated, in large part, by the current prime minister and former minister of finance, Benjamin Netanyahu. Like all sectors of Israel’s economy, organized crime, too, found itself needing to generate more revenue and withstand fiercer competition.

For Israel’s mob bosses, the new economic reality also provided a host of opportunities to get rich quick. Vast swaths of government-held lands were privatized, allowing gangsters like Alperon to quickly move in and seize lucrative real estate before legitimate developers had a chance to offer official bids. Industries once run by the state, such as bottle recycling, were delivered into the hands of private entrepreneurs, with key mob bosses often elbowing out the competition and taking charge. And extortionists who once focused on helpless, small mom-and-pop stores in the hard-hit neighborhoods of Tel Aviv put on a suit and a tie and muscled their way into some of Israel’s most sterling boardrooms, forcing a long line of respectable businessmen into partnership.

While there is no reliable number, an analysis of press reports and expert opinions shows that whereas Israeli organized crime was once a limited operation–limited to three or four major cities and generating no more than several tens of millions of dollars annually–it has, in the last decade, flourished to a multi-billion dollar enterprise, with branches all across Israel and all around the world.

No one, perhaps, typifies this growth more than a stout, baby-faced mob boss named Ze’ev Rosenstein.

Before Alperon’s murder, the biggest news to come out of Israel’s Mafia circles in decades was the 2004 arrest of the Ecstasy kingpin Rosenstein, “Zevik” to his friends. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has branded Rosenstein “the worst of the worst” of international drug traffickers, and alleged that for years he’s been responsible for the distribution of millions of Ecstasy pills in the United States and Europe.

Law enforcement experts estimate that Israeli mobsters like Rosenstein control approximately 80 percent of the Ecstasy sold worldwide. In a sweeping investigation ranging from New York to Prague, Amsterdam, and Tel Aviv, the American authorities finally succeeded in charging Rosenstein with conspiring to distribute over 700,000 tablets of 3,4 Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, as Ecstasy is technically known. (That figure is just the tip of the iceberg: all 700,000 of those Ecstasy tablets were seized in just one Manhattan apartment in July 2001, and barely represent the tip of the iceberg of Rosenstein’s immense production capacity).

Naturally, the stratospheric success enjoyed by Rosenstein and his fellow bosses aroused deep envy in a new generation of aspiring gangsters, ruthless young men who were willing to do anything for a slice of the crime pie. Cities like Tel Aviv and Netanya, bustling with chic restaurants, nightclubs, and multimillion-dollar beachfront condos, have become the backdrop for a full-scale mob war, as the bosses of the country’s major crime families attempt to assassinate each other with increasing regularity.

To the uninitiated, the feuds and alliances of this war make it nearly impossible to follow. Israel has at least three major crime families–one run by Rosenstein and his protégé, Mulner; one run by the Abutbul family in Netanya; and one run by the Alperon family–as well as a host of smaller and regional organizations, such as Shalom Domrani’s crew, which controls most of the organized crime in the south of the country. These criminal enterprises are as likely to partner on complex financial deals as they are to order hits on each other’s bosses, creating an interlocking criminal web that is as confusing as it is rapidly changing. But as is the case in all other businesses, the bottom line remains the same: with big money up for grabs, Israel’s mobsters will stop at nothing.

Which explains, perhaps, the rapid breakdown in the unwritten code of conduct. Whereas mob bosses like Alperon took pride in walking around without bodyguards or guns, the new generation of thugs is enamored with ingenious and violent plots. In July 2003, for example, Israel police busted “Nikita,” a 17-year-old girl from Be’er Sheva as she was en route to carry out a mob hit. “I was supposed to get the gun and shoot [the intended victim],” she told interrogators. Later that month a gangster named Aharon Masika, a.k.a. “The Assassin,” was murdered on a crowded street by a gunman dressed as an ultra-Orthodox Jew. The faux rebbe calmly pulled a gun from his black frock and dispatched The Assassin with a point-blank shot between the eyes. More often than not, the hitmen rely on state-of-the-art technology: Yisrael “Alice” Mizrahi, one of the country’s most-feared mobsters, was killed by a remote-controlled bomb hidden under the driver’s seat of his Mercedes SUV—the police called it a “super professional job”—that sheered off the steering wheel while leaving the wheels and underbody of the vehicle intact.

A particularly violent reminder of Israeli organized crime’s descent into madness came on December 10, 2003, when a massive noonday explosion rocked Yehuda Halevy Street in downtown Tel Aviv, destroying a currency-exchange kiosk owned by Rosenstein. It was the seventh attempt on his life since 1996. The pudgy gangster escaped unharmed, earning himself a new moniker–The Wolf with Seven Lives–but the explosion killed three innocent bystanders and left dozens wounded.   The bomb was first thought to be the work of a Palestinian extremist, until Shlomo Aharonisky, the national police commander, told the nation it was the work of the underworld.

The Wolf’s luck, however, finally ran out. After Rosenstein’s arrest–he was the first Israeli crime boss ever to be extradited to the United States–a vacuum was created in the top ranks of Israel’s organized crime world, leaving a horde of wild-eyed Young Turks gunning for supremacy. The stakes were raised again. An all-out battle for the top spot commenced.

This, in turn, called for more desperate measures. Israeli mobsters decided to target not only each other but also the authorities that were trying to put a stop to their enterprise, something which gangsters had once considered taboo. In July 2004, Tel Aviv District Court Judge Adi Azar was shot dead at point-blank range outside his home in northern Tel Aviv by a gunman disguised as a security guard, who rode up on a motorcycle, pumped two shots from a silencer-equipped pistol into the judge’s chest, and then escaped into the night. It was the first time in the country’s history a judge had been assassinated.

In the intervening years, the risk to other jurists has only heightened.  Earlier this year, Haaretz reported that ten Israeli judges are currently under police protection due to death threats from criminals.

More than law-enforcement officials, however, it was the killing of innocent bystanders that most enraged Israelis. In the most sickening case of “collateral damage,” Margarita Lautin, a 31-year-old social worker, was mistakenly shot in front of her husband and two young children in July 2008, during a failed assassination attempt on gang members on the beachfront in Bat Yam, just south of Tel Aviv.  The next morning, the front page of Maariv carried a single-word headline: “Enough!”

Reacting to the uproar, and responding to criticism that the authorities were incapable of dealing with increasingly bold and murderous crime families, the Israeli police has, in recent months, ramped up its battle against organized crime. In addition to forming a new national crime-fighting unit named Lahav 433, intended to coordinate intelligence and operational activities, the police also recently launched the country’s first witness-protection program and instructed police units previously designated to fighting terrorism to make crime their new focus.

Such measures, said Shlomo Giora Shoham, one of Israel’s premier authorities on crime and a researcher at Tel Aviv University’s criminology department, are essential.  Sitting in his small, shaded garden in the northern Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Hasharon–not far from the raucous scene of Ya’akov Alperon’s funeral—the dour, bearded Shoham railed against the breakdown of cultural values in Israel, particularly among the youth. “There was a time when the army was a great value,” he said. “But right now, there are almost no volunteers to the crack units. The Orthodox are the only ones volunteering.  The majority of Israelis are more or less law-abiding, but they are confused as far as values are concerned. The so-called war against drugs is completely lost. The highest rate of drug addiction is in the kibbutzim these days.  For most of the young, it’s pure escapism.  The gambling, the sex industry; they’re going for the quick kicks.”

The professor sighed. “There’s nothing to stop them,” he added. “There are no boundaries, no limits. And as Ivan Karamazov said, ‘If everything is possible, then nothing is true.’”

Tomorrow: Part III of Holy Land Gangland: The Quarter of No Hope

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Holy Land Gangland, Part II

A Tablet investigative series looks inside the world of the Israeli mafia

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