Holy Land Gangland
Our five-part investigative series into the world of the Israeli mafia.
THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS STRONG LANGUAGE AND GRAPHIC DEPICTIONS OF VIOLENCE. READER DISCRETION IS ADVISED.
“See how it is now?” Ilan Benshoshan said. “Since all the assassinations started, every young mob guy goes everywhere with two bodyguards.”
We were just off Rehov Etzel, the main avenue of Tel Aviv’s notorious slum, Shchunat Hatikvah, inching our rented Mazda down a narrow lane to the entrance of a secret loansharking office run by Yossi, one of Ilan’s childhood friends. A late-model SUV was parked out front, and from the front seat, two granite-jawed recent IDF vets in sports jackets—Yossi’s security detail—locked eyes with us.
The son of Moroccan and Yemenite Jewish immigrants, Ilan grew up on the streets of Shchunat Hatikvah (literally “the Quarter of Hope”), long a breeding ground for Israel’s toughest mob bosses, bullet-scarred loansharks, drug-dealers, and junkies. And though he has lived in New York for over a decade, many of Ilan’s childhood friends stayed in Tel Aviv, rising through the criminal hierarchy to positions of power in the rackets. Ilan himself scrapped his way out of the hood, becoming an expert kickboxer. For a week now, he has been acting as my translator, driver, and hypercaffeinated guide to the deadly precincts of Israel’s underworld, often invisible to outsider eyes.
Ilan was raised in poverty on Etzel Street, the pulsing artery of Israel’s gangster territory, where his mother ran a brothel located a stone’s throw from the popular steakhouse where Yehezkel Aslan, the most infamous Israeli mob boss of the 1970s and 1980s, regularly held court at a sidewalk table. Aslan, an Iraqi Jew, had a face you couldn’t forget: He’d been shot nine times in an assassination attempt, and his mouth and jaw were badly deformed from the bullets. After relocating his family to the more affluent northern suburbs of Tel Aviv, Aslan was gunned down for keeps in 1993, reportedly at the order of his archrival, the rising mob kingpin Ze’ev Rosenstein. A Robin Hood figure of sorts, Aslan balanced crime with charity, funding a local soccer team and helping many of the neighborhood’s poorest residents. His funeral, Ilan remembered, was like nothing before or since, with ordinary people and politicians, mob bosses and movie stars all paying their respects. To many of Hatikvah’s old timers, Aslan is still remembered as the prototypical Godfather.
The difference between the old days and now is striking. “Aslan, if he had a problem with you, trust me, he will deal with it himself. Ya’akov Alperon, Nissim Alperon, Arye Alperon—” Ilan said, referring to another renowned crime family, whose surname rhymes with “Capone”—“any of the Alperonim have a problem with you, it’s an Alperon who is going to handle it.” But as the two armed bodyguards standing watch in front of Yossi’s office showed, the days of hands-on problem-solving are long gone. Paranoia and itchy trigger fingers reign in the Quarter of Hope; Hatikvah is an urban battlefield where hired muscle lurks in the shadows, waiting for anyone to make a false move.
We parked the car and walked up to the building. The bodyguards took a closer look at Ilan, and nodded their heads, recognizing him and letting us through. A buzzer sounded and we entered the little first floor office. Yossi, a tall, thin, 30-year-old in Nike Air Max, gave Ilan a smothering hug. They exchanged kisses on the cheek. I settled for a handshake. The Mizrahi—Israelis who, like Ilan and Yossi, hail from Arab countries—are famous for their hospitality to strangers, and as I sat on the sofa, I was constantly offered various Moroccan pastries, cups of espresso, and cigarettes. I noticed several chamsahs hanging on the walls—the upside-down hand, an ancient amulet against the evil eye, meant to represent the hand of the Almighty. On one silver chamsah, I read the Birchat Ha-Esek, the Hebrew religious blessing for the success of a business. On the table was a small blue charity box with a picture of the Baba Sali, one of the most revered of the Sephardic rabbis.
Glaring in the background were the monitors of a closed-circuit surveillance system, showing four different camera angles on the approach to the office. We sipped espresso, and every few minutes a new face would be buzzed inside, his hand full of shekel notes. The loansharking system in Israel, Ilan explained, was different than in the United States. Here, debtors were expected to come every single day to make their payments, which usually had a 30 percent interest tacked on. During each exchange, Yossi’s older brother would take out an index card and neatly use a yellow highlighter to record the daily payment. Once or twice he meticulously dabbed Liquid Paper on one of the debt cards. When one middle-aged guy came in to pay his final loan installment, Yossi gave a congratulatory nod and tore the index card to shreds.
Most of the debtors, Ilan explained, weren’t the sorts of degenerate gamblers you hear about getting in hock to Mob loansharks in America. These were all regular working-class Israelis, struggling to make ends meet, And for the working poor in neighborhoods like Hatikvah and Givat Shmuel, these are among the toughest economic times in recent memory.
As the economic opportunities contract—this year, according to Israel’s Central Bank, marked the country’s worst recession in its 61-year history—and as more and more of the market in this formerly socialist country is privatized, Israel’s underworld, once a dangerous if quaint West Side Story-like demimonde governed by its own code of honor, has rapidly morphed into a hellish landscape, similar to the blood-soaked world of the Camorra and Sicilian Mafia as rendered in the book Excellent Cadavers and the film Gomorra.
As long as the mobsters stuck to that age-old social contract to keep homicide within the mishpochah, the mob killings of the Holy Land generated considerable tabloid sensation but little public condemnation. Bosses like Yehezkel Aslan were known more for their patronage and protection and, among the general public, inspired more awe than terror.
Today’s breed of Israeli mobsters, however, are far more violent, ruthless, and young—many still in their 20s and early 30s. Obeying none of the boundaries of the older generation and harboring few qualms about killing innocent bystanders, the new crime tycoons are making many Israelis feel an acute sense of crisis and insecurity, as if the country is being swept by a wave of organized crime.
This is no baseless paranoia. The news in recent years has been filled with the Israeli gangsters’ escalating violence. Scores of brazen daylight bombings. Hired assassins smuggled into Israel from Belarus. A judge shot dead point-blank outside his home by a gunman who escaped on a motorcycle. A 31-year-old social worker gunned down in front of her horrified husband and young children on a busy strip of Tel Aviv beachfront in a botched mob hit attempt.
Given this climate of violence, it’s no wonder that Yossi seemed jumpy, eager for us to leave his office. “Will I see you at the gym later?” Yossi asked Ilan, standing, carefully adjusting the drape of his gold chain. Kickboxing gyms are the hang-out—and stress-reliever—of choice among the young mobsters. “Yes, we’ll train,” Ilan said. But Yossi hardly seemed in a mood to wrap his hands and spar. Throwing back the dregs of another espresso, he glanced at the closed-circuit screens with unmistakable anxiety. I wasn’t sure if he feared a raid from the cops or an assassination attempt from a rival gangster crew.
Shadows flickered, but the only movement out in the lane was the stray cats leaping up on white and tan concrete walls, as nimble as squirrels in Central Park. Through the black-and-white TV images, I read the spray-paint scrawl that said, “The only good Arab is a dead Arab”—the Mizrahi, with their roots in Arabic countries, tend to be among the most hawkish members of Israeli society—and posters urging Jews to follow the teachings of various ultra-Orthodox rabbis. And another piece of spray-painted graffito. “Mahvet L’Masheneem,” or, “Death to the Snitches.” These days in Hatikvah, that Hebrew rendition of the code of omerta might serve as the underworld’s unofficial slogan.
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.’”
For all the criminal activity in Hatikvah, the south Tel Aviv district that is one of the centers of Israeli organized crime, there’s nothing quite like Shabbat in the neighborhood. One cool Friday evening, Eli Waizman—the childhood friend of Ilan, my guide to the underbelly of Israeli society—insisted that I come spend Shabbat dinner with him and his Moroccan-born father on Rehov Roni, just off Rehov Etzel, the neighborhood’s main artery. Hatikvah was nearly silent on Shabbat evening. You could smell the sumptuous meals simmering on stoves and the children laughing in the little one-story, ramshackle homes. I mentioned to Eli that I thought the English translation of Shchunat Hatikvah had a beautiful ring to it—“The Quarter of Hope.”
“Fuck that,” Eli said. “There’s no connection between the name and the neighborhood. We say, ‘This is the neighborhood of No Hope.’”
Eli had been a promising professional kickboxer in America. In 2000 and 2001, he fought out of the Louis Neglia stable in Brooklyn, but as he told me there’s very little money in being a pro fighter. He wasn’t enjoying life in the States, hated the New York winters and the grind of managing a Manhattan porn store and training every other waking moment. He returned to Israel in 2001, and started selling cell phones, earning more than his parents did. He doesn’t live in Hatikvah anymore, but in the nearby Yad Eliyahu (“Hand of Elijah”). When I visited, Eli could be found several nights a week, making the scene in Bar Lansky, the packed Tel Aviv nightclub named after the infamous Jewish mob boss who in the early 1970s tried, unsuccessfully, to claim asylum in the Holy Land in order to avoid an IRS prosecution.
A trend for underworld-inspired “dance bars” recently swept Tel Aviv; another popular velvet-roped spot was called EscoBar, its logo just a tight shot of the late Colombian druglord’s killer stare. (Standing under a framed portrait of Meyer Lansky in a 50s fedora, sipping Grey Goose and Red Bull, Eli laughed when I asked him if, a decade from now, a new crop of sexy Israeli girls would be winding their hips in a bar called “Rosenstein” or “Alperon.”)
Though certainly no crime boss, Eli clearly likes to see himself as walking in the footsteps of neighborhood protector, Yehezkel Aslan. He once painted a line in the street outside his father’s house, announcing that no narcoman—“drug addict” in Hebrew—was allowed to cross the spray-painted divide. There’d been a spate of break-ins by heroin junkies near Eli’s father’s place, and, more than once since the line-in-the-cement had been drawn, Eli has kicked the hell out of some addict trespassers.
“Eli, he’s very dangerous,” Ilan once told me. “At a certain point in a fight, you understand, he’s getting crazy and you just can’t stop him. To me fighting is a technique and art, and if you fuck with me, I’ll fuck you up. But Eli, he’s different: he really likes to hurt people. It was worse when we were kids, he used to carry around nunchucks, Chinese stars, all kinds of crazy knives.”
But on our Shabbat stroll through Hatikvah, Eli was loose-limbed and mellow, telling me about a brush he had with Rosenstein the King not long before his arrest and extradition to the States. Eli had been weaving his motorcycle through heavy midday traffic when he pulled up at a light next to a Mercedes sedan. Not recognizing the car as one of Rosenstein’s armor-plated vehicles, Eli reached inside his motorcycle’s compartment to find a cell phone he had to drop off at a nearby office. He glanced at the face three feet away and he saw the mob kingpin freezing in terror: the Wolf with Seven Lives thought he’d seen, in this wiry son of Hatikvah, his final assassin. When Rosenstein’s bodyguards began drawing their pistols, Eli raised his hands to show that the only thing he had in his hand was a fully loaded Nokia.
I asked Eli if he remembered the 1980s, when Aslan ran Hatikvah, building heroin treatment centers (while the cops, simultaneously, considered him the country’s biggest smack importer), and financing the popular Hatikvah soccer team, B’nei Yehuda.
“Yeah, in the old days, things were much smoother,” Eli said. “There was respect. They used to kill each other, but over something. Now these young motherfuckers, they’ll kill each other over nothing.”
We’d been walking for a few minutes when a figure in a dirty blue soccer shirt rushed at me from the shadows of a nondescript bar, hand outstretched, barking in a manic tone of voice. It took me a moment to realize that it wasn’t Hebrew he was shouting, but Russian. The Russian narcoman went to grab my sleeve, apparently taking me for an easy mark for a fast mugging.
Not wanting to overexert himself on the Shabbat, Eli made a quick pivot, locked his powerful grip on the Russian’s bicep and then bodily moved him out of my path as easily as a chess piece. The Russian waved a fist and took a telegraphed swing at Eli, but Eli merely slipped the punch, then shot out a straight right hand that sent the Russian stumbling six feet down the street.
“The daily pressure here is crazy,” a 27-year-old named Tal told me one night at a house party in Yad Eliyahu. “People think it’s just the terrorism and war, but it’s the cost of living that’s killing us too. You get paid every month in shekels, but your rent, electricity, water bills are calculated on the U.S. dollar.”
A few years ago, a Tel Aviv cab driver committed suicide by setting himself on fire, and his last words were reportedly that he could no longer stand the economic stress of life in the Holy Land. Of course, what’s bad for the average working man is generally good for the underworld, and Israeli society in recent years has seen an explosion in gambling, loansharking, and teenage drug use.
Making matters even worse was the unprecedented wave of consumerism that has washed Israel since the early 1990s. As the Oslo peace process brought with it tremendous new financial investments, Israelis watched with awe as their country, once a quiet, socialist society, began displaying many of the attributes of rampant capitalism. Local hummus joints were overshadowed by rapidly multiplying McDonald’s franchises, small theaters were razed to make room for multiplexes, and enormous malls popped up in every town, offering Israelis more and more temptations to part them from their hard-earned salaries.
This, in turn, led to more debt, more gambling, and more greed. Casinos, once limited to backrooms of seedy apartments in Tel Aviv or Haifa, became commonplace, with hundreds more mushrooming all over the country during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Israelis living in the country’s periphery no longer needed to travel to the big cities to dispose of their disposal incomes as crafty mobsters set up local illegal gambling dens and drew on a network of relatives and friends to attract customers and increase revenue.
Most often, the government’s response to the shifting economic reality was pushing further privatization. The banks, the national telephone company, even most kibbutzim, all went up for sale and were snatched up by hungry entrepreneurs. The Mafia was never far behind: Israel’s crime lords were quick to jump on the privatization bandwagon, grabbing hold of everything from newly privatized swaths of land to newly privatized industries.
Aryeh Alperon, for example, a member of the famed Alperon crime family, wasted no time when the government began privatizing the recycling industry in the late 1990s. He formed a company called Habakbuk Ha’lohet, Hebrew for the Flaming Bottle, and he used his underworld clout to terrorize competitors into submission. Not surprisingly, other mob bosses became envious of Alperon’s easy profits, and started competing recycling companies. Soon enough, empty bottles were cause for bloodshed.
But Israel’s gangsters found other ways to capitalize on the privatization trend, targeting the country’s newly minted captains of industry. Many of the young entrepreneurs who legally acquired control of the government’s former assets found themselves hounded by mob bosses. This was the same old game of extortion and protection on a far larger scale: instead of strong-arming small business owners into partnership, gangsters were now putting the squeeze on Israel’s new millionaires.
Alongside internal Israeli privatization, however, came the phenomenon of globalization. With international travel more common and cell phones and the Internet making communication more accessible, Israeli mobsters began looking outside the borders of their country for potential markets. Just as Colombian kingpins like Pablo Escobar were able to dominate the importation of cocaine into the United States by making use of long-standing marijuana smuggling routes, the new Israeli Ecstasy kingpins had a unique advantage over competing global mafiosi. They owned the underground drug labs in the Netherlands and Belgium and already had an infrastructure in place for smuggling diamonds, often using strippers and ultra-Orthodox Jewish teenagers as drug mules on flights to New York and Los Angeles.
No one, perhaps, played the smuggling game more shrewdly than the Abergil brothers, the infamous crime kingpins based in the coastal resort town of Netanya. Earlier this week, an Israeli court ordered the extradition of the Abergils, alongside several of their colleagues, to the United States, revealing an intricate global network of criminal activity. The Abergils, the proud proprietors of advanced Ecstasy-manufacturing laboratories in Belgium, were suppliers looking for a distribution network, which they discovered in the form of the Vineland Boyz, one of Los Angeles’s murderous Latino street gangs. A clever smuggling enterprise was soon put in place—including such lovely flourishes as stuffing the drugs into toy tigers—and business was booming.
But crime business, of course, is never without its glitches: American authorities became increasingly aware of the Abergil’s growing presence in the summer of 2003, when a cabal of gangsters affiliated with the family assassinated the poetically named Sami Atlas, an Israeli drug dealer living in Los Angeles they suspected of pilfering Ecstasy pills. Realizing the truly global nature of the Abergil’s enterprise, federal authorities launched a fevered investigation, logging hundreds of hours of wiretaps, interviews with witnesses and accomplices, and other forms of surveillance to bring down the Abergils. Last August, a Jerusalem Magistrate Court ruled to keep the Abergil brothers and two of their accomplices in custody for 20 days pending a formal request by U.S. law enforcement for their extradition. The custody was prolonged in mid-September. The brothers were getting antsy: During a hearing in late October, Meir Abergil, the alleged financial mastermind of the gang headed by his brother, shouted to the judge, Yitzhak Milanov, “Sentence us to death here and now. I am the chairman of my nerves and my health.” Finally, this week, the extradition orders came through. The Abergils would face justice.
And yet, the global Ecstasy market the Abergils helped create is monstrous: in 2005, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime valued it at just over $16 billion.
With such newfound riches, Israel has begun to see rocket assassination attempts between rival mob crews, drive-by shootings with hit-men dressed like ninjas on motorcycles, and the sort of brazen daylight car bombings that took the life of Ya’akov Alperon. And successful prosecutions are next-to-impossible, due to the abject fear of most eyewitnesses to Mafia crimes.
“We’re about five years behind the criminals,” Arye Livneh, head of the government’s newly created witness protection program, recently told the Los Angeles Times, noting that the program won’t even begin protecting prospective mob informants until next summer. “This is a tiny place. It’s not easy to hide someone in Israel.” Israeli mobsters, then, have few other choices but to fight. Theirs is a war that has quickly dragged the entire country down a spiral of violence and bloodshed.
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.
Douglas Century is the author of Street Kingdom: Five Years Inside the Franklin Avenue Posse and co-author of the New York Times best-seller Takedown: The Fall of the Last Mafia Empire. He also wrote Barney Ross: The Life of Jewish Fighter, a biography in the Nextbook Press Jewish Encounters book series.