TEL AVIV—The car-bomb killing of Yaakov Alperon was only the latest bloody entry in a decades-long list of Israeli underworld assassinations, and police fear there are more to come—probably soon.
Alperon, 53, a suspected murderer whose family name is synonymous in this country with extortion, loan sharking, and violent retribution, was driving on a busy, upscale Tel Aviv street Monday afternoon when the remote-control bomb went off. He had just come from court for the bail hearing of two of his sons, ages 21 and 16, accused of extorting money from a nightclub operator.
Newspaper photos the day after the murder showed Alperon at the hearing, looking like an old-time hood in black fedora and dark sunglasses.
He'd escaped assassination at least three times before, twice by car bomb, once by bullets. His brother Nissim has survived a reported seven assassination attempts. His brother Mussa, a Likud party political operative in his spare time, lost a leg in a car bombing.
The Israeli underworld is built around gangs run by the once poor sons of Middle Eastern Jewish, or Mizrahi, immigrant families: the Alperons, Abutbuls, Abergils, and others who have become household names in this country because of unflagging media attention. When Alperon was blown up, a TV crew a few blocks away was filming an episode of "The Arbitrator," a fictional series based on the nation's mafia.
The largely Mizrahi crime families do most of their business in drugs, gambling, and extortion, with prostitution having been taken over by wayward immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Israeli Arabs have their own violent gangs known mainly for selling drugs and stolen weapons. Although ethnic separatism is the rule in Israeli organized crime, the lure of large, illicit profits can at times bring people of different backgrounds together.
The mafia capital is Tel Aviv, but the gangs also operate in Jerusalem, Netanya, Bat Yam, Lod, and other cities, as well as in the prisons. They've gotten too big for police to control.
The greatest obstacle for law enforcement is getting witnesses to testify; no wonder, since witnesses against Israeli mafia figures put their lives at risk. A couple of years ago, a prisoner due to testify against a crime boss was poisoned in his cell. A U.S.-style witness protection program is supposedly in the works to relocate such brave souls and give them new identities, but nothing has come of it.
Yaakov Alperon now joins Felix Abutbul, Yaakov Abergil, Yehezkel Aslan, Gad Plum, and other reputed Israeli mob legends who were murdered, presumably by rivals. Yet, their killers are rarely brought to justice for want of witnesses and evidence.
While the public doesn't grieve over the slain gangsters, the "collateral damage" is causing a growing outcry. The bombing of Alperon's car put a driver and schoolboy nearby in the hospital with minor injuries; in past mafia hits, innocent bystanders have been killed.
After Alperon's murder, his wife, Ahuva, was on the TV news sobbing while his ex-convict brother Zalman, wearing a black yarmulke, swore that the family "was leaving revenge in God's hands." In times of crisis, Israeli mafia families typically turn to public displays of piety; a familiar scene on the evening news is of an accused gangster appearing in court in handcuffs and a yarmulke.
Yaakov Alperon came from modest beginnings. He was one of 12 children who lived with their Egyptian immigrant parents in a two-room apartment in a dusty little town near Tel Aviv. He took up boxing, then put his fists to use on the streets and, soon, in prison. He was suspected of murdering rivals in and out of jail, but police could never prove it.
Alperon, his brothers, and his henchmen brawled repeatedly with rival families; he made legions of enemies. One of them most likely activated the bomb that left him sprawled dead in a blasted, burning sedan in the middle of northern Tel Aviv. Now another score waits to be settled.