THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS STRONG LANGUAGE AND GRAPHIC DEPICTIONS OF VIOLENCE. READER DISCRETION IS ADVISED.
On a quiet, affluent block in Mill Basin, Brooklyn, I joined Ilan, my guide to the Israeli crime world, on a visit to Oved, now retired from the “life” but once a high-ranking member of the Alperon crime organization. Oved is another product of Hatikvah, the rough neighborhood in the south of Tel Aviv where so many of Israel’s mobsters grew up, a tough who used to train and spar with Ilan in the Mejiro gym in South Tel Aviv before the gym, mysteriously, burned to the ground. He used to work as a lieutenant to mob boss Nissim Alperon, he told us, but decided to leave Israel for good after one of many assassination attempt on his former boss’s life.
We sat in his typically New York living room—sleek Swedish furniture, wall-mounted flat-screen TV, scattered remote controls—as Oved waxed poetic on the old underworld code.
“We always used to say, ‘Who controls Hatikvah controls Israel,’ Oved said. “Not Anymore.”
As we talked, the former mobster was showing his two daughters how to use an orange plastic golf putter on the plush living room carpet, gently stroking their hair. He had piercing slate-gray eyes, a shaved head, and the lean, sinewy build of a soccer midfielder. Only the battle-scarred knuckles and the knotted cords of muscle in his forearms give any hint at his serious martial arts training.
Nowadays, however, such training matters very little. Long gone are the days when an Israeli gangster like Oved could rely on gym-honed fighting techniques to strike fear into enemies on the street. Death these days comes via remote-controlled car bomb, or in the form of a motorcycle-riding assassin toting a silencer-equipped Sig Sauer handgun.
The authorities, of course, are doing their best to quell the violence. In the aftermath of mob boss Ya’akov Alperon’s assassination last November, the Israeli police began taking unprecedented steps to keep the underworld from devolving into a massive shooting war, arresting major mob bosses on relatively innocuous charges like unlicensed possession of firearms. Last December, for example, dozens of cops closed off entire blocks in Ramat Gan’s Diamond Exchange area and raided a restaurant where Nissim Alperon, Ya’akov’s brother and the family’s new boss, was dining with his lieutenants. The raid provided scant evidence–only a single unlicensed gun was found on the premises–but it gave police sufficient ground to arrest Alperon and his men for a while.
A few weeks earlier, officers tried the same tactic on Amir Mulner, the vicious young mob prince and the suspected killer of Ya’akov Alperon. Police raided Mulner’s apartment in a suburb of Tel Aviv, finding one illegal firearm and arresting Mulner and more than a dozen of his men. In statements after the arrest, police sources said they’d broken up a sit-down, convened to plan the murder of senior criminal figures.
But such pre-emptive measures have had only limited success. A few weeks ago, for example, two assailants on motorcycles sped up to 27-year-old criminal Rafi Ben-Shimol as he was strolling down King George Street in the heart of Tel Aviv. It was 8:15 in the morning, and Ben Shimol stopped to stretch in front of a bustling day care center. Ignoring the scores of parents and toddlers congregating nearby, the would-be assassins stopped by Ben Shimol and opened fire. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Next time, the outcome may be much uglier.
In the meantime, Israelis, a people divided over many crucial issues, largely agree that organized crime poses one of the gravest threats to their society, taxing the police, challenging the justice system, and terrorizing the streets. While rarely reported about outside of Israel, the new generation of criminals, young and ruthless, are emerging as the country’s biggest home-grown menace. If they are not curbed – an effort that would require not only major funding but also a collective effort on behalf of the population – the country may increasingly find itself tearing not from without but from within.